Learn Croatian: She said what?

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Learning Croatian is damn hard.

There I said it.

So what now? Nothing, it must be learned. And so that’s what I have been doing for the past few months. Last time I told you that I was learning the Croatian alphabet & now can I just say, that I am just a wee bit proud of myself? Really, is that okay to say? I know I should be all modest – but to heck with it, I am proud gosh dang it.

learning croatian greetings

  • I am proud that I manage to make it to class twice per week (okay, I have missed some, but that is always the baby donkey fault)
  • I’m proud that I have not given up trying
  • I am so very chuffed with myself that I can now count past 10, all the way up into the thousands. I still do mix up numbers 4 & 6 which irks me.
  • I’m thrilled that when at the shops a few weeks ago that sales lady actually said ‘oh sorry, I thought you were Croatian’. She said what? Don’t laugh, it’s true. This is what happened.

Scene: I am at the counter of Zara (the clothing store). I have a bunch of clothes in my hand and am waiting to be served.

Sales clerk: Dobar dan, izvolite

Me: Dobar dan, kako ste?

Sales clerk: dobro hvala, a vi?

Me: ja sam isto dobro, hvala

Sales clerk: Još nešto?

Me: Ne, hvala. To je sve

Sales clerk: Novac ili kartica

Me: Kartica

Sales clerk: Blahhhhh, bahhhh, gobodly gook, said super fast & furious…..

Me: (silence with a matching blank stare)

I was….. thinking, thinking…….thinking – damn, what did she just say? I was wracking my brain, flipping the pages of my note pad in my mind, trying to recall what my teacher (Mateja) has taught me. Nothing, I had nothing.

The sales clerk looked worried. Maybe she thought I would pass out or something…

Me: (holding up my white flag of surrender) Oprostite ja ne razumijem. Could you please repeat that in English?

Sales clerk: Oh sorry, I thought you were Croatian. I asked if you would like one of these (pointing to a perfume) for 1/2 price.

Me: (Head dangling in shame) No thank you.

She thought I was a local. My inner heart sang… llllaaaa lalalalala laaaaaa!!!

The clerk, rung up the transaction, handed me my bag and I left. I was going so well, and then BOOM smashed back to reality. I still can’t communicate with the locals. Bugger.

And there you have it. It’s not exactly proof, but I swear it happened. I failed, but I also won. I am proud. yay, go me.

Looks like I can’t quit my lessons anytime soon. But, you know what that’s okay, because I am really enjoying them. Honest.  Mateja makes it so comfortable, so making mistakes is okay. She says the right things to encourage me and because my classes are 1:1, we plod along at my pace. My pace includes some chit chat, talking politics, holidays and girly things. For me it’s perfect.

learning croatian

  • Use Google translate. It’s a complete hoot when you try complex paragraphs, but it gives you the gist. I use it to read the  Croatian online news. I can identify key words and it helps me reinforce what I already know.
  • Talk to yourself. Don’t do it in public though – that could be awkward. I say things in my head and outloud as I use them or see them. Eg: I pour milk and I say mlijeko. I open the door, I say in my head vrata, and so on.
  • Have a baby. Or perhaps borrow one. I talk to the baby donkey in both languages, in the same way I repeat the Croatian words to myself, I say to him both the English and Croatian word or sentence. It’s such good practice and it also makes me think about what words are ‘missing’ in my vocabulary. There are loads, but I slowly ask or pick them up in conversation and each week I surprise myself with new words I know.
  • Listen. I just listen, listen and listen to other peoples conversations. My goal when I listen is to see how many words I can identify and what the topic is about. Sometimes I’ll smile to myself when I know. It makes me really proud of myself.

What language have you tried to learn?  Leave me a comment below if you have any ave any tips on how to help learn Croatian. I’d love to hear from you.


Comments (50)

  1. Bok!
    Ja sam iz Hrvatske! Super je vidjeti druge ljude kako žele naučiti hrvatski jezik. Želim ti puno sreće i nadam se da ti je lijepo u mojoj domovini! 🙂

  2. I have to tell you that learning Slavic languages is far easier than learning Thai! It’s not just because in Croatia and Slovenia I can actually read the alphabet, it’s that Slavic languages are not tonal. It makes life so much easier.

    I can’t tell you how many times, when living in Thailand, that I’d attempt to tell someone I didn’t want pork in my food, only to have them look at me oddly, and in broken English, accompanied by a wink, tell me that their noodles never contain villages!

    (Moo means pork or village, depending on the tone used.)

    Similarly, I have asked for green curry before, and actually said ‘fang’ curry… specifically, the fang of a ferocious animal! I attempted once – and only once – to ask the price of a butterfly (necklace) at a market, and while the seller very gracefully replied in English, and didn’t burst into fits of hysterical laughter, as I walked away, I realised that I’d actually asked her how much the ‘aged tiger’ cost!

    When I lived in India, Malayalam was slightly easier because while the alphabet was more incomprehensible to me than that of Thai, at least everything was also written in the Latin one, due to that part of the country (Fort Kochi) having been settled by Europeans for several centuries.

    That said, nothing was written phonetically, so I would have to listen really, really carefully to other shoppers when I went to buy groceries to know how to pronounce things. I am so glad I did because although I knew that banana, for example, is called vallapallam, when I saw it written down, I discovered that it’s actually spelled ‘vazhapazham’! In fact, my greengrocer was really impressed that I pronounced it correctly, telling me that foreigners always get it wrong!

    In addition to being able to accurately buy fruit and vegetables (numbers of items as well, oh yeah!), I even subconsciously picked up the Indian head wobble. Go me!

    I ran into numerous difficulties when living in Morocco though. Not so much because of the language and alphabet but because where we lived (we were the only foreigners living in the entire city!), people spoke Berber, Darija, Arabic, and French… and very often a mixture of two or more of them in one sentence.

    My local pharmacist told me that he would not serve me unless I could ask for what I wanted in *each* language! He wasn’t being unkind, he was helping me to learn, and would also teach me other bits and pieces too. My veggie guy would also teach me but we only had French in common, so he would tell me in French how to say something in Berber and Darija, and I would have to mentally translate from French to English to the local languages. It did mean though, that I could go to the stall next door, to my fruit guy, and communicate with him!

    For the first few weeks I lived there, I’d return home from the souk completely mentally exhausted. Have you read Name of the Rose (Umberto Eco)? Salvatore… that’s what trying to converse with people in Taroudannt is like!

    Oh, and although the national currency is dirham, just to add to the confusion in the souk, many of the older traders still used the old regional currencies. Yes, currencies, plural. In addition, many would use a calculator to show me how much I needed to pay… but it was back-to-front because they write in the opposite direction to us. The first time this happened, I was buying a piece of pumpkin for dinner that evening, and almost fell through the floor when the number I was shown was 93 dirham – turned out it was actually 3,9 dirham (around 30p)!

    Wherever I’ve lived, I’ve always asked what a thing is called, or how to say something, and written it down (both phonetically and ‘properly’ wherever possible), in a notebook. But the downside of learning a little bit of a language, is, as you discovered, that pretty soon people are going to catch you out!

    When I lived in North Africa and Asia, people expected me to not be fluent because it was really obvious I was a foreigner but here in Slovenia (where I currently live) and in Croatia (where I lived for a while last year, and to where I will be returning in September), I seem to blend in.

    I’ll be in Serbia from June to the end of August, and it will be interesting to see how I fare there. I wonder how much the language varies. And I’ll have to refresh my knowledge of the Cyrillic alphabet; back in 2011, I learned a little Russian and Bulgarian, so I’m hoping I’ll soon pick up the alphabet again.

    For me, Slovenian and Croatian aren’t that different (sorry, Slovenes and Croats!) but I do find reading so much easier than speaking and listening. Being half-Italian, I see a lot in common with Italian (especially in Rijeka of course), so grammar aside (eek!), I can often work out the gist of something. As long as it’s written down, or people speak s-l-o-w-l-y to me.

    But whenever I attempt to be clever when out shopping, and talk to them, folk soon work out that I am in fact, a complete fraud!

  3. Bok, I am moving to Croatia in July. We have a house in Omis. My husband is from there. I’d love to meet other expats! I am learning Croatian.

    1. I take Skype lessons with a lady in Zagreb. I know she is fully booked, but you could go on her wait list. Send me an email and I’ll pass on her name. Sadly I found nothing in Zadar… 🙁 I hope that changes as more people move that way and want some help.

  4. I’m a Croatian in the Netherlands. When I had to learn Dutch some 40 years ago, my sister in law gave me for my first vacation a banana case, you know , the big one, full of books. I began with picture books for little children and read throug cartoons, adventure books for boys and girls, ending with real literature. That way I built up my vocabulary like children do. My Dutch is perfect, no one knows it’s not my first language. Unfortunately my husband had little incentives to learn Croatian, having a private translator at hand.

  5. Hehe! Ah SJ, can so relate with you on this story! You’ve started a conversation and then, what, what, what did they say! Eek! Must admit, I don’t think we can feel quite as proud as you, we started well with lessons and practice and then, well, we ain’t fluent by a long shot (admit it 3 + years later 🙁 ) Well done to you though, I’m going to dust off the language books now!

    1. Yes, yes, I hate it when it happens. I feel like a little kid. Yes, dust them off, and get some practice in before Summer starts. Just remember pomalo, pomalo!

  6. I speak English, Italian, Spanish, some German…. but my Croatian is quite limited- although I try very hard to learn as I go along. Funny your story at the till!! it happens to me sometime. The till assistant starts shooting fast sentences in Croatian and I go “ne govorim Hrvatski, govorite li Engleski?” – to which she carries on regardless. So I repeat what I just said, and she goes “oh I thought you were Croatian” ahahhahhaha LOL – which bit of “ne govorim Hrvatski” did she NOT understand? my Croatian accent must be very good..

    1. Ah yes!! This has happened to me also. Props for faking it 🙂 Are you getting along better this last few months?

  7. Learning a new language is so great. I remember the first time I got confused for a deaf person when I was learning to sign – so proud but completely confused by what the heck they said back to me 😀

    1. Now that is a hard language to learn! And don’t have English to ‘fall back’ on like I do. Good in you!!!!

  8. Haha I love this! I can totally relate although Spanish is I’m sure much easier than Croatian! It’s soo hard to learn a new language especially in the beginning when the words just are random sounds coming out of your mouth. Good for you though for going out there and practicing! That is the hardest part. Can’t wait to see a post in 6 months “How I got Fluent in Crotian” 🙂

    1. Nawwww thanks so kind of you Samantha…. BUT I think that post may be in around 2020.
      How long have you been in Costa Rica?

  9. O boje boje boje, to jezik je krive (shit shit shit, that language is horrible 🙂
    Funny however, without renting a baby 🙂 I could tell you a trillion stories like that.
    Sometimes I manage so well, they start a whole conversation, in which I hop from one single word to another in my brain, and barely manage to smile at the proper moments.
    And see me now, sitting in the gardenhouse this morning, having a chat ( u hrvatski !!!) with my best friend/neighbor/teacher.
    Ali (but) sometimes my poor brain feels like that of a K1 fighter, completely knock out, as I often change from Hrvatski to German or English, depending who I am talking to.
    Jebote !!!, ja sam Nizozemac, i ni sam Hrvat.
    Samo volim nasa sjivot u Dalmacija, zato to je prva liga, sto posto !!!!
    Keep training SJ, keep mumbling to each and every item, like I do all the time with my Dutch head, and one day you’ll shout:
    Poz *). pim.
    *) informal and short for pozdravi.

    1. Ahh Pim, you summed it up brilliantly. Polako Polako… lucky that’s acceptable here to go slowly 🙂
      Veliki pozdravi iz Privlake xx

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  11. I stumble with the verb tenses and the case endings for nouns, even though I studied Latin at school. For a couple of years I got by with throwing in the occasional Italian word – yes, Italian is not only useful in Istria, but even in Dalmatia. Some older people will try speaking to me in German, which I understand far less than hrvatski. Reading the subtitles on English-language TV programs can help, too.

    But nothing beats traveling around town, shopping, and just speaking to as many people as you can, if only to ask the time or weather forecast.

    1. Thanks for the encouragement Morgan. German – gah, I hope no one ever tries that with me I will simply faint.
      You are so right with just asking people, I just wish I had more guts. I am still so chicken…..

  12. I have to agree with you that learning Croatian is rather difficult. My wife does a lot to help me muddle through, but there are times where I am still using incorrect tenses to which I get laughs from my wife and mother in law, and strange looks from those who are on the recieving end of it. While I am confident enough to hold my own doing chore like talking (getting items from a store, ordering drinks) I fail miserably in trying to express that I like this, hate that, or would rather get off the sex subject (my god that is profound here in HRV!). But major kudos, and I seem to be doing a lot of the self talking; especially when I have about an hour walk from my job to the bus stop.

    1. How long have you been learning Leyline? I have to say the laughs always set me back, does that happen to you also?
      Ohh and ONE HOUR walk each day, that’s a damn hike!!

  13. Great story! hehe. This means you are where you want to be! Pronunciation and basic greetings you have checked off! Now on to the next lesson. Grammar is hard and takes a long time, however learning vocab will help you get the gist of any sentence or convo. Zivili! Sam

    1. Correction Sam, it’s zivila to a lady 🙂
      at least, that’s what they told me:
      zivijo if it’s a single male
      zivila if it’s a single female
      zivijo if it’s a group of people
      ajme, to jezik je kriv.
      poz. pim.

  14. I wish I could learn a language but they just don’t stick in my head! This is amazing…Croatian looks unbelievably difficult, I’ve never seen anything like it! Good for you, so impressive!

  15. SJ I have lived here for 10 years my boys have gone to school from Kindy they are both bilingual and are now learning Spanish in school. I applaud you I wish I had been a little more pro active in learning the language, I get by but still feel like I am missing soo much – problem is many Croatians want to speak English 🙂 So well done and keep working at it 🙂

    1. Thanks for the kind words Mikki. I am glad I started straight away, if I had waited I may have not started. The boys should help you fill in the gaps.

  16. Well done lady! Keep it up! I have forgotten how to speak Croatian and it breaks my heart. I think I need a few weeks with you to pick it up again!

    1. You have not forgotten, it’s in there someplace. Come and spend next Summer here, and you’ll see 🙂

  17. There is no way that you have failed – on any level – learning a new language is always hard. At least with Spanish the letters of the alphabet are (nearly) the same and many words (those of Latin origin) are similar to English (although pronounced differently) which is why I get so angry at lazy expats who don’t even bother to learn the language.
    Well done, you!

    1. Thanks Sue. Yes, it’s our job as expats to learn, not to expect others to speak English in my opinion. Although it is so very nice that I have that as a back-up.

  18. Awesome, I’ve been here 11 years I still count the money in English and when I cross the road I look to the right left and right again (don’t do that it’s the opposite here).

  19. awesome post:-) 🙂 I have been facing the same thing over here in Split, and I can say that after a year living here, I am proud of myself. I am taking lessons with Erasmus program students in the Fakultet and yesterday we did the level test to see where I would be this semester and guess what???? After only three months of studies I am B1! Yes, intermediate group:-) What helps me a lot is when I am watching TV, especially a Brazilian soap opera with subtitles in Croatian 🙂 Also, when you have no way out and you do need to speak the language is when you really learn. I am an English and Portuguese teacher and here I have taught Portuguese to Croatian students, so when you teach sth there’s always an exchange in there, so you also learn sth:-) I like the idea of having a baby helping you out to learn, you also learn by listening to your husband talk to him in Croatian and consequently, you learn as well….listening is the best way of learning a language, and I would say that you can learn better if you listen to someone who knows how to make you learn, I mean, not everyone has the ability to make you understand what they say, they just take for granted that if you know a bit, or if you look Croatian, they can speak their own rhythm, and this is not true. The one you communicate wiht , let’s say the sender on a conversation, takes relevant part on it too:-) 🙂

    1. Good on you Deb!!! That is so impressive you made it to intermediate already. You must be putting in the effort – A LOT OF EFFORT.
      Do you think that because you know 2 languages already that, it helped you a little?

      1. mais alors SJ :-),
        je parle un peut francais, ein menge deutsch, a fair load of english and a lot of dutch, so you think croatian is a piece of cake 🙂
        HELL NO, even though I can communicate in french (some people here would love to) I reject to even keep it up to date.
        german, ok, english, perfect, and croatian, pametno, ali ako sam umorno meni je dosta, i idem spavat !!!
        but it’s so rewarding when I manage to express myself in this horrible “foot- and mouth disease” (oprosti ljudi).
        poz. pim
        (ni sam glup ali probam :-).

  20. I still count money in English :), plus when you cross the road look to the left right and then left again ( I do it opposite which is a no no)

  21. Well done you! That is brilliant 🙂 Plus some great learning tips (although I draw the line at the baby one!) 😉

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