Croatian Lessons via Skype, It’s Better than you Think

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4th April 2020, thanks to the Coronavirus we are all on lockdown; I decided to use this time to pick up Croatian lessons again and am studying with a teacher via Skype. While this may not work for everyone because I understand that everyone is facing different challenges and stresses right now; I still wanted to share my experience of studying Croatian via Skype and why it works for me.

Just over a year ago, I’d finally had enough of my own excuses; I had been living in Croatia for five years, it was time to learn Croatian. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I spoke zero Croatian, my comprehension was ok and I could get by with basic, superficial conversations but that was it. I wanted to be able to have more meaningful conversations with locals but to do that, I was going to need to study with a teacher because the Croatian language and grammar is a minefield, I needed someone to help me navigate it better.

Before I found my teacher, I actually wrote this piece on TCN “The 5 Stages Before You Learn”, which is about the emotional stages we go through BEFORE we even get to the learning part. I likened this process to the stages of grief: frustration, depression, anger, bargaining and finally we reach acceptance. I had finally reached the stage where I had overcome the self-defeating emotions and was ready to take responsibility for doing something about improving my Croatian.

I was on the hunt for a Croatian teacher.

As life and fate would have it, I met someone for a coffee who recommended a Croatian teacher to me, “She is fantastic”. This person went on to describe her lessons and I had never seen someone talk so enthusiastically about learning a language; I was interested. The only downfall? She did her lessons via Skype. This teacher lives in Split but chooses to do her lessons via Skype because she considers it more efficient than having a classroom and people travelling to make a lesson. I wasn’t convinced.

Being the empathetic social butterfly that I am, I was hesitant because I felt that the ‘in-person’ human interaction in the exchange was a necessary element so I wasn’t convinced that doing Croatian lessons via Skype would be for me. However, I had been thinking about starting Croatian lessons and by chance met someone who was raving about a Croatian teacher – no such thing as coincidences, right?

I reached out to Zrinka and we chatted; I let her know my hesitation in doing Croatian lessons via Skype because I mean, could it really be as effective? Zrinka was very sincere and said “I understand your doubts and many people feel the same way. I honestly think it is the same as sitting together and having a coffee but everyone is different; so, I always say – ‘let’s try one lesson together and then you can see for yourself?”

This seemed fair.

Before our first lesson, Zrinka sent through some materials and the two Croatian language books I would need for the lessons. I got everything together and we had our first Croatian lesson via skype, that was all it took to convince me. It turns out, Zrinka was right; doing Croatian lessons via Skype was just like sitting opposite her, having a cup of coffee. It was even more convenient because I could roll out of bed, make my cup of coffee and not worry about getting dressed up and getting into Split. I tried Croatian lessons with a tutor a few years ago but it was only for a month, the lessons themselves were ok but I wasn’t inspired (possibly my own headspace) and I lost half a day travelling to and from Split. Needless to say, I gave up easily.

I not only survived my Croatian lessons via Skype with Zrinka but I also enjoyed and even began to look forward to them. I saw immense progress in my comprehension and confidence to speak. Unfortunately, summer came so I stopped with lessons and didn’t pick them up again – until now. Turns out this whole isolation thing is positive in some respects; isolation has forced me to drop many excuses around some of my goals – time being the usual culprit. Improving Croatian has still been on my mind (it’s always there), so I started lessons again last week. Right now, we are revising everything I learned last year because I forgot a lot and slipped back into old habits and mistakes but it is slowly coming back and I can see improvement already.

Before I go any further, I want to say a little disclaimer: this definitely isn’t the moment where I say that everyone should be learning Croatian because I know that everyone’s isolation looks different. I am in a space physically and mentally where I have the capacity to learn: I don’t have kids, we own our apartment and for now – our income isn’t affected. So, I have none of the stress and pressures that many people are facing; hence, I have the mental capacity and energy to use this time productively. We each need to do what is right for us – now more than ever. So, if you want to learn or improve your Croatian but you just don’t feel you have the mental energy to do so, that’s fine. Now is not the time for putting undue pressure on ourselves.

However, if there is anyone else in a similar position to me, who feels that they have the energy to learn, this may be a good opportunity and I am here to tell you that Skype lessons work just as effectively; I did them before isolation and they obviously make even more sense now with the whole social-distancing thing we have going on.

What are some of the benefits of doing Croatian Lessons via Skype?

Saving time: as I mentioned, I was previously travelling in and out of Split to attend Croatian lessons (from Omiš) which meant I lost half a day for a 1.5-hour lesson. Hardly efficient. Not so with Skype lessons – we set our schedule at the beginning of the week and I am always on time because there is no faffing with transport and traffic. I also save time by being able to rock up to lessons dressed in trackpants and a comfy hoodie rather than needing to ‘dress up’ (which one always feels a need to do in Split).

Flexibility: an obvious benefit to Croatian lessons via Skype is their flexibility. You aren’t limited to needing to be in a classroom which means that if your job or lifestyle demands travel, you can still keep up with lessons if you wish. After this isolation period is over, I imagine more people will start to use and appreciate the benefits of video calls in many aspects of life.

Emotional buffer: this is one aspect that many wouldn’t think about but learning another language is difficult and can be confronting as we come up against our own limitations and frustrations. A few times in the lessons I was doing in-person, I felt my cheeks redden and frustrations rise – which, being the emotional creature that I am, made me feel super-embarrassed (will I cry?) The beauty of Skype lessons is that by not being in-person, there is almost an emotional buffer. Frustrations can still arise but it feels less confronting because the teacher isn’t standing directly in front of me; the physical distance allows me a chance to regain my composure (aka not lose my shit and breakdown).

Lessons are the same: I can not see any difference or limitation with Skype vs in-person. We work through physical books together, Zrinka can even send notes and materials in a screen-shot through Skype in that moment. The only thing we don’t use, which we had in the classroom was a whiteboard but there is no real loss there. We practice comprehension on many levels; reading, listening, speaking and I email homework through to Zrinka so she can check that my written Croatian is also correct.

Proper Croatian versus dialect: This note isn’t specific to Skype but I think it is important to add. While we should all learn the correct way to speak Croatian, because I live on the Dalmatian coast, I want to understand and speak the local dialect. To me, it makes no sense to only learn a formal way of speaking if most people don’t speak that way where I live. This is what I love about Zrinka, she always teaches the ‘proper’ way to say something but she will also tell me the most common phrases, words, expressions etc in Dalmatian.

Important attributes of a Croatian teacher, especially via Skype.

They need to know how to teach: This seems obvious but not all teachers are great at teaching; being a great teacher is not a given, it’s a skill.  When we are learning something, especially grammar, if I don’t understand something one way, Zrinka has numerous ways to explain it. She never makes me feel stupid but will adjust and adapt until she finds a method or explanation that works for me no matter how long it takes – eventually, we get there and I learn various tactics for myself in the process.

A big personality: For Croatian lessons via Skype to be successful, I believe the teacher needs to have a big personality to help ‘break down’ the physical distance. We have all had Skype or video calls with people who are a bit awkward or cold, which can make the conversation feel stilted or lack flow – this isn’t what you want when learning a language. I say this because I realised that Zrinka has such a natural, light-hearted way, her personality shines through the screen and it helps put me at ease and set a fun, relaxed tone for our lessons. I don’t imagine I would stick with it otherwise.

Empathy: This could possibly fall under ‘knowing how to teach’ but I think empathy deserves a mention on its own. Empathy is essential in teachers, to be able to read and adjust to their learners and this takes exceptional skill to be able to do it via Skype. There were many instances in our lessons where I started to hit a brick wall and come against frustrations in myself; somehow Zrinka noticed and was able to give me ‘space’, reassure or give me just enough of a push to get me past my block. Again, the emotional buffer helps here but the teacher needs to be adept at reading people and finding ways to bring out their best.

All in all, I am thrilled to be learning Croatian again; if we weren’t in isolation I never would have started because we should be sailing right now. However, life (and the Coronavirus) clearly have other plans, which means I have no excuses because I finally have uninterrupted time. Again, please don’t consider this an article to pressure you into studying or make you feel bad if you aren’t; as I said, we all need to do what is right for us right now. But, if you do have the energy and some expendable income, I truly recommend learning Croatian via Skype – I wouldn’t have it any other way now!

If you are interested in learning more or talking to my teacher Zrinka Madunic Spiljak, you can contact her on [email protected]. I obviously recommend her but I need to state that this is not a sponsored post; in fact, this is going to come as a bit of a surprise to Zrinka as she has no idea I am writing this. I believe in recommending people who are great at what they do, especially right now with so many jobs affected, we should support our communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs.

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Zrinka Madunic Spiljak

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