I have not been shy about my battles with the Croatian language. Anyone I’ve met in person or who 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 8 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:
- You plan to spend any amount of time in Croatia
- Not everyone in Croatia speaks English
- Bureaucracies want you to speak Croatian
- You may need to take a test
- You can use it outside of Croatia
The facts are these…
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.
This goes for both tourists and long-term residents. At a minimum, tourists should learn hi, goodbye, and thank you. For residents, you should learn as much as you can to the best of your ability.
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?
If you plan to make this place your home, not attempting to assimilate and expecting locals to speak your language, instead of you speaking the national language is not cool and can be interpreted as disrespectful.
You don’t need to speak perfect Croatian, but giving it a shot goes a long way.
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, cafe bars) most likely speak some level of English.
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 foreign 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.
The location also makes a big difference. Naturally, English is going to be rare in small villages. However, I live only a 5-minute bus ride from Diocletian’s Palace in Split 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. [Read: How to learn Croatian by changing how you speak English]
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 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, most government agencies and medical facilities, which you’ll inevitably run into if living here for 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 employed)
- Getting an OIB
- Getting health insurance
- Applying for unemployment (common for 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 a long-term stay as well as citizenship.
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 for help 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.
There are two tests that the police require of foreigners. If you want to apply for permanent residency, you may need to take a grammatical language test. [Read: How third-country citizens can apply for permanent residency in Croatia]
If you want to apply for citizenship, you may need to take the culture and history test, which will also examine your language skills as it will be in hrvatski. [Read: How to apply for Croatian citizenship]
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 a wind that day. [Read: Why wind is important – bura vs jugo]
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.
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 shape the language into something unique depending on the city, region, and country, but there is a common language thread that runs through the Balkans. [Read: The 3 Croatian dialects: Što, Kaj and Ča]
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.
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.
Next, start speaking. If you wait until you’re perfect, you’ll never progress. You’ve got to make mistakes, develop a reflex and feel the words in your mouth to improve.
Finally, be patient. Gaining understanding and fluency will not happen overnight. If your native language isn’t Slavic, the road will be bumpy. Don’t let it discourage you. The hardest challenges always have the biggest payoff.
Are you already learning Croatian? How are you learning it? What has been your biggest challenge? What has helped you the most?
View other learning Croatian posts
- 5 more (happy) reasons to learn Croatian
- A local’s guide to buying food at Croatia’s farmer’s market
- All the ways to say “Hi” and “Bye“ in Croatian
- Croatian phrases and words you might encounter when immigrating to Croatia
- How to learn Croatian by changing how you speak English
- How to tell time (in Zagreb, Split, Istria, and Dubrovnik)
- Learn Croatian: Types of Roads
- Online courses for learning the Croatian language in 2021 (both free and paid)
- The 3 Croatian dialects: Što, Kaj, and Ča
- Weekly Croatian Lessons
Please note: All information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal advice in any form. For legal advice, you must consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. We can recommend one if you contact us.