How to learn Croatian by changing how you speak English
Croatian is a very challenging language to learn for native English speakers. It has cases, it assigns gender, and the overall structure of a sentence can be vastly different. This is why when Croatian comes into my brain, sparks fly back out.
In learning Croatian, I realized after about 2 years that the same old approach most teachers employ wasn’t working for me. When I brought this to the attention of my teacher, she actually said “well, this is how everybody learns”. Well, no, actually it isn’t. We all learn differently.
One of the strategies that has helped me learn the Croatian language is to speak English like a Croatian person does. When a Croatian speaks English, they are constructing their thoughts and sentences the same way they would construct it in Croatian. This reveals a LOT about how Croatian is spoken.
Once I picked up on how Croatians spoke English, I started modifying my use of English to match. It made constructing thoughts in Croatian a lot easier once I knew how to assemble the building blocks. Sure, you can memorize verbs and nouns, but if you don’t know how to put them together into a coherent thought that Croatians can understand, what good are they?
Here are a few of my tips and tricks for changing how you speak English so you can speak better Croatian. I promise, it’s a thing and it will help.
Every Croatian noun has a gender: masculine, feminine or neutral. This gender assignment affects everything. It changes how the word is declined through Croatian’s 7 cases, which affects the spelling. It also affects the other words attached to it in the sentence, like verbs, adverbs, and adjectives. Of course they are conjugated through the cases too.
In English, we predominantly refer to anything that is not a male or female living being as “it”. “It hurts”. “I lost it”. “I found it in the couch”. However, this is not how “it” works in Croatian. Only neutral nouns are referred to as “it”.
There are an endless number of inanimate, non-living objects that are either masculine or feminine.
- Feminine words are referred to as “she” or “ona”.
- Masculine words are referred to as “him” or “on”.
Let’s look at some examples.
Have you ever heard your hair stylist refer to your hair as “she”? That’s because the word for “hair” is “kosa”, which is feminine.
Other examples of feminine objects:
- majica = t-shirt
- olovka = pen
- jabuka = apple
- ruža = rose
- čaša = glass
Have you ever heard someone refer to a car as “he”? That’s because the word for “car” is “auto”, which is masculine.
Other examples of masculine objects:
- ručnik = towel
- mačak = male cat
- luk = onion
- tulipan = tulip
- lonac = pot
See what I mean? Sparks!
Know when to use ‘on’ and when to use ‘in’
This is a biggy. Croatians use “na” (meaning “on”) in a lot in circumstances when it would be more natural for a native English speaker to use “at” or “in” (“u” in Croatian). This can take a lot of getting used to.
In some situations, there are patterns you can follow to determine which preposition to use. In other situations, you just have to know what is right, which is only learned over time.
To reiterate before we dive into examples…
- “on” in English is “na” in Croatian
- “in” or “at” in English is “u” in Croatian
Time for examples…
We’ll start with the basics when Croatian and English match and then work our way to when they don’t.
Ja sam na Mosoru. ~ I am on Mosor.
This makes sense because you are ON a mountain.
Ja sam u Zagrebu. ~ I am in Zagreb.
This makes sense because you are IN a city.
Ja sam u Varošu. ~ I am in Varoš.
This makes sense because you are IN a neighborhood.
Ja sam na Pujankima. ~ I am on Pujanke.
This is where it changes. You are still IN a neighborhood, but now you use “on” instead of “in”. Why? Because for some neighborhoods you use “on” and some you use “in”. The only way to know is by listening to Croatians when they refer to neighborhoods.
Ja sam na benzinskoj postaji. ~ I am on the gas station.
An English speaker would take this to mean that you are literally sitting on top of the gas station. In Croatian, it means that you are at the gas station.
I will call these “little events” because that is how my second Croatian teacher referred to this group and it made sense to me. We’ll see if you agree.
There are a variety of things you could do or places you can be at where you will always use “on” instead of “in” or “at” because they are considered to be…little events.
Ja sam na kavi. ~ I am on a coffee.
Ja sam na plaži. ~ I am on the beach.
Ja sam na godišnjem. ~ I am on annual holiday.
Ja sam na policiji. ~ I am on the police.
Ja sam na trećem katu. ~ I am on the third floor.
Use ‘which’ instead of ‘what’
In English, perhaps just in American English, we use “what” as one of our primary question words. Croatians do use WHAT but only in circumstances when it is an open-ended question. If it’s a specific question with a specific answer, then Croatians would use WHICH.
English: What is your wifi?
Croatian: Koji wifi? ~ Which wifi?
English: What day do you want to meet?
Croatian: Koji dan se želite upoznati naći? ~ Which day you want to meet?
English: What restaurant does your friend work at?
Croatian: U kojem restoranu radi vaš prijatelj? ~ In which restaurant your friend works?
There is one exception
There is one situation when it’s best not to speak English like a Croatian. It’s something that has puzzled me and my fellow foreigners greatly.
The Croatian alphabet includes the letter “v”, which is pronounced just like we pronounce “v” in English words. The “v” in English words such as valiant, verge and vouch is the same “v” in Croatian words like voda, Karlovačko, and sirevi.
However, when many Croatians speak English, they pronounce “v” as a “w”. Instead of saying vacuum, village, vote or vomit, they instead pronounce them wacuum, willage, wote and womit.
The Croatian language does not have the letter “w” or any letter that makes the “w” sound. When I’ve inquired to understand this discrepancy in pronunciation, their response is one of confusion. They do not seem to hear the difference and maybe they truly don’t.
Every language has its quirks. When speaking, or attempting to speak Croatian, I know there are certain sounds and differences in dialect or pronunciation I can’t hear or discern. Some sounds I can’t even make. Žnjan, my old neighborhood in Split, is a word I will NEVER be able to pronounce correctly. My mouth just doesn’t contort that way.
At first, trying to figure this “w” thing out would make me pop a blood vessel. But now, hearing someone say “willage” gives me an internal giggle, so much so that sometimes I will say “willage” too just to give myself a giggle. We could all use a few more giggles.
Check out our other Croatian language learning resources here.
Please note: Information provided by Expat in Croatia is only for the purposes of guidance. It does not constitute legal or financial advice in any form. Croatian laws and bureaucratic rules often change, and each personal case is individual, so different rules may apply. For legal advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian lawyer. For financial advice, contact us to consult with a licensed Croatian tax advisor or accountant.