Everything You Need to Know to Learn Croatian
Croatian is a beautiful South Slavic language, spoken throughout the Balkan peninsula. Let’s get into everything that you need to know to learn Croatian.
It is, of course, the official language in Croatia, but it’s also official in Bosnia and Herzegovina, in certain regions of Serbia, Italy, and Austria, as well as (surprisingly) in two Romanian provinces. What is it about that last one? Well, they have huge Croatian communities there.
But Croatian is a fairly new term when it comes to the language. Not a few years ago, it was known as Serbo-Croatian. It was not until the Yugoslav wars that Croatians started insisting that their language is a separate one. To this day, there have only been a handful of Croatian grammar books. Still, to Croatians their language is distinct, and they get very easily offended if you claim it is not. Which brings me to my first point.
Is Croatian even a language?
Technically speaking, Croatian is one of the four standardized variants of Serbo-Croatian (also known as Serbo-Croat-Bosnian, or even Bosnian-Croatian-Montenegrin-Serbian). It is based on the Shtokavian dialect that established itself as a lingua franca of the region back in the 18th century. Most linguists still consider Croatian to be merely a variant of that language, and they do have their arguments.
But let’s not forget there was war…and war leaves scars.
The scar for Croats is similar to that of Bosnians, or Serbs. They want to differentiate themselves. Language is not just a means of communication, in fact, it now practically has the status of a nation identifier. It is a way of asserting, “We are different. We are a separate nation.”
This is why, although among scholars Serbo-Croatian is a perfectly logical and acceptable term, it is nearly offensive for local speakers. Once again, language for them is one of the most important characteristics of a nation. Denying them the right to say that they have a separate language is almost like saying they are not a separate nation at all.
The European Union took a very safe stand on this issue.
Since Croatia is now a part of the Union, Croatian is listed as an official language and all documents, websites, and other texts published by EU institutions appear in Croatian, too. So yes, even though it may not be as different from Serbian, Croatian is a separate language for historical, political, and sociological reasons, as well as out of respect for those who fell to protect their nation during the war.
How to Learn Croatian: The Alphabet
As we mentioned, there are countless undeniable similarities between Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Montenegrin. Having the tiniest amount of experience in any of these languages will help immensely with Croatian.
When it comes to the language family, Croatian belongs to the Southern Slavic languages. That group also includes Bulgarian and Macedonian (two languages that are incredibly similar, too), so if you speak/at least have learned some Bulgarian, it would also make Croatian easier to grasp and become fluent in.
But let’s say you don’t exactly spend your time learning somewhat obscure Slavic languages (and I say that with a heavy heart because my native language is Bulgarian and I would love to see more foreigners taking an interest in it). What do you expect if you want to learn Croatian, even if just a little?
For starters, they use the Latin alphabet.
You will not have to learn a whole new set of letters to learn Croatian, but there are some differences.
For instance, the letter Đ is for a sound similar to j (like in John), but nearly the same sound can be written down like dž. You might also encounter some sounds that are not all that easy to pronounce, even if they technically exist in English. In general, however, Croatian is a phonetic language, so you read what you see. The orthography is relatively simple and straightforward. When it comes to peculiar sounds — you will quickly get used to them after spending some time around natives. And all of those were reasons not to despair, things are not at all super challenging!
Useful travel phrases and when to go beyond the phrase book
Needless to say, unless you are a huge language geek (which, props to you if you are), you probably don’t need much Croatian for a quick trip to Dubrovnik. In places popular with tourists, there are plenty of signs in English and people tend to speak it fairly well. You will survive.
That being said, one thing I have noticed is that knowing the local language can be a huge money and time saver. For instance, in many countries, there are actual prices for locals and prices for foreigners.
Am I saying it’s OK?
No, but it is the reality in many Balkan countries. I can’t speak for Croatia because I have not witnessed it, but it was pretty common in Skopje. Almost all museums have different lower fares for those who can understand the signs in Macedonian.
I think this is forbidden in the European Union, but for restaurants and other local establishments, it could still be the truth. You might get charged more in bars (where you don’t necessarily look at the menu), you could get told that you’re expected to pay a higher tip, they could try to slip items that you have not purchased in your check(and the receipt will be in Croatian, so go figure).
OK, I am making all of this sound so dramatic. Nobody will try to rob you or anything, but knowing the local language is an extra protection from fraudsters and such.
PS: Make sure you grab a passport case so you don’t get pick-pocketed, while you’re at it.
That being said, a simple phrase book will do for short-term tourism. Here are a few keywords for travel purposes, you will probably find more in your guidebook:
- Hello Zdravo
- yes da
- no ne
- Do you speak English? Govorite li engleski?
- I do not understand Ne razumijem.
- Where is the…? Gdje je…?
- bus stop autobusna stanica
- train station željenička stanica
- street ulica
- How much is this? Koliko košta?
- entrance ulaz
- exit izlaz
- open otvoreno
- closed zatvoreno
- doctor doktor
- dentist zubar
And what about pronunciation? As we said, you basically just say what you read. There are no silent letters. All sounds are pronounced with the same length (there are no long or short vowels) and even with an accent if you pronounce all the letters you will be understood. Also, try to say the r the way someone from Scotland would. Rough and rolled. That is how natives say it.
What if I will be staying for more than a few days/weeks?
Then you need to go beyond the phrase book. If you truly want to socialize with Croats it is a no-brainer that you would have to learn Croatian. Not that they don’t probably speak English, but they will not get as close to you as fast, as they would if you could have a conversation in Croatian.
Whether you choose an online course, or a real-life language school is up to you and the bucks you are willing to cough up. In either case, what you do in class will probably not be enough to get you to a level, where you feel comfortable using the language. What you need to do, and yes, this is very clichéd advice, is talk to people.
There is nothing quite as annoying as a perfect grammar and an incomprehensible pronunciation. If they can understand you, who cares if you used the right tense or not?
By the way, since we are on grammar, what is the one thing you should be warned about? Cases and declensions, everybody. Yup, you will be lucky enough to have to master them if you want to sound fully native. For people learning Croatian, they tend to be the toughest challenge to overcome, but I promise that once you get in the habit of memorizing and using them with every new word… well, things do not get easier, but at least they are more manageable.
That is why my top advice for Croatian learners is — never ignore the declensions.
True, it can be tempting to just learn the basic form of the word and move on to the next, but this is such an essential part of grammar that there is a chance you will not be understood if you don’t use the correct case and declension.
How to Learn Croatian: Conclusion
The good news is, that Croats are extremely warm and friendly people.
Seriously, they will cheer you on even the most miserable of your attempts to speak and learn Croatian.
They are glad that you are interested in their language, plus I already mentioned how important language is to them. Just like not respecting the language is seen as not respecting the country and its’ people, making an effort to master Croatian equals effort to better understand and appreciate Croatian culture.
Kudos for that, don’t get too scared of declensions and good luck.
Did I get all the info and tips right? Do you have something to add to this guide to learn Croatian? Don’t forget to share it in the comments!
See you abroad,
– SA Team
PS: Unlike other languages, it’s hard to find online courses to help you learn Croatian. Fortunately for you, we’ve found the best one.