Can you learn to speak Croatian as an adult? I’ve lived in Zagreb, Croatia for over 7 years now and thought I'd put together some advice about language learning from personal experience.
There’s no shortcut or fast track, but I do have a good tactic that really helped me.
The goal is not to speak perfectly, but to feel confident speaking imperfectly. Below I'll walk you through 7 steps to start speaking conversational Croatian.
My method is a bit unorthodox, but it worked for me, and now I speak Croatian (albeit with mistakes), fluently.
The Croatian alphabet is similar to the English alphabet (minus a few, and plus a few new letters). Below you can see some of the missing and added letters when compared on top of each other:
ć č (basically the same sound) = “ch” like in couch
đ dž (basically the same sound) = “j” like in jam
lj (the ONLY tricky one) = can anyone give me a good example?? Leave a comment below!
nj = like the n in jalopeño or in onion
š = “sh” like in shop
ž = a soft “g” like at the end of garage
j = looks like a j, but sounds like a y
Step 3. Learn a few basic verbs:
Vocabulary is the best medicine. Learn words, read words, repeat words. The more you build your vocabulary, the more you’ll start to hear those words being used in action around you, and the more you’ll start to understand the gist of conversations.
Read children’s books: This is a great way to practice your skills, learn new vocab and speak out loud as you read to practice your accent. Children’s books use simple language, they’re easy to follow with pictures, and they’re short enough to start and finish in one sitting, without getting too frustrated.
Another great thing about children's books, is that you usually know the plot, so it's even easier to follow and figure out the vocabulary.
I’m serious with this one. If you try to speak properly all the time, you’ll get so caught up in rules (which are never-ending) and you’ll never have the confidence to start conversing and putting any vocab into practice.
The moment I stopped caring about grammar, my spoken Croatian improved ten-fold.
Speak like a toddler/caveman, and you can work on the grammar later (if you ever want to!). The main thing is to get talking, and trust me, people will understand you based on the context of the situation or conversation.
Think about young kids learning to speak - they say what they want, however they can, in order to get their point across, and they don’t care one bit if it’s grammatically correct (or even pronounced correctly). But people understand, and eventually they start catching onto the rules as they develop their language skills.
Practice talking: If you live in Croatia, this can be easy. Go to the cafe and order in Croatian, go for a walk and ask any baka you find in the neighborhood “Kako ste?” (How are you?), join a facebook or whatsapp group for Croatian language learners, find another expat who wants to improve his or her skills, find someone who wants to learn English and do a language-exchange to practice speaking.
*One note - the vast majority of people in Croatia speak English, especially in touristy places. When they hear you trying to speak Croatian, they will probably try and switch the conversation to English almost instantaneously to make things easier for you. If you want to keep it going in Croatian just say so, be persistent, and always answer back in Croatian.
If you don’t live in Croatia, let me know, and I’ll send you some facebook/whatsapp groups you can join that might be helpful. Alternatively, my good friend Nikki Prša (Speakathometonight.com) does online Croatian lessons via skype, which are great for beginners living outside of Croatia.
- Learn how to conjugate basic verbs
- Learn how to modify adjectives according to the number and gender of the nouns
- Learn the cases (the trickiest part)
A quick tutorial for conjugating Croatian verbs:
99 % of verbs end in “ti” which keeps things simple. First take off the ending “ti” and add the highlighted letters. Here are a couple of examples:
The best part about Croatian language
Croatian words are read exactly by reading each letter sound - there are no silent letters, no multiple sounds for the same letter, it’s all very simple to read once you know how to pronounce each letter. You can conquer reading Croatian like a pro in no time (you don’t have to know the meaning, but reading any words will help with improving your accent).
So there you have it. Croatian can be learned as an adult! You just have to let loose and ignore the rules. Learn new words as much as possible, string those words together to make sentences to get your point across, and practice, practice, practice.
The more you speak, the more you’ll recognize and pick up even more of the language. Once you feel like you can manage tackling some grammar, take it one step at a time, and go slowly!
A little history:
When I first moved to Croatia, I felt left out at social events. I could make small talk with people one on one, but I couldn’t follow the main conversation that was happening in a group. On top of that, anything beyond the day to day stuff just went over my head.
I had to concentrate on every word, ask people to speak a bit slower, and still with all of the cases (nouns change 6 different ways depending on how you use them), it was overwhelming and the conversation would switch to English pretty quickly (which was kind, and frustrating all at the same time).
It wasn’t as frustrating when I was with Ivan (my husband), as he translated as much as possible, but that’s not easy either, because naturally, conversation is fast-paced and jumps sporadically from one person to the next. It’s almost impossible to follow group conversations until you really learn the language yourself.
The big advantage I had learning Croatian is that my husband’s parents don’t speak English (what would I do at Sunday lunches if I didn't learn the language?! :) That gave me even more motivation to learn, and ample opportunities to practice.
I’m still on my Croatian-learning journey and have a lot more to go (new vocab + grammar) but I’m now completely comfortable and confident when communicating and can chat about most things. I still make plenty of mistakes in Croatian, and that still doesn’t bother me.