Learning Croatian as a Foreigner: A Croatian Teacher Speaks

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November 7, 2018 – Learning Croatian as a foreigner is tough, but it is a task made easier with a Croatian teacher with humour, patience, experience and understanding. The Croatian language learning experience through the eyes of a teacher. We caught up with Mihaela Naletilić Šego, prof., Croatian language teacher and occasional TCN contributor to learn more about the Croatian language learning experience through the eyes of a teacher.

1. People say that Croatian is one of the hardest languages to learn. What are your thoughts?

 I absolutely agree that Croatian is a very difficult language to learn, but you know what  I say to this –

 So what if it is?

 When someone tells me that something is difficult to accomplish, or better yet, gives me my favourite sentence:

– You cannot accomplish that – it cannot be done! –  I always think of it as a challenge:

– Oh, you think so? Well, let’s try!

2. Tell us about the typical experiences of foreigners who come to you to learn Croatian as total beginners.

The most typical thing I’ve learned is – that there is no typical story!

Every person that came to CRO to go to learn  Croatian has their own, interesting and unusual story and reasons why they are learning Croatian.

Sometimes it’s love. They want to learn the language of their loved ones. But also love towards their heritage. We are working with a lot of Croatians living in the diaspora whose only knowledge of the Croatian language is the one their grandmother or grandfather gave them in their childhood.

And now, as years have gone by and grandparents live only in their memories,  they realise how important it is that they pass on that knowledge to their kids.

Some people feel better if, living in a new country, they can understand what people around them are talking about – in this exotic language!

Others just want to communicate with their employees – and sometimes maybe secretly hear what they are talking about!

But all of our students tell us this:

I want to use Croatian in everyday situations- on the market, in a restaurant, ordering coffee or just making small talk at a party.  And this is exactly what we are doing at CRO to go –  getting people to speak Croatian in everyday life!

3. So many foreigners seem to have a mental block about learning Croatian. How do you ‘unblock’ that mentality

A few years ago we had a family visit from our Australian relative.

Joanna was a 30-year-old beautiful and talented actress whose mother and father, both Croatian, moved to Australia before she was born. This was her first visit to Croatia and she spoke no Croatian whatsoever.

At least that was what she tried to convince me for the first two days of her stay at our house.

– Do you know any word at all?  – I was curious.

– Just a few, maybe…  but not enough to make a sentence – she sounded insecure.

Until the third day. That night we made her a great going away dinner party with some fish and nice red wine.

The atmosphere was very relaxed. We were laughing and making jokes all night long.. At one point I made a joke in Croatian. And she started laughing.

  • Ti razumiješ?/You understand? – I asked her in Croatian.    ?
  • Da/Yes! – she answered.

That evening she realized that she can make some simple sentences in Croatian, that she knows a whole bunch of words and she in fact understands Croatian a bit. Her mother and father never talked Croatian to her, but as a child she often listened to their conversations in Croatian.

This story was not meant to encourage students to drink red wine in order to start talking Croatian, but for them to realize that they know so much more Croatian than they think they do! Language is imprinted in us and we just need to conquer our fears and get it out on the surface. 

5. Some of the most common mistakes by beginners?

The first fifty are always connected to the cases and genders!  Kuća je lijepa./The house is nice. – that works fine. But Imam lijepa kuća – not happening in Croatian! It has to be: Imam lijepu kuću. / Imam lijepu kuću.

 When you accept the fact that word kuća can be also kuće, kući, kuću, kućom, then – the plural hits you:

kuće, kuća, kuće, kućama…

I will not even start to talk about the adjectives!

The one mistake that a lot of people make is putting the short form of the verb to be, like je/is in the first place of the sentence. I can see some of my students rolling their eyes as they are reading this, because they heard it so many times…

 It’s sunny. – functions well in English.  Je sunčano. – however doesn’t function in Croatian.  

Sunčano je. /Sunny it is. – is the way to say it in Croatian.


5. Language errors can be hilarious. Tell us a couple of the funniest you have encountered. 

Handling the words pisati/to write and pišati/to pee is a classic mistake that can always put a smile on your face! 

Sentence Jučer sam pisao… /Yesterday I wrote…   will not have the same effect at a dinner party as the sentence the sentence Jučer sam pišao… /Yesterday I peed…

Answers to the questions Kako si danas? /How are you today? can also be tricky!

Ja sam dosadan.  /I am boring.    instead of      Dosadno mi je. /I am bored.

Ja sam dobar.  / I am a good person.     instead of  Ja sam dobro. /I am good.

and the one that can really  get you in trouble:

Ja sam vruć. / I am hot!/meaning attractive   instead of    

 Vruće mi je! I  feel to hot – it’s too hot in this room!

6. Language learning is a serious business. Tell us why CRO to go is the best choice, and what is on offer with your language school?

You have to love something in order to be excellent at it. We really love to teach Croatian at CRO to go. And we are sincerely happy to see that our students are talking Croatian and knowing that we helped them to adjust better to everyday life in Croatia.

In CRO to go we are offering courses ONLINE and courses in person – individual /or courses in pairs in our school in Zagreb centre. Also, there is a possibility of having a course in your office or at home.

The course I would like to mention is CROchat – our 3-day short and fun course of Croatian, held inour school in Zagreb.

7. Now show you are human – your worst mistake speaking English?

Luckily I never had to go on any kind of spelling competition. My students are obviously too polite to tell me  that there is a difference between word  meat and verb to meet

By now I’ve learned that it’s in English, not on English, that you cannot lift the money from your bank account, but withdraw it . And what puzzled me the most –

that in English you cannot be angry on someone, but with someone!

8. Your best advice for people learning Croatian? 

Pričajte, pričajte, pričajte… i još malo pričajte! /Talk, talk, talk, and talk some more!

Talk to your partner, to your kids, to the waiter, to the sales lady or to your housekeeper. 

One of the biggest obstacles foreigners in Croatia encounter is best said in the sentence that I hear often:

Everybody speaks English here and everybody wants to practice their English by talking to me!

Don’t let them! Instead, you practice your Croatian – on them!

For more information on CRO to go courses, check www.crotogo.hr 

Mihaela Naletilić Šego, prof., Croatian language teacher  

The struggle is real, but there are those who refuse to give up. Here is one of Mihaela’s foreign students on 25 tips for those trying to learn Croatian – from a foreign perspective.


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