25 Things to Know about Croatia

25 Things to Know about Typical Croatian Mistakes Speaking English

By 26 October 2017
How we sit on a coffee back in the UK
How we sit on a coffee back in the UK

Speaking English is a challenge for all foreigners. They say it is the easiest language in the world to speak badly, and the hardest to speak perfectly. Different nationalities make similar mistakes, of course, while other mistakes are country-specific. Continuing our series, 25 Things to Know about Croatia, a look at some of the most common language mistakes made by locals when speaking English. 

Let me start by saying that English is an incredibly complicated and very illogical language at the best of times, and I commend any non-native speaker who grasps it well. Having watched my two daughters learn how to read and write in Croatian (an extremely logical language - once you get over the Slavic structure - where everything is written and spoken as it appears) and then see their shocked faces as they tried to do the same with English, I am aware how fortunate I am to have been born a native speaker.

One small example of the insanity of English will suffice - how to pronounce the following four letters in English words - OUGH. There are no less than nine different ways to pronounce this syllable in English. Can you do all nine in the sentences below?

Though I thought investing would be tough, after thoroughly ploughing through the borough … I rethought … due to a drought the price of dough was enough to make one cough, hiccough and splutter.

The shares were worth nought – I have since thrown them it in the lough. Maybe Nessie will slough her skin when she sees them. I ought to have known better! Investing really is a series of peaks and troughs!

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I have not written about language and Croatian for some time, and I only became interested in the topic again recently, when one of my daughters asked me which was correct in English from the following:

Do you have a pet? Yes I have a dog

or 

Have you got a pet? Yes I have got a dog

For me, the first is by far the better English, and I don't think one would say 'I have got a dog', but I posted on my Facebook page the photo above from her textbook to get a better feel. I have been too long away from the motherland, and it is more than likely that my English is suffering as a result. The reaction from Croatian and native speakers led to a fascinating discussion. A discussion which my editor Lauren kicked off humorously when she said that she was more concerned about what was happening with Jessica and Greg in the next section of the textbook picture above. One native speaker said he would say 'I have got a dog' (but he is Welsh, so not sure we can permit his opinion), while several others agreed with me. Another group said that both were acceptable, although 'Do you have a dog?' is the more common/natural. 

And yet, it seems, this version is not taught in the Croatian textbooks. 

It got me thinking about common mistakes Croatians make when speaking English. Another Facebook post led to a very lively discussion, and so I thought I would compile a list of 25 common mistakes, which I hope will be useful to some. Please note that a) several of these mistakes apply elsewhere and are not specific to Croatians, and b) every time I offer up any mild constructive criticism of anything in The Beautiful Croatia, I am branded an enemy of the state and told to go forth and multiply. The exercise is aimed to help those rectify some common mistakes (if they so choose). And yes, my spoken Croatian sucks, and I for one would welcome such an article in reverse.  

Without more ado, here are my 25 - not necessarily the top 25, but ones which I (and a few friends) come across on a regular basis. 

1. Not ON English but IN English

If I had a beer for every time someone asked me 'How do you say that on English?' since I moved here, my liver would have packed up years ago, and I would be lying in an early grave. The correct phrasing of the question is 'How do you say that in English?'

2. Few / a few

We will come to articles soon, but the omission or addition of an article rarely makes a huge difference to the meaning of a sentence, but there are exceptions, the most important of which is combining 'a' with 'few'. Consider the following two sentences:

My wife has few good qualities. This is how Croatians often write it when they actually mean:

My wife has a few good qualities. The first sentence is entirely negative and will get you punched by your wife, as it means she has almost no good qualities. Add the 'a' and she has a lot more to offer, and you will live longer. Of course, MY wife has LOTS of good qualities. 

3. I didn't heard

English does the past tense differently, so if you are talking about the past, you need to remember to avoid having two parts of the same verb in the past, unless you are using the pluperfect tense. A very common mistake is a combination of 'did' plus past participle, 'heard' in this example. It should be 'I didn't hear'. And it isn't 'I didn't went' but 'I didn't go'. 

4. In 2 days v for 2 days

This is a very common mistake (and one for Brits learning Croatian in reverse) due to the different way these phrases are constructed.

'I am coming to Zagreb in 2 days for 2 years' means you are arriving this Saturday and staying until the end of 2019.

'I am coming to Zagreb for 2 days in 2 years' means you will be making a short visit in 2019.

5. Lack of articles

If I had the time to go back in life and think how to make a million, I would train myself to teach special courses in the use of the definite and indefinite article in English, our old friends 'a' and 'the'. It is one of the hardest things about the English language, particularly from speakers who have no articles in their own language, and it is one of the most common checks of native speaker ability. No matter how perfect your English becomes, it is almost impossible to get it right every time. While the omission of articles is the most common occurrence, some speakers randomly add articles where they think it makes sense. The effect is to make things sound even worse that article omission. I am going to watch The Hajduk Split play The Dinamo Zagreb. As I have not taken that teaching course yet, I will have to leave the Great English Article Problem to someone else.  

6. He don't

Yes I KNOW The Beatles said that 'she don't care' in Ticket to Ride, but your professors will not agree. He, she, it doesn't.

7. Learned me

A teacher teaches, a student learns. Teachers do not learn you anything. You do the learning yourself. They are there to teach, and hopefully you will learn something. 'My teacher learned me' is wrong.

8. Borrowed me

Similarly with 'lend' and 'borrow'. You borrow a book from a friend, if you are taking it from him, but your friend will lend you the book if he is giving it to you temporarily.

9. Adjective use instead of adverbs

He played good. Is wrong. It was a good game, however, and the adjective (good) is describing the noun (game), but if you are describing how he played, you are referring to the verb (played), and you need something which can work with a verb. Not an adjective, but an adverb (the clue is in the name). He played well.

10. A plus vowel

In addition to complicating things with definite and indefinite articles, English throws in the additional requirement of changing 'a' to 'an' in front of vowels, a trick often missed by Croatians (and many others around the world). The rule is rather uniform in front of a, e, i, o, u, but is open to interpretation in front of the letter 'h' is some cases. Is it a historic building, or an historic building? Both are acceptable. 

11. Many informations v much information, advices

I have informations for you. I have advices. These types of words should be in the singular, and they are a very common error. Somewhat linked is the use of much and many with singular plural. Much with singular, many with plurals. I drank too much beer last night, but I drank too many beers. Either way, I am quite thirsty now... 

12. Black wine, blue hair

Language is to blame. A direct translation from Croatian would make red wine black wine (crno vino) and blonde hair blue hair (plava kosa). Common mistakes and an easy one to learn, although having said that, I have drunk more than my fair share of homemade wine here over the years, some of which was pretty black, and I am sure it would turn your hair blue if you drank too much of it...

13 Angry at you

Getting the right preposition is one of the hardest things to get right. It is probably because I get so much abuse running TCN that this particular example sticks out in my mind - not angry AT you, but angry WITH you. 

14 I have 25 years

Again a direct translation fail. In English, I am 25 (years old) - oh I wish.

15 Than v then

This is a common problem the world over, although I would agree with a British friend base in the region that it is more common in these parts. Then refers to time, than to comparison. I didn't think about it then, but he had more fun than me.

16 Sitting on a coffee

The photo above explains how that sounds to a native speaker, although it is one of the most popular things to do in Croatia. I would go for a coffee or a beer, perhaps sit FOR one, but would only sit ON a beer if I planned to fall in.

17 Dok ne - until not

English doesn't do the double negative in the same way as Croatian does, and it is a common mistake, totally understandably. 'Dok ne' does not translate as 'until not', but 'until'. So I am waiting here until she comes, not until she doesn't come. Because if you waited that long, life would pass you by...

18 Before 7 years - 7 years ago

Simple and self-explanatory.

19 Teeths, sheeps, mouses

Until native speakers actual learn to teach English or try and explain why things are the way they are, most of them have no idea how fiendishly difficult the language is, and how ridiculous some of the rules are. While there is usually a (or should that be 'an'?) historical explanation, the modern reality leads to frustrations. So we have one tooth, but two teeth, one sheep and two sheep, one fish and two fish, but one mouse and two mice, and of course, for lovers of the fabulous Puhijada edible dormouse festival on Hvar, one dormouse but two dormice (and you need at least 6 dormice for a proper meal). 

20 I will meet you on the bus station

Similar to sitting on a coffee, this one always makes me smile, and I always check the roof of a bus or train station when I travel with someone, just in case they literally meant they would be sitting on the roof awaiting my arrival. The correct term is to meet someone AT the train station.

21 Autochthonous - indigenous

I have to admit I had to look this word up when I first came across it at the tender age of 42, when I first started writing about Croatian wine. The forbidding collection of consonants in the middle reminded me of the Russian word for cabbage soup, which is spelt in English something like 'shchshi'. And it doesn't taste much better. I have learned in my advancing years that it is an English word of sorts, when referring to things which are indigenous. Croatia has 130 indigenous grape varieties - that is a much more natural version, but there is an insistence of using autochtonous here, which just sounds very strange - to me at least.

22 Hear you later

Cujemo se. Hear you later, or perhaps more literally 'Let's hear each other'. A classic mistake and Croatian giveaway, directly translated from the mother tongue. The English version is See you later or Speak to you later.

23 I don't know what is he doing

What is he doing? is a question. One of the clues that can tell you it is a question is the fact that it ends with a question mark. When you have questions after who, what, which, where and how, the subject and verb swap positions. How are you? Where are you? and so on. But if it is not a question, they don't. Reported speech, for example, retains the original word order. I asked him how he was, not I asked him how was he. I don't know what he is doing, not I don't know what is he doing.

24 How does he look like?

Again, another direct translation fail. Not How does he look like, but What does he look like?

25 Whit v with

The combination of the two consonants 'th' cause lots of confusion for many Croatians. Not only is it a very unfamiliar sound to pronounced, even more so as there is an aspirated and unaspirated version, but it adds lots of confusion when it comes to spelling. Words like height, weight and strength are good examples, but my favourite - which I come across a lot - is the spelling of 'with' above.

Enough. The list is by no means exhaustive, and some of it is subjective. It is meant to be constructive, and I hope it is useful to some. 

It has also given me an idea of a follow-up article - The 25 most common mistakes foreigners make when learning Croatian. I am sure I am guilty of at least 24 of them. Send me your suggestions and explanations to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  with subject title 25 Croatian Mistakes.

Depending where you live of course, the Croatian language is simple, and I leave you with one of the first (if not the first) video I ever made for Total Hvar six years ago, with Professor Frank John Dubokovich, Guardian of the Hvar  Dialects, showing us how to keep language learning simple. Unbelievably, the video has been watched more than 30,000 times. Sometimes, you just need the right teacher.

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