I felt like there was a big hole between me and the society because I didn’t know the language, said Hussam Fadhel, a foreign student from Iraq. Language connects people but in a foreign country, it can be something that disconnects you from everybody else. The first thing that people usually notice is the way you look and the way you speak. 

Most young people in Croatia speak English but a lot of older people don’t and that is why it can be very difficult for foreigners to communicate with them. Because of that many foreign students try to learn Croatian and for some, it’s easy to learn while others find it difficult.  

Learning pains

Many people think that knowing a lot of languages can be very useful and they try to learn as many as they can. Of course, there are those who would disagree but in the end, they have to adjust if they want to study in a foreign country.  

Every language has something that is difficult for foreigners to learn. Sometimes people find it very hard to pronounce certain words but when it comes to Croatian, most people have a problem with cases.  

“Grammar is my downfall! I always get recognized as a foreigner by mixing up the cases”, said Sarah Schild, an Erasmus student from Germany. Her mother is Croatian but even so, she has some difficulties with the language. Sarah said that she is trying to learn the language on her own because she finds that paying for courses can be very expensive, especially on a student budget. 

Daniel Ferrer, a foreign student from Venezuela, thinks that the best way to learn Croatian is to talk to people and listen to Croatian music. Hussam and Sarah agree with that and they think that people should also have a certain number of words that they try to learn every day.  

“I spent every day at the National library and I tried to learn at least 30 words each day. I studied all summer while everyone else was going on vacation. At first, when I would talk to people they would know immediately that I was a foreigner because I would mix up the cases. When that happened I felt very self-conscious about it but now I don’t care”, admitted Hussam. There are some words in Croatian that are difficult to pronounce even for native speakers. But with practice, it can be done.  

“It was very hard for me to pronounce the word – književnost (literature)”, said Daniel. Hussam, on the other hand, had a problem with the word čačkalica which means toothpick.  

What not to say

Sometimes the first thing that people learn in a foreign language can be something completely innocent but most of the time it is something embarrassing. Curse words are, of course, unavoidable and it is important to know them so that you don’t use them in a wrong setting and embarrass yourself.  

“I had this one friend from Kutina and he owned a café. One day while we were drinking wine I said I wanted to order it in Croatian. That was of course before I learned the language. Anyway, I asked him how to order wine and he told me to say – ‘P**** ti materina, daj mi vino!’ (F*** your mother, give me wine!) I did it and I got into a lot of trouble”, laughed Hussam. 

Other people, like Sarah, first learned how to say simple and innocent things like mom and dad or they learned how to ask for the price of things in stores – as Daniel did. 

Sometimes people from different parts of the same country say the same thing differently. So you can learn how to say something one way and then not be able to understand others when they say the same thing but use a different word for it.  

“Because my family is from Pula my mother spoke to me in our vernacular. This was a little bit of a problem for me because I couldn’t speak to other Croats, Serbs or Bosnians. For example, I didn’t understand the word misliti because we say pensati (to think)”, said Sarah Schild. 

Mixing up two words that sound similar but have a completely different meaning can also be a problem, especially if one of those words means something embarrassing.  

“It used to be very hard for me to distinguish between the words menga (menstruation) and menza (canteen). One day I asked the lady that worked at my faculty to please give me a card for ‘menga’ and of course she laughed at me”, remembered Hussam. 

Everybody makes mistakes but you have to learn from them and that is what Hussam, Sarah, and Daniel did. Hussam thinks that it’s important to learn something new every day, to start right away and to take it step by step.