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Spreading the Croatian language in the UK for over two decades

Linda Rabuzin (Left) with Summer School student, Jane

Linda Rabuzin has a passion for bringing the Croatian language and culture to as wide an audience as possible. It’s a passion that hasn’t dimmed in the twenty-plus years that she has been running the Croatian Language School [CLS] and she seems determined to continue her mission with the same energy she had when she first started. Alongside regular lessons, there’s an annual Language and Culture trip which, this year, heads to Kvarner and Gorski Kotar and takes in Rijeka which is this year’s European City of Culture. 

Prior to setting up CLS, Linda had spent many years teaching Croatian and French in various already established language schools and centres. She moved to London in 1996 and set up CLS the following year. This was long before Croatia had become fashionable as a tourist destination, and before English was more widely spoken in Croatia, eventually replacing German as the first foreign language taught in Croatian schools. So, in those early days, CLS already attracted a unique and diverse range of individuals and businesses.

The student demographic is even more diverse these days, partly enabled by the technology that allows Croatia lovers from all over the world to sit down in the comfort of their own homes and offices, and have interactive one-to-one, or group, Skype lessons with Linda. Current regular students include the owner of a sailing charter company based in Croatia, a number of ex-pats with first or second homes on the Croatian coast, a Ukrainian polyglot who just loves learning languages, a retired naval officer, a journalist, a film and TV producer, who now sings in Croatian on Croatian TV, and a retired doctor. 

CLS Founder Linda Rabuzin

As an adjunct to regular lessons, CLS’s Language and Culture Programme started back in 2012 with a five-day pilot project. The key destinations were Split, Mostar and Sarajevo and, alongside language tuition, the aim was to bring the history and culture of these lesser-known, but fascinating, cities to life. The trip was a great success and what started off as a one-off annual event has become a regular fixture in the CLS calendar ever since, attracting students of all ages, from all over the world.

Students are carefully, and tactfully, organised into small groups of different abilities and receive 12 hours of tuition in the Croatian language during the week-long trips. In between, there’s optional yoga, trips to explore the highlights of the region, led by the best local guides, and plenty of time to eat, drink, socialise and be merry. Students return, again and again, finding it a very special way to get to know Croatia properly and accelerate their language learning, but, just as importantly, to have a good time amongst kindred spirits. A regular influx of new students brings fresh insights and the chance to make new friends.

In 2013, the islands around Split and Middle Dalmatia were the stars of the trip; in 2014 the base was Orebić on the spectacular Pelješac peninsular and in 2015 the secrets of charming Cavtat and much of southern Dalmatia were revealed. Zadar took centre stage in 2016 when the group explored Northern Croatia; in 2017 it was Istria’s turn, featuring the magical Brijuni islands, and in 2018 it was back to Southern Dalmatia, although this time the spotlight was on the relatively undiscovered Elafiti islands. In 2019, the group ventured inland for the first time, lifting the veil on Slavonia and Baranja, in continental Croatia.

Linda with student Christian in Lošinj

In many ways, Rijeka was an obvious choice for 2020 given that it is the European Capital of Culture for the year. However, even without all the added activity this role will generate, it’s a fascinating port city, rich in culture and history. And of course, the regions of Kvarner and Gorski Kotar have plenty more to offer – the traditional grandeur of Opatija, the charm of Lovran, the beautiful and unspoiled mountain scenery of Gorski Kotar, and the “Eyes of Vinodol”, a narrow ancient road, with vantage points, that passes through the picturesque Vinodol Valley with its medieval fortified towns. Then there are the museums and art galleries, artisan workshops and historic mansions.

The annual Language and Culture Course isn’t the only way to immerse yourself in Croatia and Croatian; CLS has a base in Zagreb and also has a summer school on the beautiful island of Lošinj, in Kvarner. Lošinj is known for its health-giving properties and the location of the school is ideal for students to enjoy the best of all worlds – it’s close enough to the very popular tourist town of Mali Lošinj to be able to join in the summer festivities, but also far away enough to enjoy the peace and quiet of village life in the small but self-contained settlement of Ćunski, with a post office, a small supermarket, a café, a restaurant, a secluded beach and locals that are only too happy to let you practice your Croatian on them! There are plenty of hotels and apartments to let in the area but, if you prefer, the school accommodation might be available to stay in – a light and airy apartment, stylishly furnished and fully equipped, with two bedrooms and a bathroom tucked away from the open plan kitchen and lounge, with its enormous table, where you will have your lessons. 

A wine cellar visit on the 2019 trip to Slavonia & Baranja

Many of CLS’s students use a combination of learning styles in their language programmes – regular individual Skype lessons, periodic immersion weeks in Zagreb or on Lošinj, and annual “holidays” with their peers on the Language and Culture courses. The type and intensity of studying depends on the motivation and aims of students – some look on it as something to keep their minds active in retirement, a few wish to integrate better into their new Croatian communities, there are businessmen and businesswomen who feel that, though not essential, speaking better Croatian would be an enormous asset to the growth of their business, many just want to get more out of their visits and holidays, or even out of the process of tracing their Croatian ancestral roots. What they all have in common is a love of Croatia, a belief in life long learning and a real connection with their teacher, Linda, who nurtures them through the ups and downs of learning an extremely challenging language, tailoring the lessons and programme to meet their specific needs, ambitions and learning skills. 

Nurturing she may be – that’s clear from the loyalty of her students and the length of time, sometimes on and off, many have been studying with her – but Linda does not let anything slip past that isn’t correct. She may simplify the sentences a little, or rephrase the question, but she quietly insists you get it right….every time. She does this gently, so you hardly notice, but you quickly learn the right endings and develop a solid foundation upon which your fluency skills can then flourish. Don’t believe any Croatian who tells you the endings don’t matter – they really do and the locals will correct you every time you get it wrong and not always with Linda’s tact.

Lessons, be they Skype or face-to-face, are a mixture of conversation, exercises from a Croatian textbook, translation, reading, writing and speaking. Linda loves to teach, has amazing interpersonal skills and is also a natural communicator who’s interested in her students and can tell when they’ve hit a plateau and its time to change things up a bit. Linda explains: “Teaching Croatian as a foreign language, to English speaking people, is very different from teaching it to Croatian children at school. Grammatical cases and genders are very important and many students haven’t studied languages that might help such as Latin, German or even French. So some have to learn all about the grammatical cases before they can understand the constructions and different endings. The good news is that there are plenty of tricks, tips and tools that can help speed things up and also that the pronunciation is very consistent. There’s no doubt it can be hard work, but we try to make it a lot of fun too and relevant to day to day conversations and experiences”.

The 2019 annual dinner at the Wallace Museum

Linda is also very modest and will tell you how grateful she is to be surrounded by so many good people that help her run her business while she focuses on the teaching. In fact, she is a natural entrepreneur, a great delegator, exhibits admirable attention to detail, and is a thoughtful boss – the type that good people like to be around. The seamless nature and classy style of her events and courses belies the attention and time that has gone into organising them, and there are not many people who could manage a group of some twenty individuals, and challenging logistics, for the week of the Croatian Language and Culture course, and still have everyone genuinely smiling at each other and wanting to come back for more.

The proof of CLS’s enduring success, however, is the loyalty and goodwill it generates from its students. Up to fifty students and friends of the school, from all over the globe, meet up socially at the annual dinner before Christmas, with the added bonus of a great new venue to discover – last year it was the Wallace Museum and the year before, the Royal Academy of Arts. Both these events were also attended by Igor Pokaz, the Ambassador to Croatia in London, who, we understand, did not hide his pleasure at having so many unofficial ambassadors for Croatia in the same room. 

And here are just some of the things the students say about their language learning experience:

I learn on Skype and my teacher, Linda, and I use Google Docs to support the text, reading and writing which is very collaborative and allows us to meet wherever in the world we are. …….

CLS has been excellent, patient, dedicated and professional at all times which has made the learning experience really nice. I enjoy the lessons as they are always an efficient use of our time which is perfect for me as it fits into a busy lifestyle with work and family…..I enjoy the immersion in a safe environment, free from judgement. It’s a tough language and Croatians will quickly switch to English once they know your Croatian is poor. They are not slow to point out your mistakes and shortfalls, and sometimes this can knock your confidence. So learning with this method works well. Grant Seuren, Sail Croatia

I’ve discovered that Croatian is really a language that you need to learn from a professional.  While some languages people can pick up, the grammar is far too complicated to teach yourself.  Linda’s methods of explaining and teaching me have really made my life so much easier here in Croatia! I am forever grateful. Ashley Colburn, Emmy Award-Winning TV and Film Producer.

Unlike any other subject I have looked at, I find the deeper one goes into Croatian, the more there is to find, and/or (usually) get wrong! It is full of ‘slonovske zamke’- what I hope is Croatian for “elephant traps”. It’s a sort of linguistic Tardis; go through the door and there are so many different corridors, one can never explore them all. I think what I enjoy most must be my sense of achievement when I realise that I AM making progress. I have been able to make myself understood for a while now – not just by SHOUTING, but this year I am actually starting to understand people’s answers to me much better than before. Dr John Glasspool, Retired NHS Doctor.

Over the past four years, Chris and I have had further Skype lessons with Linda and attended three more of the Summer Language and Culture Courses in various parts of Croatia.  The Skype lessons suit us very well as we can take the lessons whenever and wherever we are working.  We also try to practice speaking Croatian as much as possible. We have found Croatian much harder to learn than other languages but now feel we are able to hold a conversation with locals and, most importantly, make a joke and have a laugh with them… humour is very important in breaking down cultural barriers.  Also, Croatians really appreciate the fact that we are making the effort to speak their language. Sara Warby, living in and renovating a historic home on the Pelješac peninsula.

The thing I like most about CLS is their professionalism, flexibility and many years of experience, as well as the multi-faceted programme and friendly community.  All that comes across every time I interact with the school. Skype lessons are an effective option and save travel time. Andrii Dehtiarov, from Ukraine, working in London as an Engineering Manager for Google.

The Summer School In Lošinj

For more information on CLS, check out their website www.easycroatian.com which also has links to their Facebook, Twitter and other social media accounts.

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