Saturday, June 02, 2018

Croatia – Learning The Language


Soon,  I will have the unique and privileged opportunity of an intensive week of learning the Croatian language, from a professional and experienced teacher, a native speaker. Such people are hard to find in the UK and the added bonus is that I get to do it on the stunning Croatian island of Mali Losinj. More about that part of it another time; today’s post is about the language itself.

It’s Not Essential

First of all, if you hate languages, and the thought of learning a few words of a new one are enough to make you stay at home, then don’t worry! You don’t actually NEED to speak any Croatian at all to enjoy a visit there. Most Croatians, especially the younger ones and those in the tourism industry, speak fluent English. English has been the first foreign language, taught in Croatian schools, for a couple of decades at least, though older Croatians may know German better - Austrians and Germans were holidaying in Croatia long before Brits and other English speaking visitors discovered what a great place it was.

Nearly all the tourism literature is translated into at least three languages, including English, as are the menus in the restaurants and cafés of any towns and villages that thrive on summer tourism. Sometimes you even get food photos with the menu, as well as or instead of translations. Foreign language films are nearly always shown – on TV and at the cinema – in the original version, with Croatian subtitles, and, as you can see above, important or interesting signs generally have an English translation; if they don’t a local will normally be pleased to help.

In fact, for someone like me who wants to learn more Croatian, it’s almost impossible to practice the language when you are there, so easy is it to get an English translation, and so eager are the locals to practice their already mostly perfect English. This is particularly so for beginners when a Croatian would need to be very patient indeed to allow a nervous student to get to the end of constructing a short sentence, working out what case the noun is in and therefore what its ending should be. They say it doesn’t matter; that you should just “go for it”; but if you get it wrong they want to help you by correcting you and if that happens too often it’s easy to lose your confidence.

When I was living in Croatia, I was told I sounded like a local when I ordered my “big coffee with milk” but, like anything else you do frequently, a short phrase like that is easy to perfect if you hear it and say it enough. Speaking it well can even get you into trouble if a “normal” conversation starts up at the same speed afterwards and quickly comes to a grinding halt! After nearly ten years living back in the UK, with only occasional visits back to Croatia, I’ve probably lost a lot of the Croatian I already knew, but my forthcoming trip has provided a real incentive to brush up on it!

Some Basic Tips

If you really want to get the most from any visit to Croatia you’ll want to try to and learn a little Croatian so here are a few tips.

1. If you do REALLY just want to learn a LITTLE then there’s probably not a lot of point trying to learn the grammar. Better perhaps to just learn some key phrases by rote.

2. If you are going to progress steadily then you might need to brush up a little on your English Grammar as, amongst other things, it may help you understand more easily the way word endings change. I bought a book called Rediscover Grammar by David Crystal, probably about 15 years ago and I see that it is still available though at about £20 on Amazon.

3. Be prepared for it to be hard to start with – it’s not familiar like French or Italian, there aren’t many words that you can guess, the variety and number of different word endings can be daunting, some words are very long and some have very few vowels (some are both as evidenced in the photo!). However, it’s quite a logical language, gets easier the more you progress, and pronunciation is very regular and consistent. It’s also quite a poetic language in a funny kind of a way (have a look at the literal translation of some of the months of the year as an example).

4. What is it like? Well I suppose you could say it is a little similar to Russian or Polish. Certainly eastern Europeans find it much easier to pick up than we do.


There are plenty of books and other tools around to help you get started or improve.  It pays, however, to do your research as some are better than others. For example some of the older or less diligently put together resources may contain a number of words that are more Serbian than Croatian and coming out with those won’t go down very well. Similarly, be prepared for some differences between the Dalmatian dialect and vocabulary, and that used in Zagreb. In fact there are many different local dialects though with fewer and fewer Croatians speaking them. The commonly repeated tale is that those who live in Vis town on Vis island, don’t understand the dialect of their neighbours in the fishing village of Komiža.

Of course the best way to learn, is to find a great language school like The Croatian Language School . Benefit from lessons face to face in London, or on Skype, or combine it with a holiday with a difference by joining the Summer School – not only will your language skills improve in leaps and bounds, you’ll meet some great people and get an insider’s guide to the part of Croatia you’re exploring.  Or go and meet a few like minded inviduals, and head teacher Linda, at the next coffee morning in London on 28th September.

The best books I found were for Croatian school children, purchased in Croatia, but then I had a local Croatian teacher to guide me through them.

Two of the best web based resources I’ve found are:

1. Croatian By Nemo – an App that introduces a few words each day and has various tools to help you practice and learn them. For example you can simply tap on the English word to get the Croatian one, or practice the words in the Player where you get a chance to say the Croatian word, after you hear it in English, and before you are told the Croatian word. It’s a few pounds for the full version and, though I think there may be a couple of more “Serbian orientated” translations and an error between the two “yous” (formal and informal) it’s really a very well thought out App and well worth the money. If you are challenged finding the time to learn, this takes away most of the excuses as you can play it while you are doing something else, or look at it while you are waiting for an appointment or something. It’s mostly for learning words though – you won’t get much grammar from it.

2. The Croatian Language School again but this time its Twitter feed -  Croatian Language School Twitter Feed – full of useful phrases which will introduce you to different tenses  and different elements of grammar once you have a small Croatian vocabulary at your command.

It’s worth the effort, so find the time, says the pot calling the kettle black! I will be asking Linda if that translates in Croatian once I have made my excuses for my lack of progress prior to my language sessions. More news on those soon. 


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