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Learning to Speak Croatian in Zagreb

“My Heart, I Am Very Happy”

It took 31 years, but, finally, I was learning the language my grandparents think and pray in.

As a child I heard the Slavic dialect spoken every Sunday around the dinner table, but I was never was interested in it. Only recently, with my grandparents growing older, did speaking their native tongue become important.

The urgency of filling that gap sunk in when my grandfather was in the hospital. I couldn’t translate what a doctor had said into words my grandfather could understand.

Knowing self-study and language tapes would only take me so far, I enrolled in a 4-week immersion course in Zagreb. The program, jointly offered by the Univ. of Zagreb and the Croatian Heritage Foundation, attracted a few dozen students from around the world. Some of us had come searching for a greater appreciation of our family heritage. Others, without Croatian roots, had spent many summers vacationing along the Adriatic Sea and wanted to say more than, “Bog. Kako ste?” (“Hello. How are you?”) A handful of students who had only heard of Croatia had decided to learn the language to better “see” the land.

The understated but lively Croatian capital, a few hours inland from the popular coastline, provided a balance to the intense mornings spent in spartan classrooms warmed by summer sun.

After some exploring, I took to heart the truth about Croatia—“all roads lead to a café”—and would hunt out the day's favorite haunt. I ordered a cappuccino or lemonade and scattered thick binders filled with fill-in-the-blank homework assignments around the table. The waiters gave me hints when I made a mistake and coached me in rolling my r’s and pronouncing the impossible ‘lj’ combination.

In the evenings, I met my classmates for dinner. From the tables lining the sidewalk we watched city residents, dressed to the nines, partake in the Mediterranean custom of the evening promenade. On weekends, we hiked the hills on Zagreb’s perimeter, attended concerts in Jarun Park, and wandered through museums.

The reward for hours spent crouched over papers with an eraser in my hand came in the form of a phone call. I had written a letter, in my 5-year-old Croatian vernacular, to my grandmother, and she called me to say hello. Using simple words I could follow, with a tremble in her voice and holding back tears, she said, “Srce moja, ja sam jako sretna.” (“My heart,”—a colloquialism that is much stronger than “my dear”—“I am very happy.”)

For More Info

University School of Croatian Language and Culture. The Univ. of Zagreb, Trg maršala Tita 14, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia; 011-385-1-456-42-51, fax 011-385-1-483-06-02; crolang@unizg.hr, www.unizg.hr.

Croatian Heritage Foundation. Education & Culture Dept., Trg S. Radića 3, 10000 Zagreb, Croatia; 011-385-1- 61-15-116, fax 011-385-1-61-11-522; lada@matis.hr, www.matis.hr. Classes are divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced depending on student’s proficiency. Fees are €720 (about $927).

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