a. The Serbian Language
15 years ago you wouldn't have found any course in Serbian, only in Serbo-Croat. For almost all of the 20th century the term Serbo-Croat covered the language(s) spoken by Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs and Montenegrins. Today there is no agreement on whether there are one, two, three or four different languages. Most people recognise the existence of Croatian and Serbian and tent to view Bosnian and Montenegrin as Serbian varieties.
I'm not from the region and I don't have any national feeling involved in this issue. Neither do I have any definite answer, but I can say this:
- Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and Montenegrins can all understand each other. Just as Danes and Swedes or Czechs and Slovaks can understand each other.
- The difference between the forms is large enough to give away whether you're a Croat, a Serb, a Bosnian or a Montenegrin. The difference is definitely larger than between various English dialects.
The most obvious difference is between "ekavian" and "ijekavin", two different dialect named after their realisation of "e".
milk = mleko, river = reka, village = selo
milk = mlijeko, river = rijeka, village = selo
In other words, not all "e"s are "ije" in Ijekavian but you get the picture.
Now, all Croats, all Bosniaks and all Montenegrins use Ijekavian. So do many Serbs. The majority of the Serbs use Ekavian, though.
In other words, all Ekavian-speakers are Serbs but not all Serbs are Ekavian-speakers and all Croats are Ijekavian-speakers but not all Ijekavian-speakers are Croats.
Another difference is the vocabulary. Croats are Catholics, Bosniaks are Moslems and Montenegrins and Serbs are Orthodox. Another big difference is that Serbia and Bosnia first came under the influence of Greece and later were part of the Turkish Empire for hundreds of years. Croatia first came under the influence of Italy and later was part of the Austrian empire for hundreds of years. Naturally this has left its traces. Many religious words in Serbian are Greek, in Bosnian they're Turkish/Arab and in Croatian they're Latin.
Apart from the religious vocabulary there are some other words that differ. Croatia has one set of words whereas the others have another set. In short, the picture looks like this:
Croatian: Ijekavian, religious vocabulary based on Latin, Croatian-set.
Serbian: Ekavian (mostly), religious vocabulary based on Greek, Serbian-set.
Bosnian: Ijekavian, religious vocabulary based on Turkish, Serbiat-set.
Montenegrin: Ijekavian, religious vocabulary based on Greek, Serbian-set.
Just keep in mind that there are differences but that people understand each others. I've learned Croatian but Serbs have expressed delight over how well I speak Serbian...
b. Teach Yourself Serbian
This course is great! There aren't many Serbian courses on the market, but even if there were this one would stand out. The development of courses is rather interesting. Up to the early 1980s most Serbo-Croatian courses were based on the Serbian variety because that was the language spoken in the capital. Then came the "tourist invasion" and since the tourist areas were almost exclusively in Croatia almost all courses published in 1980-1992 were in the Croatian variety. Now, those courses are often republised under the name of "Croatian". In fact, Teach Yourself Croatian is exactly the same books as the old Teach Yourself Serbo-Croat. This means that Serbian has the upper hand in courses at the moment, because now that there is a need for courses in the language publishers go for completely new courses. I guess that within five years we'll see new courses appearing in Croatian...
Comparing Teach Yourself Serbian to Teach Yourself Croatian, this one is much longer and contains more information, more explanations and more vocabulary. One particularly good feature is the use of both the Latin and the Cyrillic alphabet. Modern Serbian uses both, and this course give all words in both alphabeths in the first three lessons, then Cyrillic in every second chapter and Latin in the other. Of course, there's a thorough introduction to the Cyrillic alphabet.
As in most Teach Yourself-courses the grammar explanations have been written to suit the total beginner. In some courses that is not enough for the serious student but in this case the explanations will please everyone. The vocabulary is very up-to-date, focusing on a group of university students in Belgrade.
If you've read my other reviews of courses you will know that I consider most Teach Yourself courses too short. Teach Yourself Serbian is one of the exceptions, it is long enough to provide space for needed explanations and for a useful vocabulary that will take you far.
I strongly recommend this excellent course!