A look at the Serbo-Croatian language to see how hard it is to learn fro an English speaker. Serbo-Croatian is legendary for its difficulty. Whether it is harder than Czech or Polish is somewhat up in the air, but probably Czech and Polish are harder. Few L2 speakers ever attain anything near native speaker competence. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating language.
Serbo-Croatian, similar to Czech, has seven cases in the singular and seven in the plural, plus there are several different declensions. The vocative is still going strong in Serbo-Croatian (S-C), as in Polish, Ukrainian and Bulgarian. There 15 different types of declensions: seven tenses, three genders, three moods, and two aspects. Whereas English has one word for the number 2 – two, Serbo-Croatian has 17 words.
Case abbreviations below:
N = NAV – nominative, accusative, vocative
G = Genitive
D = Dative
I = Instrumental
Masculine inanimate gender
D L I dvama
D L I dvema
D L I dvoma
Masculine animate gender
D L dvojici
D L dvojci
The grammar is incredibly complex. There are imperfective and perfective verbs, but when you try to figure out how to build one from the other, it seems irregular. This is the hardest part of Serbo-Croatian grammar, and foreigners not familiar with other Slavic tongues usually never get it right.
Serbian has a strange form called the “paucal.” It is the remains of the old dual, and it also exists in Polish and Russian. The paucal is a verbal number like singular, plural and dual. It is used with the numbers dva (2), tri (3), četiri (4) and oba/obadva (both) and also with any number that contains 2, 3 or 4 (22, 102, 1032).
gledalac pažljiv(i) careful viewer
1 careful viewer jedan pažljivi gledalac
2 careful viewers dva pažljiva gledaoca
3 careful viewers tri pažljiva gledaoca
5 careful viewers pet pažljivih gledalaca
Above, pažljivi gledalac is singular, pažljivih gledalaca is plural and pažljiva gledaoca is paucal.
As in English, there are many different ways to say the same thing. Pronouns are so rarely used that some learners are surprised that they exist, since pronimalization is marked on the verb as person and number. Word order is almost free or at least seems arbitrary, similar to Russian.
Serbo-Croatian, like Lithuanian, has pitch accent – low-rising, low-falling, short-rising and short-falling. It’s not the same as tone, but it’s similar. In addition to the pitch accent differentiating words, you also have an accented syllable somewhere in the word, which as in English, is unmarked. And when the word conjugates or declines, the pitch accent can jump around in the word to another syllable and even changes its type in ways that do not seem transparent. It’s almost impossible for foreigners to get this pitch-accent right.
The “hard” ch sound is written č, while the “soft” ch sound is written ć. It has syllabic r and l. Long consonant clusters are permitted. See this sentence:
Na vrh brda vrba mrda.
However, in many of these consonant clusters, a schwa is present between consonants in speech, though it is not written out.
S-C, like Russian, has words that consist of only a single consonant:
s – with
Serbo-Croatian does benefit from a phonetic orthography.
It is said that few if any foreigners ever master Serbo-Croatian well. Similar to Czech and Polish, it is said that many native speakers make mistakes in S-C even after decades of speaking it, especially in pitch accent.
Serbo-Croatian is often considered to be one of the hardest languages on Earth to learn. It is harder than Russian but not as hard as Polish.
Serbo-Croatian gets a 4.5 rating, extremely difficult.