When he’s at home, Luka Petrovic mostly hears his Bosnian parents’ native
tongue, making this the language the 3-year-old is far more comfortable and
familiar with.However, Luka’s mother, Sanja (pronounced Sonya) is taking great strides to
ensure that both Luka and his younger brother, Andrej (pronounced Andre), will
eventually be just as comfortable speaking English as Bosnian.
“When it comes to English, the boys are going to be living [in the United
States] for the rest of their lives. They need to know English,” Sanja said. “If
I tell Luka something right now in English, he will respond. He understands it,
but he doesn’t use it that much. He’ll use English, but not a whole sentence. He
prefers our language.”
After the Bosnian War ended in the mid-1990s, Sanja, who was just 15 at the
time, came to Kingsport with her parents.
“After the war stopped, there was opportunity to come to America. We
applied and got approved. You don’t get to pick and choose where to go. It’s
where they find you a sponsor as a church, so we ended up in this area. We’ve
been here ever since,” said Sanja.
Sanja says she did, however, return to Bosnia in 2006.
“I stayed there for two years and met my husband. We dated for about two
years, and we got married and I got pregnant with Luka and we decided to come
back here. My husband has only been here for about four years now. My husband
does speak English, but it’s broken and not really good. So we do speak our
language in our home and with the kids,” she said.
Last October, Sanja began taking Luka to KingsportARTS at the Renaissance
Center to work one-on-one with Arts Education Director Tina Radtke.
Luka started out in “Miss Tina’s” ART We Talented workshops for children 18
months to 5 years of age. These workshops encourage artistic freedom and
cognitive thoughts through hands-on activities. Students in this program learn
pre-kindergarten skills such as colors, ABC’s, 123’s, shapes, patterns and
spatial recognition — all through the arts.
But Sanja realized that perhaps Luka would benefit from some private
lessons with Radtke.
And as a result, Sanja says she has seen great improvement in not just
Luka’s English skills, but his social skills as well, which is what Sanja says,
as a mom, she worries about the most.
“I’m really not much worried about the English. I’m worried because Luka’s
so shy and sensitive, even over little stuff. That’s his biggest problem. I was
a lot like that when I was a child, too. But I just wish he would loosen up a
little bit,” Sanja said.
Sanja started bringing Luka to work with Radtke once every other
“But since I saw that he did so good and improved so much, I wanted to do
every week. And now we come once a week most weeks. The first time we came, Luka
didn’t want to do anything — nothing, absolutely nothing. But he has improved a
lot. He’s so used to Miss Tina now. He talks about her everyday. She’s the only
teacher he knows,” Sanja said. “Luka has been picking up a lot here just one
hour a week with Miss Tina. It’s unbelievable how much he’s picked up. For
example, this morning I was ironing the boys’ clothes and there was a cartoon on
and a monkey came on and I said, ‘Luka, how do you say majmun (the Bosnian word
for monkey) in English? And he said, monkey.’”
Sanja says she tries to work with Luka at home in between his lessons with
“I try to do the same things at home that Miss Tina teaches him,” she said.
“It’s just the little simple stuff. I’ve actually learned a lot from her, too.
Whatever Miss Tina does with him today, I will basically go home and do that
with him the whole week until the next time.”
Radtke, who says she has always known she wanted to be a teacher, admits
she was a bit nervous about working with a 3 year old who only knew a language
she was not familiar with at all.
“I’ve never worked with anyone like Luka. I’ve had some interaction with
children that speak Spanish. I can survive on my Spanish. But Luka’s was a
language that I had no idea what the kid was saying to me 99 percent of the
time,” Radtke said, laughing.
But Luka and Radtke — with a little help from Sanja serving as a
translator — work through their language differences together.
“If it’s a color he’s said a bunch of times or a word that sounds like our
English word, sometimes I can figure out what he’s saying. I’ll ask him, ‘Do you
mean....? And I’ll say it in English. And then sometimes I’ll ask Mom and tell
her, ‘It sounded like....’ And she says maybe it was this, maybe it was that and
she’ll ask Luka and sometimes he won’t repeat it for us and then she tells me,
‘I have no idea what he said to you!’
“But this has been so much fun for me. I really thought it was going to be
very frustrating, but there’s been no frustration at all on his part or my part.
We just kind of laugh together when we don’t understand each other. We can
communicate without using words,” Radtke said.
Radtke says, with a student like Luka, some days she has to let him
“Whatever catches his attention, I just kind of roll with it,” she
A little time spent outdoors, can generate lots of valuable lessons for
Luka. A comparison of a buttercup and a dandelion can be a lesson in color and
size — which yellow flower is bigger? A roly-poly bug can be a lesson in
shapes — what shape is the bug when it rolls up into a ball?
“If Luka’s not interested in it, he’s not going to listen or comprehend or
pick up on what I’m trying to teach him,” Radtke said.
Luka won’t start kindergarten for two more years and Sanja says she feels
confident he will be ready by the time he has his first day of big-boy
“We have other Bosnian friends here, and they said their children didn’t
know much English either when they started school. But everybody I talked to
said the first two weeks are the toughest and after two weeks, you won’t even
know the kid,” Sanja said, laughing.