Tuesday, 16 April 2024
Learning Croatian Learning Croatian Alejandra Gotóo

One Word at a Time: Učim Hrvatski Jezik

Written by  Alejandra Gotóo Jun 17, 2023

The first time I listened to a Croatian speaker, I thought they were mad at each other. It was in a pharmacy; I was waiting to get painkillers, and an old lady told the clerk something. Having spent most of my time in Croatia within an English-speaking community, I had never ventured beyond my linguistic comfort zone. I could communicate and be understood effortlessly. However, life has a way of nudging us towards change, reminding us of our need to adapt.

As I moved away from the Digital Nomad Valley, I encountered Croatian more frequently in my daily life. I continued to listen to the language, still perceiving it as somewhat harsh. The words blended together, making it impossible to discern where one ended and the next began. However, I had Croatian friends who patiently taught me the basics: kava, molim, dobar dan, oprostite, još, živejli... I could utter a few words, but comprehending the responses eluded me. This was my experience in the charming city of Zadar.

I enrolled in a summer school to learn Croatian 

Last summer, I relocated to Zagreb, determined to embark on a genuine language acquisition journey. Gradually, the unfamiliarity of Croatian dissipated. The once-mysterious sounds began to resonate with familiarity, and the people no longer seemed perpetually angry. My ears grew accustomed to the rhythmic cadence of the language.

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I enrolled in Croaticum's summer school and had the fortune of being taught by an exceptional teacher, Lidjia Ban Matovac. I immersed myself in intensive learning for three weeks, complementing my classes with YouTube videos, podcasts, and movies featuring Croatian subtitles. At the end of the program, I proudly sat for my first Croatian exam and achieved a satisfactory grade of 4. For those unacquainted with the Croatian grading system, 5 equates to an A in the United States. The lowest grade is 0, although I doubt anyone could truly attain such a score.

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I was thrilled, living in a fantastic country, and could understand malo (a little) of what people told me. I tried my new skills in Dolac, which reminds me of an anecdote that still brings a smile to my face.

One Saturday morning, hubby and I strolled through Dolac Market. He insisted that we could find everything we needed at the nearby Konzum supermarket, while I stubbornly maintained that I needed practice. Eventually, we stumbled upon some portobello mushrooms, a rarity at Konzum. It was my chance to prove the superiority of Dolac. I confidently joined the queue and patiently awaited my turn. When it finally arrived, the conversation unfolded as follows:

-Dobar dan, izvolite

-Dobar dan, trebam portobello, jedan kilo, molim.

-Jedan kilo?

-Da da

The nice woman gave me my kilo of portobellos. Hubby looked at me and remarked:

-Hon, don't you think that's too many?

-Indeed, it is, but I haven't learned how to say "half" yet.

After a week of consuming copious amounts of portobellos, I triumphantly learned to say pola (half). There have been other instances where my language skills faltered, leading to amusing situations. For instance, there is a slight difference between popust (discount) and popuš (oral sex), which can lead to rather embarrassing miscommunications. Yet, I laughed alongside Croatians in these moments and learned even more.

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The native speaker of a romance language 

I have developed a deep affection for the Croatian language, which no longer sounds angry to my ears. I have learned to distinguish the melodic symphony of sounds and transform them into meaningful words. Most of these words have captivated my heart, but I must admit that the ones without any vowels still perplex me. Who would have thought that krv (blood) is a complete word? Or prst (finger)? To native speakers of Croatian and other Slavic languages, it makes perfect sense. Still, as a native speaker of a romance language, the absence of vowels in a word was once considered a mistake during my early language learning days.

In the midst of my Croatian language learning journey, I have come to appreciate the profound wisdom encapsulated in the words of Ivo Andrić, a Yugoslav Nobel Prize laureate: "The worst thing is not that everything passes, but that we cannot and do not know how to come to terms with this simple, unavoidable fact." These profound words resonate deeply with my language-learning journey. As I immerse myself in the Croatian language, I am reminded of the transient nature of life and the ever-changing world around us. Language, with its nuances and complexities, reflects the passage of time and the beauty of adaptation. Through my efforts to learn Croatian, I have not only expanded my linguistic abilities but also embraced the essence of Andrić's quote. It is a reminder to let go of resistance, embrace the fluidity of existence, and find solace in the ongoing process of growth and learning. Language learning becomes a profound metaphor for life itself, teaching us the importance of acceptance, resilience, and our capacity to navigate the ever-changing currents with grace and understanding.


Alejandra Gotóo (1991, Mexico City), who studied English Literature and recently graduated with a Masters of Social Anthropology is now writing about her time in Croatia as a columnist in Dubrovnik Times. Her work has been published in Spain, Mexico, Colombia and Peru. She has two published novels, Ruptura and Isadore or Absolute Love. Her topics of interest include nature, adventure, language, books, food, culture, animals, conservation, and women's rights. She also writes in her blog: Cardinal Humours.

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