EUROSLA - the European Second Language Association


The Clarion online

Issue 7, 2010

Editor Christina Lindqvist





SLA in Croatia from the perspective of a teacher and PhD student

by Ana Bradicic


As stated in the title, this contribution is going to depict the current situation in SLA in Croatia from the standpoint of an EFL teacher and a doctoral student in glottodidactics. Both of these standpoints entail a necessarily limited perspective which, on the other hand, becomes broader by combining them into a single one.


In order to understand the language scene in Croatia it is essential to mention some basic facts of Croatian history. The country was originally a kingdom that entered a union with Hungary in 1102. In 1527 the Austrian monarch was elected to the Croatian throne and the country remained a part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy until the end of World War I. From 1920 to 1943 parts of the country were under Italian rule. After World War II Croatia became a founding member of Yugoslavia, from which it separated in 1991 thus becoming a sovereign state. Croats, presently numbering something more than 4 million people, have always been oriented towards efficient communication with other nationalities and although Croatian, a Slavic language, cannot be said to have much crosslinguistic similarity with Italian, German or English, there is a perception of the Croats’ relative ease of acquiring these languages. Besides the proverbial virtue made of necessity, there is also an innate interest and genuine pleasure in learning a new language that might account for this self-perceived language learning endowment. More recently, following the vast popularity enjoyed by Mexican soap operas, the number of people learning Spanish experienced a sudden increase. And since Turkish is as widespread in Croatia as Swahili or any other African language in Scandinavia, the recent interest in courses of Turkish is the more surprising. Here again we have to thank the immense popularity of the Turkish soap opera aptly named “One Thousand and One Nights” and since all foreign programs on Croatian TV channels are shown in the original version with subtitles given in Croatian, the phenomenon is even less surprising. Naturally, the vast majority of foreign programs is in English, and if we add to it the influence coming from the music and movies that especially teenagers prefer, we have to ask the following question: Is English in Croatia acquired as a second language or learned as a foreign language? The answer to this question is by no means unambiguous. Although there are many opportunities for learning English outside the classroom, the type of language learnt through extra-curricular activities differs from what is taught in class. However, TV programs, music and computers certainly have a facilitative role in the development of listening skills and lexical knowledge.


Despite the fact that Croatian is unequivocally the sole official language, the language situation in Croatia is not a straightforward one. Besides the dialects spoken in different parts of the country which formed under the influence of Italian, German and Hungarian, depending on the historical background and the vicinity to countries where these languages are spoken as official languages, there are also Serbian, Hungarian and Italian minorities which are granted linguistic and cultural autonomy. Taken as an example, members of the Italian minority are overwhelmingly bilingual speakers of Croatian and Italian, two languages that are very different both in their structure and in their vocabulary. However, although English and Italian belong to different language families, knowledge of Italian facilitates the acquisition of English as a third language due to many lexical crosslinguistic similarities. Croatian-language and Italian-language schools have an identical syllabus and the final examinations leading to university are the same for both groups.


The language situation in Croatia therefore provides an excellent field for bilingual and multilingual research. SLA research in Croatia has a tradition of more than 40 years, starting with the Serbo-Croatian-English Contrastive Project which yielded a series of linguistic publications focusing on the differences between English and Croatian on all linguistic levels. The pedagogical material which was developed on the basis of theoretical analysis had the concrete practical goal of aiding in the teaching of English to speakers of Croatian and in the teaching of Croatian to speakers of English and its numerous practical implications directly influenced teaching methodology. Besides experts of language education and applied linguists, teachers themselves engage in research. It is especially teachers of English that are very active in their permanent professional development. The Croatian Association of Teachers of English (HUPE) organizes monthly meetings and an international annual conference where methodological and theoretical issues regarding institutional language learning are presented and discussed.


FL teaching as part of regular curricula in lower primary school classes started some thirty years ago. That time also marks the beginning of investigations into the process of FL learning and teaching in primary schools. At the beginning of the 1950’s the possibility to study English, French or German instead of Russian in primary and secondary schools was introduced. Experts in FL teaching, psychologists, FL teachers and applied linguists have been investigating the process of learning and teaching of foreign languages at an early age through research projects and experimental teaching programs. The results of these investigations have been presented in many professional and scientific conferences and described in numerous publications. A new and positive development has been the introduction of a foreign language in kindergarten as a voluntary subject and in the first grade as a compulsory subject. In fact, more than 69% of pre-school children from 4 to 6 years of age learn one foreign language as part of the regular kindergarten program. Quite expectedly, this language is mainly English (81%), followed by German (17%), Italian, French and Spanish. Primary schools saw in 2006 the introduction of the Croatian National Educational Standard with the primary aim of developing a school that would be tailored to the students’ needs as the foundation for the introduction of changes into programs and teaching practice by bringing in contemporary teaching based on experiential teaching, individual and group work, and applicable knowledge and skills.




The university of Zagreb.


Secondary education is articulated in gymnasium program and vocational education and training (VET) program schools at the end of which students take the final high school exam. This standardized test for 18-year-old school leavers aiming to go on to university-level studies provides a valuable insight into the level of proficiency obtained by Croatian students at the end of their secondary schooling. It was implemented as a standardized, uniform test for the first time in 2010. The exam is identical for all schools, despite the fact that they differ in their syllabus and hours of teaching. However, students can choose to take one of the two levels: the lower level and the higher level that differ in the difficulty and accordingly the number of points they bring, which is in turn relevant for the enrollment in the chosen faculty. The English exam comprises listening comprehension, reading comprehension and writing, with speaking at present being left out considering the enormous organizational and financial implications of its administration to thousands of students. The first results of the English exam are encouraging both at the higher and lower level. Out of 16651 students who took the higher level, half of them solved between 70% and 88% percent of the test correctly, while only 1.18% of the total number of students failed the exam. As to the lower level, there were 15635 students who took the exam and out of them 25% got between 47% and 70% of the test right; 37% of the students got between 70% and 87%; and another 25% got between 88% and 100% of the test right. The students who failed were 3.5%. Other languages than English, above all German, but also Italian, French and Spanish, are also included in the Matura Exam, mostly on a voluntary basis. Besides the above-mentioned Italian-speaking minority there are also Hungarian and Serbian minorities, all of whom take the exam in their respective first language at the same level as speakers of L1 Croatian do for their first language. A lot of research material has been gathered both in the process of test construction and in investigations of results achieved. Researchers at the National Centre for External Evaluation of Education (NCVVO) have published scientific articles and presented their work at conferences in the field of language testing and evaluation of educational achievement.


Higher education is organized according to the Bologna Process, whose implementation started in the academic year 2005/2006. At this point in their education, university students are at a high level of proficiency, especially in English. A study carried out among high school students reports on high self-evaluation scores: 38% of students evaluate their English proficiency as very good, 32% as good, 17% as fluent and only 13% as sufficient. A study at university level reports on an increase of students’ self-perceived communicative competence in English between their first and third year of course. However, it is clear that even among university students it is justified to talk about advanced, intermediate and weak levels of proficiency.  


In conclusion, although there is a well-established tradition in SLA research and scientific publications, currently there is an ongoing process of establishing Croatian equivalent terminology for the terms frequent in English-language SLA publications. Discussion among Croatian SLA experts concerning terminology which should lead to a greater uniformity or consistency of terminology in Croatian research dealing with SLA is just one of the issues discussed at recent SLA conferences. As seen from the above-cited examples, SLA research in Croatia has always had a link with the teaching practice in terms of its starting point and practical consequences. However, what is still needed is greater interdisciplinarity which would bring about the expansion of research scope and the integration of theoretical insights and methodological tools from different fields.


Ana Bradicic, University of Zagreb



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