5 (kinda harsh) reasons why you should learn Croatian

I have not been shy about my battles with the Croatian language. Anyone I’ve met in person or has followed my Facebook page is intimately aware of my struggles. The more I learn, the less logical it seems.

As a second language for a native English-speaker, Croatian is a rough choice. To use an analogy, it is kind of like making the decision to take up hiking after 35 years on this planet and picking Mount Everest as your first hike. Needless to say, it’s a Sisyphean endeavor and you may die in the process. One step forward, twelve steps back.

Thing is, those singular steps forward feel SOOOO good. My chest puffs out, I grow a big smile and think about how I just accomplished something I never thought possible 6 months ago, 2 years ago, 7 years ago in a country I love living in.

So, why put yourself through the agony of learning Croatian? Here are 5 kinda harsh reasons why:

Why Learn Croatian
Image by Donald Judge

1. You currently live or plan to live in Croatia for more than 90 days.

This may seem like a “duh” reason, but if I had a kuna for every time I heard someone say they weren’t going to learn Croatian because “everyone in Croatia speaks English”, I could quit my jobs and drink coffee full time.

Think about where you come from. If a foreigner moved to your native country and chose not to learn your language, how would you feel about that?

To make this place your home, not attempt to assimilate and expect locals to speak your language, instead of you speaking the national language is selfish. You don’t need to speak perfect Croatian, but trying and improving over time goes a long way.

2. Not everyone in Croatia speaks English

If you are physically in the tourism hot spots, as in the dead center of cities like Zagreb, Split, Dubrovnik, Pula or Rijeka, then yes, many people will speak English. Croatia’s main business is tourism, so those working in tourism (agencies, hotels, restaurants, caffe bars) are most likely going to speak English well.

However, not everyone works in tourism and not everyone speaks English fluently. Croatians do learn some level of English in primary school. However, if they don’t speak it every day, they lose it just like everybody else. If they aren’t in tourism working with foreigners or have foreigner friends, they would have no reason to speak English and therefore, no reason to know or practice it.

You will encounter all levels of English, from near fluency to understandable to broken to understanding but not speaking to only knowing “please” and “thank you”. Generally (to which there are exceptions) younger people tend to speak English better because of the influx of Western television post-war, while older people don’t speak as much.

Location also makes a big difference. Naturally, English is going to be rare in small country villages. However, I live only a 5-minute bus ride from Diocletian’s Palace and English ranges from sparse to non-existent. I like it that way because it encourages me to speak and practice my Croatian. Best not to assume the tourism hubs in city centers are representative of an entire city or country.

The idea that everyone speaks English in Croatia, so much so that you do not need to learn Croatian, is inaccurate.

Learn Hrvatski
Image by Ed S. Johovac

3. Bureaucracies want you to speak Croatian

If you’re serious about staying in Croatia long term, you definitely need to learn Hrvatski.

For starters, it can be rare to find someone at the police station in foreigner immigration that will speak English to you. I’m not saying there aren’t exceptions, but the majority of the time you will be required to bring a native Croatian speaker with you to translate.

In addition, all government agencies and medical facilities, which you’ll inevitably run into if living here a long time, will require that you speak Croatian. Here are just a few possible situations, both government and otherwise, where you’ll deal with a person or persons that most likely are not going to speak English to you:

  • Getting a driver’s license
  • Opening and running a business
  • Getting a personal tax card (if you are an employee for your own or someone else’s business)
  • Getting an OIB
  • Getting health insurance
  • Applying for unemployment (common for English teachers who are off in August)
  • Dealing with the tax authority
  • Getting something notarized
  • Going to the hospital
  • Getting laboratory tests such as having blood drawn

You might be thinking, so why is this a reason to learn Croatian? Can’t I just bring a Croatian with me to translate each time I go to XYZ?

Sure, you can. However, the longer you are in Croatia, the less acceptable this becomes especially when it comes to your residency. The police want to know that you are learning Croatian as it is an essential part of your assimilation. “Respect for the culture and the legal order of the Republic of Croatia” is a requirement for long term stay.

Also, it can get cumbersome to find someone to help every time you need to get something done. There are only so many favors one can ask and the people you are asking to accompany you have lives too.

At a certain point, just wanting to live here is not enough. You must show that you respect the language and customs. No need to be fluent, but like I said before, trying goes a long way.

4. You may need to take a test

There are two tests that the police requires of foreigners. If you want to apply for permanent residency, you may need to take a grammatical language test. If you want to apply for citizenship, you’ll most likely need to take the culture and history test, which will also examine your language skills as it will be in Hrvatski.

The requirement to take these tests can vary depending on your nationality, if you’re married to a Croatian, the laws on the books at the time of your application, what city you are in, who you speak to, the type of mood they’re in and whether or not there is wind that day.

It’s unwise to wait until the last minute to prepare. Don’t assume you’ll be exempt at the time of application. Things change all the time and no two situations are alike. An American married to a Croatian may be told by the Makarska police that they are exempt, while another American married to another Croatian in Zagreb may be told they must take the test.

Unless you’re a polyglot genius, it would be challenging to cram for either test at the last minute having not seriously tried to learn Croatian previously. You can read all about my experience with the permanent residency test here.

Point is, start learning Croatian now if you intend to stay here long term.

5. You can use it outside of Croatia

Croatian is not a one-country language. Some version of Serbo-Croatian is spoken in 6 countries: Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, Slovenia and Kosovo. That is the same number of countries that speak German, to put it in perspective.

Of course, there is nuance and heavy dialect that shapes the language into something unique depending on the city, region, and country, but there is a common language thread that runs through the Balkans.

If you travel to any of these countries and understand some Croatian, you will have an easier time getting around, exploring, eating, and drinking than someone who doesn’t know any of the language at all.

Image by Trondheim byarkiv

What’s next?

If you aren’t already learning the language, start immediately. Find a class, get a tutor, download an app, quit making excuses. Figure out how you learn best and apply it to learning this language. If you go with a tutor, don’t be afraid to tell them what you need to achieve the greatest success. We all learn differently.

Finally, be patient. Gaining understanding and fluency will not happen over night. If your native language isn’t Slavic, you’ll have a tough time. Don’t let it discourage you. The hardest challenges always have the biggest pay off.

There are definitely more than five reasons to learn Croatian, so stay tuned for the next post on why you should take this leap.

Are you already learning Croatian? How are you learning it? What has been your biggest challenge? What has helped you the most?

 

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Expat in Croatia

Sara is an American expat based in Split. After globetrotting between New York, Amsterdam and California, she moved to Croatia in 2012. Sara's blog Expat in Croatia is a guide for foreigners living and traveling in Croatia.