Saturday, 4 April 2020

Croatian Lessons via Skype, It’s Better than you Think

4th April 2020, thanks to the Coronavirus we are all on lockdown; I decided to use this time to pick up Croatian lessons again and am studying with a teacher via Skype. While this may not work for everyone because I understand that everyone is facing different challenges and stresses right now; I still wanted to share my experience of studying Croatian via Skype and why it works for me.

Just over a year ago, I’d finally had enough of my own excuses; I had been living in Croatia for five years, it was time to learn Croatian. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I spoke zero Croatian, my comprehension was ok and I could get by with basic, superficial conversations but that was it. I wanted to be able to have more meaningful conversations with locals but to do that, I was going to need to study with a teacher because the Croatian language and grammar is a minefield, I needed someone to help me navigate it better.

Before I found my teacher, I actually wrote this piece on TCN “The 5 Stages Before You Learn”, which is about the emotional stages we go through BEFORE we even get to the learning part. I likened this process to the stages of grief: frustration, depression, anger, bargaining and finally we reach acceptance. I had finally reached the stage where I had overcome the self-defeating emotions and was ready to take responsibility for doing something about improving my Croatian.

I was on the hunt for a Croatian teacher.

As life and fate would have it, I met someone for a coffee who recommended a Croatian teacher to me, “She is fantastic”. This person went on to describe her lessons and I had never seen someone talk so enthusiastically about learning a language; I was interested. The only downfall? She did her lessons via Skype. This teacher lives in Split but chooses to do her lessons via Skype because she considers it more efficient than having a classroom and people travelling to make a lesson. I wasn’t convinced.

Being the empathetic social butterfly that I am, I was hesitant because I felt that the ‘in-person’ human interaction in the exchange was a necessary element so I wasn’t convinced that doing Croatian lessons via Skype would be for me. However, I had been thinking about starting Croatian lessons and by chance met someone who was raving about a Croatian teacher – no such thing as coincidences, right?

I reached out to Zrinka and we chatted; I let her know my hesitation in doing Croatian lessons via Skype because I mean, could it really be as effective? Zrinka was very sincere and said “I understand your doubts and many people feel the same way. I honestly think it is the same as sitting together and having a coffee but everyone is different; so, I always say – ‘let’s try one lesson together and then you can see for yourself?”

This seemed fair.

Before our first lesson, Zrinka sent through some materials and the two Croatian language books I would need for the lessons. I got everything together and we had our first Croatian lesson via skype, that was all it took to convince me. It turns out, Zrinka was right; doing Croatian lessons via Skype was just like sitting opposite her, having a cup of coffee. It was even more convenient because I could roll out of bed, make my cup of coffee and not worry about getting dressed up and getting into Split. I tried Croatian lessons with a tutor a few years ago but it was only for a month, the lessons themselves were ok but I wasn’t inspired (possibly my own headspace) and I lost half a day travelling to and from Split. Needless to say, I gave up easily.

I not only survived my Croatian lessons via Skype with Zrinka but I also enjoyed and even began to look forward to them. I saw immense progress in my comprehension and confidence to speak. Unfortunately, summer came so I stopped with lessons and didn’t pick them up again – until now. Turns out this whole isolation thing is positive in some respects; isolation has forced me to drop many excuses around some of my goals - time being the usual culprit. Improving Croatian has still been on my mind (it’s always there), so I started lessons again last week. Right now, we are revising everything I learned last year because I forgot a lot and slipped back into old habits and mistakes but it is slowly coming back and I can see improvement already.

Before I go any further, I want to say a little disclaimer: this definitely isn’t the moment where I say that everyone should be learning Croatian because I know that everyone’s isolation looks different. I am in a space physically and mentally where I have the capacity to learn: I don’t have kids, we own our apartment and for now – our income isn’t affected. So, I have none of the stress and pressures that many people are facing; hence, I have the mental capacity and energy to use this time productively. We each need to do what is right for us – now more than ever. So, if you want to learn or improve your Croatian but you just don’t feel you have the mental energy to do so, that’s fine. Now is not the time for putting undue pressure on ourselves.

However, if there is anyone else in a similar position to me, who feels that they have the energy to learn, this may be a good opportunity and I am here to tell you that Skype lessons work just as effectively; I did them before isolation and they obviously make even more sense now with the whole social-distancing thing we have going on.

What are some of the benefits of doing Croatian Lessons via Skype?

Saving time: as I mentioned, I was previously travelling in and out of Split to attend Croatian lessons (from Omiš) which meant I lost half a day for a 1.5-hour lesson. Hardly efficient. Not so with Skype lessons – we set our schedule at the beginning of the week and I am always on time because there is no faffing with transport and traffic. I also save time by being able to rock up to lessons dressed in trackpants and a comfy hoodie rather than needing to ‘dress up’ (which one always feels a need to do in Split).

Flexibility: an obvious benefit to Croatian lessons via Skype is their flexibility. You aren't limited to needing to be in a classroom which means that if your job or lifestyle demands travel, you can still keep up with lessons if you wish. After this isolation period is over, I imagine more people will start to use and appreciate the benefits of video calls in many aspects of life.

Emotional buffer: this is one aspect that many wouldn’t think about but learning another language is difficult and can be confronting as we come up against our own limitations and frustrations. A few times in the lessons I was doing in-person, I felt my cheeks redden and frustrations rise – which, being the emotional creature that I am, made me feel super-embarrassed (will I cry?) The beauty of Skype lessons is that by not being in-person, there is almost an emotional buffer. Frustrations can still arise but it feels less confronting because the teacher isn’t standing directly in front of me; the physical distance allows me a chance to regain my composure (aka not lose my shit and breakdown).

Lessons are the same: I can not see any difference or limitation with Skype vs in-person. We work through physical books together, Zrinka can even send notes and materials in a screen-shot through Skype in that moment. The only thing we don’t use, which we had in the classroom was a whiteboard but there is no real loss there. We practice comprehension on many levels; reading, listening, speaking and I email homework through to Zrinka so she can check that my written Croatian is also correct.

Proper Croatian versus dialect: This note isn’t specific to Skype but I think it is important to add. While we should all learn the correct way to speak Croatian, because I live on the Dalmatian coast, I want to understand and speak the local dialect. To me, it makes no sense to only learn a formal way of speaking if most people don’t speak that way where I live. This is what I love about Zrinka, she always teaches the ‘proper’ way to say something but she will also tell me the most common phrases, words, expressions etc in Dalmatian.

Important attributes of a Croatian teacher, especially via Skype.

They need to know how to teach: This seems obvious but not all teachers are great at teaching; being a great teacher is not a given, it’s a skill.  When we are learning something, especially grammar, if I don’t understand something one way, Zrinka has numerous ways to explain it. She never makes me feel stupid but will adjust and adapt until she finds a method or explanation that works for me no matter how long it takes – eventually, we get there and I learn various tactics for myself in the process.

A big personality: For Croatian lessons via Skype to be successful, I believe the teacher needs to have a big personality to help ‘break down’ the physical distance. We have all had Skype or video calls with people who are a bit awkward or cold, which can make the conversation feel stilted or lack flow – this isn’t what you want when learning a language. I say this because I realised that Zrinka has such a natural, light-hearted way, her personality shines through the screen and it helps put me at ease and set a fun, relaxed tone for our lessons. I don’t imagine I would stick with it otherwise.

Empathy: This could possibly fall under ‘knowing how to teach’ but I think empathy deserves a mention on its own. Empathy is essential in teachers, to be able to read and adjust to their learners and this takes exceptional skill to be able to do it via Skype. There were many instances in our lessons where I started to hit a brick wall and come against frustrations in myself; somehow Zrinka noticed and was able to give me ‘space’, reassure or give me just enough of a push to get me past my block. Again, the emotional buffer helps here but the teacher needs to be adept at reading people and finding ways to bring out their best.

All in all, I am thrilled to be learning Croatian again; if we weren’t in isolation I never would have started because we should be sailing right now. However, life (and the Coronavirus) clearly have other plans, which means I have no excuses because I finally have uninterrupted time. Again, please don’t consider this an article to pressure you into studying or make you feel bad if you aren’t; as I said, we all need to do what is right for us right now. But, if you do have the energy and some expendable income, I truly recommend learning Croatian via Skype - I wouldn't have it any other way now!

If you are interested in learning more or talking to my teacher Zrinka Madunic Spiljak, you can contact her on This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. I obviously recommend her but I need to state that this is not a sponsored post; in fact, this is going to come as a bit of a surprise to Zrinka as she has no idea I am writing this. I believe in recommending people who are great at what they do, especially right now with so many jobs affected, we should support our communities, small businesses and entrepreneurs.

 Croatian lessons 3.jpg

Zrinka Madunic Spiljak

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Monday, 18 March 2019

Croatian Mondays - Speaking, Talking, Telling and Saying

Maybe you've noticed that for some time now, I haven't written a single word about the Croatian language, Croatian life, Croatian ways... or about anything, to be honest. I must say that I was a bit taken aback by the fact that my emails weren't exactly cluttered up with fan mail inquiring about an obvious absence of my profound thoughts in the media!
I did get one complaint through email though... but that one was from my editor who was kindly inquiring if inspiration had paid me a visit yet and, perhaps more to the point, will it ever visit me again? So, I'm not entirely sure that that one counts. Either way, it's nice that someone notices that you're actually being quiet when you are.
Why didn't I write?  It's very simple. Believe it or not, I just didn't have anything wise to say.
I'm not one to keep quiet usually. You know that person at your workplace that everybody is always nudging with their elbows under the table to speak up at the staff meeting and to tell the boss that obvious thing everybody is thinking, but nobody wants to say out loud? Well, I am that person, at least I was. As the years have passed by, I have learned that sometimes I just have to keep my big mouth shut. Well, I'm still in the learning process anyway...
If we exclude the conversational conflicts in which the average Croat might confront his boss, we might say that Croats really like to talk. That's why, I presume, we have so many different verbs which describe talking itself. If you're learning Croatian, you might find yourself a bit puzzled and slightly irritated with the number of verbs that are in some way connected to such a simple thing, such as making conversation.
Govoriti / to speak, to talk
Reći, kazati / to say
Pričati / to tell a story
Razgovarati / to converse, to talk to each other
All of these verbs are pretty similar in meaning, but in standard Croatian, they aren't used with the same purpose. For example, the verb govoriti can be used to say: Ja govorim nešto, a ti me ne slušaš / I'm talking/saying something and you are not listening to me! which is a very useful and multifunctional sentence in parenting one-on one.
But, if you're talking to another person in the sense of holding a conversation with them, you need to use the verb - razgovarati. Ja razgovaram s prijateljicom. It is uncommon to say: Ja govorim s prijateljicom. In standard Croatian there's a difference beetwen the verb pričati / to tell a story and the verb govoriti / to talk, so it wouldn't be proper to say: Ja dobro pričam hrvatski, (which many Croats wrongly say, just by the way), you should instead say: Ja dobro govorim hrvatski.
However, when you find yourself wandering through the Croatian streets or going somewhere on the tram, these verbs often do get mixed up, so, as mentioned, you will often hear people say: Pričam s nekim, which is not proper, as well as: Razgovaram s nekim, which is correct, meaning: I am talking to someone. That is if you actually ever even happen to see anybody actually talking to each other on the tram and not writing an essay on their smartphones.
Croats like to converse, a lot, to each other. But even better, they like to talk to themselves or to an audience. Do you think I'm exaggerating? Try to walk through the streets of Zagreb on a busy Monday afternoon. Every few metres you will see a person vividly explaining to themselves why they didn't come for coffee yesterday or having an argument with their boss. Who is not at the street at that exact time.
Giving monologues to an audience in which the other person can just nod their head and slide in an occasional Mhm... Ma nemoj mi reći! / You don't say! is also a very Croatian thing to do. Just look at the back mirror of your car while waiting for the green light, usually there is a woman giving a monologue and the guy with a completely lost look in his eyes, just phlegmatically nodding his head during all the wrong times throughout the monologue.
We just love to have an opinion on everything, from the weather forecast to football, to Severina's new husband, to the national GDP, the current political situation in the Middle East... We have an opinion on everything and we are not afraid to talk about it. I'm guessing that is a consequence of all those political decades during which we weren't supposed to have (or share) our own opinions on anything relevant.
However, a strange thing happens to all those loud ''opinion providers'' if you remove them from their favourite coffee place and put them in a conference room instead. If you happen to see a bunch of Croats in a conference and the lecturer asks: Does anyone have a question? All you will hear is a mix of silence and that annoying fly buzzing around the light. The clock is slowly ticking, the lecturer is sweating through his shirt and then some poor soul from the last row raises her hand and asks something in a quiet and timid voice.
At that time, you'll see all of  the Croatian audience turning towards her with the same angry yet astonished  look in their eyes: How dares she? Who does she she think she is? Hah, I could have though of that stupid question myself! Not standing out in a group, keeping a low profile and being just the same as anybody else is part of the ''heritage'' of our colourful political history.
The verbs mentioned earlier are far from the whole selection of verbs connected to speaking or talking.  Let's see what else we have:
Nagovarati / to talk into
Pregovarati / to negotiate
Ogovarati  / to badmouth
Prigovarati / to nag / to make a fuss about
Dogovarati se / to agree on or arrange something
As far as that last one is concerned, it is one of the most commonly used verbs in the Croatian language and one of the favourite verbs of my mother.
Mum, can I go to the store with my sister and buy an ice cream? asked five-year old me with her eyes full of hope.
Dogovorit ćemo se! / We'll have to arrange it! / We'll sort something out! mum would reply with a conspiritive smirk on her face.
Mum, can I  go to the New Kids on the Block concert with my sister this weekend? (Yes, yes, New Kids on the Block was a huge hit when I was growing up, I know, I'm old, no need to remind me!) - fourteen-year-old me asked my mum, filled with a sense of naive hope and some tears, prepared just in case...
Dogovorit ćemo se! / We'll have to arrange it! she  gently smiled at me.
Mum, can I borrow your car on Friday night? nineteen-year old me ambitiously asked mum that hot summer afternoon. Dogovorit ćemo se! / We'll have to arrange it! mum answered patiently, grinning at me.
As time passed by, I realised that the answer dogovorit ćemo se! is a secret code for no way, kid! / nema šanse, mala! I hated that sentence like nothing else. In time I completely forgot about it and all those promised arrengements with my mum which never took place, until one evening a few months ago, my daughter approached me asking: Mum, can I invite my friend for a sleepover this weekend? and I replied: Dogovorit ćemo se! She slammed the door and yelled: You always say that!
Later I realised that dogovorit ćemo se! is not only the favourite ''mum sentence'', but also a favourite sentence for any kind of meeting business deal. Every business meeting in Croatia ends with a handshake and those three words: Dogovorit ćemo se!  
And as for these other verbs like ogovarati, prigovarati, nagovarati - I don't think we should waste any time in writing about them! You see, we people in Croatia never badmouth eachother, we rarely ever fuss about things and we never ever let somebody to persuade us to do anything that we don't want to do, right? We'll leave that one up to you!
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Tuesday, 6 March 2018

Learning to Speak Croatian: The 5 Stages Before You Learn

March 6th, 2018, are you a foreigner about to move to Croatia and try your hand at learning Croatian? After my own struggles, I had an epiphany that there are the motions (and emotions) we go through BEFORE we learn a language. So, be prepared for the five stages you might go through before you really begin to learn Croatian.