What foreign language is the most common in Serbia? In which language have I the most chances to communicate with locals (in shops, railway stations, hostels etc.) if I don't know Serbian?
Language: Serbian 90.1% (official), Hungarian 3.8%, Romany (Gypsy) 1.1%, other 4.1%, unknown 0.9% (2002 census)
So in that respect, Hungarian is the next best bet. However, that's 'official' languages and was a 2002 Census - if you keep on top of world affairs, things have changed a lot in that area since then.
So reading further down the same page:
Serbs are warm people, especially towards tourists. They are very welcoming towards tourists, of which there are not many as the country's full potential has yet to be reached! Most Serbs speak some English and are eager to speak it (seniors, however, are more likely to speak German and/or French), so you will be able to find your way around by asking directions. Most tourists come to Serbia in the summer and you can often hear German, Italian, French and English in the streets of Belgrade, while Slovenian tourists pour for New Year holidays.
So based on that - English is a pretty good bet, if you speak that (which it seems you do) - ask the young people questions for a better success rate. If you speak German or French, I'd be asking older people for directions etc.
1Hungarian doesn't resemble any language I know ;) Jun 11, 2012 at 20:38
6In my experience it's much easier to pick up bits of Serbian while you're travelling than bits of Hungarian. It's easier if you've travelled to other Slavic-speaking countries because the languages are so similar (but enough common words are still totally different). Hungarian is only very distantly related to Finnish and Estonian. I found it easy to travel in Serbia with just English and mixed bits of Slavic languages from other countries. Jun 12, 2012 at 6:40
9I would guess that Hungarian is a pretty lousy bet: it's probably worse than English, French and German, unless you are in an area with lots of ethnic Hungarians (near the border). Almost all Hungarian speakers in Serbia live in Vojvodina province, and even there they only make up 13%.– MaxOct 16, 2014 at 6:25
4Yes, @Max is right - Hungarian is a pretty lousy bet - you need to find a Hungarian (and most Hungarians in Serbia live in North, there aren't many in Belgrade) to speak Hungarian, as most of Serbian people don't know Hungarian. English is much better bet - almost all people that I know and are under 30 years old can speak some amount of English. Apr 29, 2015 at 12:32
6Technically speaking, Hungarian is presumably a native language of those 3.8%, not a foreign language, which is what the question seemed to ask about. Jan 22, 2016 at 12:55
While this question is answered (in short: English is probably your best bet), as a native, I'd like to provide a more complete explanation.
First of all, the first part of Mark's accepted answer is highly misleading (even if we ignore the fact Wikitravel's Quick Facts now contain data that is 13 years old). The two major flaws in that logic are:
The languages listed are based on census data which only covers one's native language. Since the original question asks for a language to "communicate with locals", one would need to take into account languages people speak as a second (or even third) language as well.
The data from Wikitravel also doesn't take into account localities. People who speak Hungarian are far more likely to be found in areas closer to the Hungarian border - same goes for other languages. When it comes to large cities, it's far less likely to find people whose native language is not Serbian.
I tried to find accurate data on how many people speak English, German, Russian and others as a second language, but couldn't find such a thing so I'll just write the languages that the locals in Serbia are most likely to understand based on my opinion and some local knowledge (ranked from most likely to least likely):
Naturally, being the official language, it's the most spoken one.
Other Serbo-Croatian variants - Bosnian, Croatian and Montenegrin
As already mentioned, these languages are so similar to Serbian that you can be sure anyone who speaks Serbian will understand them.
Other languages that were spoken in Yugoslavia - Macedonian and Slovenian
While not as similar to Serbian as the Serbo-Croatian variants, it's possible to achieve at least some basic communication using these languages with people who speak Serbian. In addition, it's possible you'll bump into people who actually speak these languages since it wasn't uncommon to be familiar with them before the breakup of Yugoslavia and people from Macedonia and Slovenia still visit Serbia occasionally.
English is a mandatory subject in all primary schools, all gymnasiums and most professional secondary schools. It's also a mandatory course for students on most universities. While the quality of English education varies strongly between different schools, it's highly likely any younger person you meet will speak English, often quite fluently.
Similar to how English is now (see above), Russian used to be very popular in communist Yugoslavia and many older people learned it at school and used to speak it very fluently. Keep in mind, however, that most haven't used it in a long time and their proficiency with the language likely dropped, but you'll still be able to communicate with them if you speak Russian.
Living and working in a German-speaking country (usually Austria) is often a goal for many and therefore many people know at least some German (either in primary or secondary school as an elective subject or by taking German classes).
Local languages - Hungarian, Slovak, Romanian, Rusyn and Albanian
Finally, these are the languages spoken by minorities in some areas (you could refer to this highly outdated map to have a general idea where, but it mostly applies to Vojvodina). Keep in mind that these people often speak very specific dialects of the listed languages and you may find it difficult to communicate if you're a native speaker.
Keep in mind I left out French and Italian simply because I'm not personally familiar with how common they are. These two do exist as elective subjects in many schools and on many faculties, so it's possible you'll have some luck if you try speaking them.
1What do you mean by "gymnasiums"?– PacerierMay 18, 2017 at 11:41
2It's a type of school, similar to grammar schools in the UK or prep schools in the US. Basically, the a type of secondary school you go to if you intend to enroll in for university afterwards.– fstanisMay 19, 2017 at 13:03
Any language of the Serbo-Croatian family. This group includes besides Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian and Montenegrin. These languages are pretty close to each other. They only started to really move apart when Yugoslavia broke up.
It also depends on the place where you go. If you go to a colorful place like the Vojvodina, the choice becomes larger. This province has six official languages: Serbian, Hungarian, Slovak, Croatian, Romanian, and Ruthenian. In Central Serbia you will also find places where people speak Albanian or Bulgarian.
As in many other countries too, English is becoming more and more popular. This is especially true for a more younger population, but not only.
Apart from that, use the international master language, and communicate with hands and feet. Learn some basic phrases in Serbian. Knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet could be useful too, it is still widespread in Serbia. The Serbian language uses both Cyrillic and Latin alphabets.
4Just wondering, is it common that people understand/speak Russian in Serbia?– JonikDec 14, 2012 at 1:38
"They only started to really move apart when Yugoslavia broke up": this implies that they were the same until Yugoslavia broke up, which isn't correct; they had distinct identities for centuries even as they were different varieties of the same language. Starting in the 19th century at the latest there were efforts toward standardization of Serbian and Croatian, separately, and then of course during the political union the languages probably grew somewhat closer before being pulled apart by the political breakup. The description as "one pluricentric language" makes the most sense. Apr 20 at 11:54
English is really widespread, so that would be your best bet. They might have trouble understanding, and you will probably have a lot of trouble understanding (since they have thickish accents). Unless of course you spoke another Yugo language, but I am assuming you don't since most people who do know that there is basically no difference.
As for whether Russian is common,it was in older generations but now English is more commonly taught as a second language.
A lot of people in Serbia, especially younger, understand English and speak English at least basically, and a visitor who doesn't know Serbian at all will certainly have not any problems to, at least, basically communicate with people on the street, shops, bus stations, hostels etc. People are familiar with English language maybe not so much because of learning it in school (although it is a factor) but from movies and computers and Internet.
1As a 22 yo Serb, I'd say that asking most people over the age of 40-50 is a no-go when it comes to English. Just about any teen or guy/gal in their 20s will probably be able to converse with you in a comprehensive manner. Many of my friends speak, what I'd call fluent English and we all work with foreigners, mostly Americans. Keep in mind that I'm speaking about Belgrade and the neighboring cities incl. Novi Sad, not sure what the situation in the rest of Serbia is like (less developed areas). Jun 3, 2019 at 13:57
@MilanVelebit I haven't been to Serbia but I've spent a lot of time in Bosnia and Croatia, and I've found that the older generation (60s and over) all studied a couple of languages in high school, so they have enough general language skill to handle basic phrases to help a tourist find their way in French, German, English, Italian, and probably Russian but I wouldn't be able to judge, even if it wasn't one of the languages they studied. (The people I know in their 50s, including my wife, mostly have university degrees in English, so they're obviously not representative.) Apr 20 at 12:04
Studying foreign language was mandatory even in 20th century and this was mostly French or German. German was mandatory in the first half of the last century and other languages optional, mostly French unless you were in Gymnasium proper where Latin and Old Greek were mandatory as well for 4 years.
My mother and father were speaking French and German fluently and father added Russian later. Since 1950 English or Russian were mandatory (your choice), but probably 90% were opting for English. Some lucky people were learning German, but not too many. Latin was mandatory for 2 years in grammar schools. Second language was mandatory in grammar schools oriented to social studies.
All of the people I know from my generation (1952) use English and some, due to the job they work, use it on everyday bases. The fact is that learning was mandatory, but the question is how many people on a street will be able to use it or be willing to use it. If you do not practice using language, you will lose it.
Learning from TV, PC or so helps younger people to exercise it, but to say that only 10% people with secondary school speak/use English is a nonsense. I was (and I still am) traveling a lot over Europe and my impression is that English is useful in Germany, Finland, Holland, but not in Italy, Austria, Switzerland, and not at all in Hungary, Bulgaria or France. Similar situation is in other ex-Yugo countries except for Croatia, where German is more widely spread.
2You must have a modestly high threshold for "useful" -- for very simple communication such as basic directions, one can certainly get by with only English in Italy, Austria, and Switzerland, and even in France. The same is true in Budapest, though I cannot say about other parts of Hungary. I agree about German being widespread in Croatia, or at least Dalmatia: I'm often addressed there in German before English. But I've never had trouble finding my way around in (touristy parts of) Dalmatia using English. Jan 22, 2016 at 14:17
It depends on their age. As mentioned above, English in a mandatory subject in school and many young Serbs are exposed to US films and British TV series and I have heard many say they have learnt from there. You also have the phenomena of Serbs going to other countries in the north, like Romania, speaking English with people who live there.
I am not sure when English became mandatory, but I think it must have been around 2000 and I came across people born in 1985-86 who could not speak English.
Thus, most people in their mid to early 20s will speak some English, some good. But keep in mind that many simply don't care and some people don't go to school. I met group of four doctors in Serbia, all born in 1984-5. One spoke what I would call fluent, owing to living abroad; one spoke conversational; one spoke passing and one spoke none at all. Of people in their 40s, a minority will have some passing use, but in general none. My friend who was born in 1975 has a huge English vocabulary, but they learnt from watching films, listening to music, reading on the internet etc., so their grammar is Serbian, but with English words. Then of the elderly, you will find next to no one who speaks English.
As a rough guess, I would estimate that around 15-25% of Serbs in Serbia speak conversational English.
1According to this ranking of countries by adult English proficency , Serbia is ranked as 'high' - 17th place of 72 countries in the world. ef.nl/epi/regions/europe/serbia Nov 19, 2016 at 1:06