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Croatian is a Slavic language that arrived in the Balkans region with the migration of the Slavs in the 6th or 7th century. The language eventually evolved into two branches: East South Slavic and West South Slavic. Bulgarian and Macedonian derive from the East South Slavic group and Slovene, Serbian and Croatian are derived from the West South Slavic group. Later in Croatia's eventful history a series of occupying powers--Ottoman, Venetian, Hapsburg, Italian--enriched the language with new German, Turkish and Italian words.
The primary difference between Croatian and Serbian is that Croatian is written in the Roman alphabet while Serbian is written in Cyrillic. Linguists consider Croatian, Serbian and Bosnian the same language but political difference among the groups makes this a controversial point. Croatians, Serbians and Bosnians generally do understand each other when they speak--if they want to.
The majority of Croatians speak at least one other language. According to a recent poll, some 80% of Croatians are multilingual and, of that group, 81% are English-speakers. The next most popular language is German at 49% followed by Italian at 24%.
Language ability varies by region. In Slavonia only 51% speak a foreign language while in Istria a full 95% speak another language. English-language speakers are concentrated in Zagreb and the coast which makes sense as much of the coast depends upon tourism for their livelihood.
Of those between 15 and 34, a whopping 95% speak at least one foreign language, with English being the predominant tongue. For the elderly, not so much. The over-65 set is about half monolingual with German the most popular second language.
Mastering at least a few words of Croatian is sure to enhance your trip even though speaking Croatian is not a simple matter. Croatian grammar is complicated, with declensions for every noun (you remember declensions from Latin, right? Right?) The pronunciation is fairly straightforward at least. Every letter is pronounced and the accent usually falls on the first letter of every word. See more on pronunciation.
Even if you have little time or inclination to go deeply into learning Croatian, I highly recommend learning a few simple phrases. In fact, I think it's only polite to at least learn how to meet, greet and thank in Croatian. Here are a list of 10 Croatian phrases every traveller should know. And to extend your knowledge, here are more useful phrases. If you'll be shopping or negotiating the price of rooms, you will certainly need to know Croatian numbers.
Independent travellers will want to go further in Croatian to get under the skin of Croatian culture. Fortunately there are a lot of learning aids, electronic dictionaries and language courses to help you learn to speak Croatian.
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