Thoughts on learning Croatian

If you have perchance glanced at my blog, you might have noticed that for the last eighteen months or thereabouts, I have been learning Croatian.

I’ve just got to put it out there that I’ve been dipping into Samuel Pepys diary. Hence the ‘perchance’. Mr Pepys lived through the bubonic plague in London back in 1665, and I was reading his entries as a way to put context into Covid 19.

His language is, to the modern ear, flowery but I am deviating (as usual) from the purpose of this post.

Let me start writing again, and imagine that I spoke this quickly, in a rush, desperate to get the word out.

I am learning Croatian and my level is probably a high A2 

Having reached these dizzy heights, I have thoughts on how to learn Croatian efficiently, and maybe some concrete advice to offer.

Follow it at your peril.

Croatian is one of the slavic languages. These languages offer certain challenges for the English speaker: cases, word order, perfective and imperfective verbs and so on. You also need to have a basic understanding of grammatical terms: nouns, adjectives, cases and so on.

Does that appeal?

Not all is doom and gloom, the pronunciation is straightforward and the verbs relatively easy to conjugate. Nothing much else springs to mind as being a metaphorical walk in the park, and it isn’t for nothing that Slavic languages can be considered difficult to learn (for us English speakers).

But, of course there are ways and means to speed up your progress, and if you are sitting comfortably then I will as Mr Pepys might have said ‘go thither’.

I never meant for Croatian to become one of my languages, originally intending to learn a few pleasantries of the type found in this site, some numbers and so on prior to a visit.

Anyway, I fell hopelessly in love with the language and it has become one of the five or six that I would like to speak well – or at least to a good B1 level.

I am eighteen months into my Croatian journey. I have found learning Croatian (thus far) to be a slow and enjoyable process with numerous twists, turns and detours and frustrations.

It’s the frustrations that I could do without, and these few breadcrumbs might help you travel through the wood.

Making a sentence!

One of the challenges of Croatian and I imagine any other slavic language is the volume of information needed to construct a basic sentence – which is more or less grammatically correct.

Here is an illustration (from the Little Prince) just to give you an idea.

Kad im pričate o nekom novom prijatelju, nikad vas ne pitaju za najbitnije.

The meaning is:-

When you talk to them about some new friend, they never ask you …

All sorts of different cases are used in what is a simple Croatian sentence.

O is a preposition meaning about and has to be followed using the locative case. In Croatian, adjectives and nouns change depending on the case required so novi (new) becomes novom, prijatelj (friend) becomes prijatelju and so on.

The word order is different from English. Kad im pričate (when they say to you) is literally ‘when to you they say’, and to make matters worse im (to you) also changes depending on the meaning required.

OK. Looking at that you might wonder how anyone manages to say anything at all in Croatian? It also begs the questions as to where to start as a beginner?

Clearly there is too much information to retain to be able start making sensible sentences of your own (other than in some limited circumstance).

At the beginning, it is more or less impossible to see the wood for the trees, so the first piece of advice is don’t worry. Chill. Relax. Chillax,

You will not be able to understand how Croatian sentences hang together at the beginning, so don’t worry about it. Unless you have a brain the size of a planet, and frankly if you do then why probably don’t need to read these words.

So, to counteract the feeling of helplessness that this fosters, I present to you dear friend and reader the second piece of advice which is to learn a few well chosen complete sentences.

Try and pick simple and short sentences which are useful (to you), and where possible which illustrate a part of Croatian grammar (which makes sense to you).

Here is an example:

Učio sam gramatiku (I have learned grammar)

It reminds me (personally) of the past tense, and it reminds me that Croatian feminine nouns change endings from a to u in the accusative.

It is useful for me, but probably not for you which is the point.

You have to make your own lists.

The third piece of advice is that you have to learn Croatian grammar but you can learn it slowly (korak po korak) without worrying about it. It might not be trendy and might not be cool to some, but absolutely ignore grammar at your peril.

I enjoy playing with Latin, and parsing Latin sentences for fun so it’s no great hardship for me. If you don’t like grammar, and find it boring release your inner geek and revel in words like pluperfect, apposition, attributive and transitive.

No? Not grabbing you? Maybe for starters, just least learn what nominative, accusative, genitive, dative and locative are about.

You don’t need to worry about ablative in Croatian 😉

The most important piece of advice (I think) for you to speak Croatian (as opposed to understand Croatian) is overlearning of a small part of the language.

I’m going to elaborate on this in a later post (as it is important) but for now small part means:

  • Sentences which are useful or illustrate some essential part of Croatian grammar.
  • Sentences which are useful to you personally.
  • Language chunks. For example, ‘last week’, ‘I went to’, ‘every day’ and so on.
  • Common words which are useful. For example, ‘animal’ might go in the list but ‘dog’ and ‘cat’ would not, or ‘black’ and ‘white’ might be included but ‘cyan’ would not.

The key to the above list is over learning. I think it is really, really important and also why Assimil can be so good if used well.

The aim is to know the words instinctively and be able to recall them without thinking.

I will elaborate on this, but for now, my suggestion would be don’t add more than three or four words a day to the list if you are using spaced repitition.

I know that sounds like heresy, but make haste slowly. I’ll explain l8r.

For what it is worth, my goal is to be at a consistent B1 or above with languages that I learn, and I think that in particular this over learning is hugely important regarding speaking at that level (and not forgetting everything).

It is also perfectly achievable with 30 minutes a day over time.

Besos, Baci and hand washing in the time of the Pandemic.


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