Learning Croatian: a first step into the blogging world

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Richard Simcott and I talking after the Poliglotti4.eu conference in Parma, November 2012

What I lack most in life is time. There are so many things that I want to do, so many places I want to visit, and so many languages that I want to do, but as anyone who has tried to do those things will know, lack of time is the biggest obstacle. Currently my year is divided into six months of being at university and six months’ vacation, and the start of this month heralded the latter, as I found myself as usual sitting in the back seat of the car, driving down the M40, boxes of possessions piled up on my knee, on my way back home to London after a particularly exhausting term. When I’d finally hauled all my stuff up the six flights of stairs to my flat and collapsed onto the sofa and recovered, I began to prepare for the coming 6 weeks of apparent freedom. I looked at what I had on my shelf, and remembered that I had bought ‘Complete Croatian’, from the Teach Yourself series, around this time last year and taken it back with me to Russia, where it sat miserable and neglected for another six months before I took it back to England with me. I decided to take it off the shelf and give it some creases.

The key to language learning is motivation, and that is made up of several factors:

  1. Reasons to learn a language
    This can be a number of things. Maybe you’ve travelled or plan to go to the country where it’s spoken, or have friends or family from there. Maybe the country interests you and you want to find out more about it, and want to learn the language to read the news or books. Maybe you have business out there, and need to speak it for practical reasons, or plan to move there.
  2. A way to practise
    It’s really important to be able to measure your progress. The best way to do this is to have someone to speak to. The likelihood of there being someone where you live who speaks or is learning the same language as you is very small, but the wealth of the internet makes it possible to find someone. A native speaker is good for pronunciation and vocabulary, but a fellow student is sometimes better for practising grammar – a native speaker often doesn’t see things the way we do!
  3. Goals
    You have to know where you want to go with this, and when you’ll be satisfied with yourself. This is a very personal thing: some people see achieving C2-level fluency as the only option, while others would be happier with a few phrases and a smattering of grammar.

So what were my reasons for learning Croatian? I’ve always been interested in the Balkans and am planning to travel there in the Summer. Also, learning Russian has opened the world of Slavic languages to me, and I wanted to see just how easy it would be to learn another one. Practice opportunities? One of my friends was studying Serbian for an extra module at university, and had an upcoming oral exam. Goals? Right now I was just interested in getting a gist; later on I will want to be able to speak more fluently.

So how did it go? Well, I flicked through the book until about Unit 9 for a few weeks to get a feel for it. Needless to say, knowing Russian was a great help – none of the grammar came as a great surprise, and an awful lot of the vocabulary was very similar. The big challenge for Russian speakers seems to be stress, which, while very strong in Russian, seems a bit more relaxed in Croatian. David Norris (the author of the book) does not offer much guidance on this, and says only that stress is never at the end (immediately contradicted by the word ‘hotel’ which features quite prominently in the first unit, but it’s a loanword so I’ll let him off). The stress in the Russian word ‘жена’ moves forwards from the ‘a’ to the ‘e’ in Croatian ‘žena’. This is also true for Russian ‘говорить’ and Croatian ‘govoriti’.

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The cover of the Teach Yourself Complete Croatian course by David Norris

However, I would not recommend ‘Complete Croatian’ to anyone who likes to focus particularly on grammar. Frustratingly, as with a lot of Teach Yourself books, they try to hide the grammar from you as much as possible, pretending almost like it isn’t there, and then dropping it on you completely out of the blue, giving you an exercise or two, and then swiftly moving on. I don’t know where this teaching method comes from, maybe they’ve read somewhere that people react badly to grammar because of the horror of learning French at school, but the net result seems to be to just cause mass confusion. Sometimes I found myself just dying to see a quick declension table to make everything a bit clearer, or a slightly more sufficient explanation. I cannot imagine what people who have not learned a Slavic language before do when they open this course.

But as far as Teach Yourself courses go, this one had quite a few good things to say about it. I liked that the dialogues were consistently about the same person, and told a little story about some English people who for some reason conversed eternally in fluent Croatian even amongst themselves, and they came with some quite extensive vocabulary lists. The recordings were very clear, and easy to pause and replay. The course presents quite a positive image of modern Croatia, centred around the capital Zagreb rather than some beachy touristy hole, and the introduction is very interesting about the history of the region and the recent split with Serbian.

Croatian itself is a stunningly beautiful language. It’s incredibly musical and has a quite entrancing rhythm. I definitely would like to learn this language seriously, and also learn how to adapt it to Serbian, Bosnian and Montenegran for my upcoming trip this summer. There is a real wealth of Serbian and Croatian films, which are actually quite good, to help you along with learning it. With Croatia joining the EU in July, it looks like this language is going to be quite important in the years to come.