Learning Slovenian: tips and advice from 8 foreigners that speak Slovene

During my darkest hours of Slovene Grammar Hell, when I’m lost in the Slovenian Skloni Matrix, utterly demotivated to learn Slovene due to the fact there are 18 different ways to end every f*cking noun, there is only one thing that keeps me going: other foreigners who have made it through the horror.

So, I spoke to a selection of Slovenia’s Slovene-speaking expats to get their advice on tackling this most-tricky of tongues.

Anika Dziewior Pavlin

Nationality: Polish
Number of Years in Slovenia: 6 years

One half of the popular YouTube channel – Foreigners Speak Slovene – Anika is also talented video maker and animator who used those skills to co-create her interesting vlog about the challenges of learning Slovenian and living in Slovenia.

Describe your level of Slovene

Last year I had an elementary level of Slovene. Right now I would describe it as advanced. I was fed up with repeating govorim malo Slovensko and I forced myself to finally learn it.

How did you approach learning Slovene?

For me, it was all about finding motivation. I tricked myself into setting a deadline for myself. I just picked a date and applied for Izpit na osnovni ravni organized by Center za slovenščino kot drugi in tuji jezik.

It costs way less than a language course and it was encouraging enough to open my A, B, C … GREMO to finally learn the basics.

Passing the exam was like a friendly tap on the shoulder. It helped me to believe in myself. To advance my Slovene skills I surrounded myself with books in Slovene, friends speaking Slovene and Slovene YouTubers.

But what paradoxically helped me the most were other expats speaking Slovene. I was following Mariah Dolenc on YouTube and Kasia Rižnar on Instagram. Listening to them made me realize that it is the effort that counts. So I put the fear of being judged aside and tried speaking Slovene on a daily basis.

Top tips for learning Slovenian?

When someone asks me how to learn Slovene, I have the simplest tip: find your drive to learn and then practise, practise, practise. Even if it is just a few phrases to amuse your Slovene friends over a glass of wine. It’s a good start.

Hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?

The hardest part is hearing: “Oh, but it’s easier for you, you are Polish”. It sometimes takes away the satisfaction, but I learned to ignore it in the end. I think any progress is good and it’s the effort that matters.

Noah Charney

Nationality: American
Number of Years in Slovenia: this is my 8th…I think

US native Noah is quite the celebrity in Slovenia. Amongst numerous media projects with various Slovene celebs, Noah is the author of the excellent book (and now podcast) Slovenology. If you want a fascinating insight into Slovene life and culture – check it out.

Describe your level of Slovene

Fluid but I can’t say fluent because just about every sentence has at least one grammatical error in it. That said, I do work entirely in Slovene often, have friendships entirely in Slovene, and have even hosted events and TV programs in Slovene…call it the Noah dialect.

How do/did you approach learning Slovene?

I did buy the book Colloquial Slovene and browsed my way through it half-heartedly, but the main way I learned was not seeking out expats, speaking Slovene whenever possible, not caring if I make mistakes, and having a non-anglophone mother-in-law. Also my dog, a Peruvian Hairless, speaks only Slovene, so this helps.

Top Tips for learning Slovenian?

I never studied (perhaps I should have) so I’ve no idea what the declension endings are. You just have to memorize them and I’ve never gotten around to it.

What’s the hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?

Declension endings. There are no rules. It’s like Thunderdome.

Tom Norman

Nationality: English
Time Living in Slovenia: 3.5 years

Brit Tom Norman is a deep thinker, and the founder of How To Be Human, a fascinating and growing global project which asks the big questions about life, love and happiness. A resident of Ljubljana for three and a half years, Tom learned a thing or two about learning Slovenian.

Describe your level of Slovene

Simple conversational. I can hold conversation but there are typically mistakes with simple vocabulary.

How did/do you learn Slovene?

I used to ask lots of questions. All the time. And also working in a Ziferblat, a really cool time-cafe that used to be in Ljubljana helped a lot too. Every day I would try to chat with guests in Slovenian.

Typically they would switch to English quite quickly, but over time we stayed in Slovenian longer and longer. We held events called Let’s Talk Slovene where a group of foreigners and locals got together and chatted in Slovenian every Monday. This was amazing since it was 1.5 hours dedicated to conversations.

Top Tips for learning Slovene? 

For me the key was using it as often as possible, unapologetically, without caring how I looked or sounded.

What are the hardest aspects of learning Slovenian for you?

1. Cases (skloni) – we simply don’t have them in English and in the beginning, they can really take a long time to get your head around. Especially because Slovenian people like to teach you by reciting the lessons the had at school “koga ali kaj?” which just don’t help a foreigner trying to learn.

2. People speak amazing English. This is great for maintaining a good social life here but makes learning Slovenian a luxury, not a necessity. And for many that luxury just isn’t worth acquiring.

3. Pronunciation and where you put the accent in the words are very important here. In England someone can call you “love” and it might sound like “loov” or “luv” but we understand regardless.

Here, if you misplace the accent slightly or if you pronounce something a little “unorthodox” you’re sometimes met with blank faces.

Alexander Niño Ruiz

Nationality: Colombian
Time Living in Slovenia: 11 years

Columbian coffee scientist (café owner, architect and designer too) is the founder of Ljubljana’s best (and possibly smallest) coffee shop: Črno Zrno.

Situated in Ljubljana’s expanding ‘Latin Quarter’ (a new taco bar just opened opposite), Alexander’s mission is to share the true variety of flavours that coffee can possess, when made with the right beans, with the right grind, at the right temperate with the right amount of water.

Not only does Črno Zrno serve truly the most interesting and uniquely flavoured coffees I’ve ever tasted, it’s a great place to meet people too. Which is why it gets a place in my Slovenia: A-Ž.

Describe your level of Slovene

I consider I have a basic level when talking and intermediate when listening to street conversations.

How did/do you learn Slovenian?

It has been a constant evolution and struggle. At first (1st, 2nd year), I took classes but I couldn’t apply what I had learned in real life.

Then (3rd-5th year) I got a permanent job as an architect and I learned words from my trade, but got isolated talking English most of the time. Whenever a meeting was in Slovenian I had to seriously concentrate, because people couldn’t be translating all the time for me.

Third stage, I went back to Colombia for 3 years (6th to 8th) and I wanted to speak Slovenian with my wife as a way of having a private language.

Last stage, I came back to Slovenia and opened a café in which I can control my interactions and am forced to be a host in Slovenian. People are kind to me and I answer their questions in Slovene as much as I can. Since then my Slovenian improved a lot.

What are your top tips for learning Slovene?

Don’t close yourself in a comfortable position, try to be in situations in which you are forced to interact in Slovenian, and try to make those situations happen more often and for longer. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes and kindly ask to be corrected.

What’s the hardest aspect of Slovene for you?

The hardest thing for me to learn is new vocabulary. There is no relation between the Slavic roots of Slovenian, and Spanish, so I need to memorize a lot, which is something I don’t really like to do.

Terry Anzur

Nationality: Dual citizen of USA (birth) and Slovenia (ancestry).
Number of years in Slovenia: It’s complicated. I divide my time between Southern California and Slovenia.

Californinan journalist Terry Anzur went to school with Steve Jobs, was a TV news presenter in the US, and is the author of the travel blog: StrangersInTheLivingRoom. She has been tackling Slovene as part of a desire to reconnect with her Slovenian roots.

How did/do you learn Slovene?

I feel strongly that because I’m a citizen I should learn the language. My Slovene grandparents were dead by the time I was born. My dad was born in America and never learned the language, so I didn’t hear it growing up.

I started from rock bottom. I wrote a blog about my first experience in the two-week course at the University of Ljubljana Faculty of Arts summer school of Slovene language.

Although I vowed to continue practicing with my textbooks and the Memrise app, it was hard to make any progress on my own in California, where I have no one to speak with. 

I returned to the language school in the summer of 2017 and winter of 2018 in a slightly more advanced class each time. I now feel that I have hit a wall. I can say simple, childlike sentences, when asking for directions or making a purchase in a store.

As soon as I try to express anything more complicated I either don’t have the vocabulary or make so many mistakes that the Slovenes switch over to English.

I usually understand the basic meaning of what people are saying but miss the details and struggle to respond. I found the LearnSlovenian website to be a fun way to practice by myself but it stops at a very low level. 

I recently tried a conversation class at Jezikovno Mesto and plan to attend regularly on my next trip to Slovenia. Getting more opportunities to speak and be corrected is the key.

Top tips for learning Slovene?

I’m a journalist so I follow a lot of Slovenian-language news as well as political and tourism websites on social media. I try to read at least the headlines and the posts with a dictionary to learn new words.

When I start to get discouraged, I look for opportunities to get out on my own in Ljubljana — without my son jumping in as the translator. When I can have a simple conversation with a street vendor or a postal worker, I feel a sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going.  

Hardest thing about learning Slovene for you?

Managing the cases and correctly changing the endings of the words. The second hardest thing is getting the words in the right order.

Andrew Anzur Clement

Nationality: Dual citizen of USA and Slovenia, as described above. 
Number of years in Slovenia: Full time resident for one year. Summer language school 2015, 2016 and 2017.

Terry also introduced me to her son who is an author of a series of fantasy books.

How did/do you learn Slovenian?

I learned Polish in high school and college, so Slovene was my second Slavic language. In addition to three courses in the summer school, I also took an advanced class offered in Brussels while finishing my PhD.

I was forced to improve when I moved to Ljubljana full time. In certain situations, like health care and official paperwork, people find out I’m a citizen and they expect me to speak Slovene.

Top tips for learning Slovene?

Break down the words. Many Slovene words are composed of smaller words and prefixes or suffixes which change the meaning. 

Hardest thing about learning Slovene?

Getting by at the bank or the uprava enota or the bank is one thing. When I’m in a social situation I find it hard to interact because I don’t have the vocabulary to discuss ideas. 

Mariah Dolenc

Nationality: American
Time living In Slovenia: 7 years

American Youtube vlogger Mariah Dolenc is the creator of a popular channel that focuses on fitness, health and life in Slovenia.

Describe your level of Slovene

Intermediate/advanced. I understand just about everything, or at least the context. I’m still working on speaking well, and especially without errors. 

How do/did you learn Slovene?

I first tried to study a textbook on my own, but quickly realized I was getting nowhere. Without any experience in the language, it was just too difficult. I took a few classes: and introductory class and an intensive course.

These helped to round out my understanding on how the language works and is structured. However, coming out of those classes, I didn’t speak much better than when I started.

To really improve I began speaking only in Slovene for at least 15 minutes a day. Then I also started answering texts and messages in Slovene. This was slow going, but made the fastest improvements. Getting over the feeling of looking and sounding ridiculous was the biggest help in making progress.

Top Tips for learning Slovenian?

Speaking in Slovene every day is by far the best way to learn. Also, when making mistakes, it is best not to be corrected initially. Just do the best with the knowledge you have and eventually you will get to a point where you can ask for corrections and it will be helpful instead of just slow you down. 

Hardest aspect of learning Slovene for you?

The hardest thing for me to learn has been the large amounts of cases or “skloni.” I have lived here long enough that I am able to guess what sounds right, but it really is challenging. The constant change in the endings of words is mind-numbing. 

JL Flanner

Nationality: UK
Time Living in Slovenia: 4.5 years

JL is a writer and editor for the excellent Total Slovenia News. Serving Slovenia’s expat community with original news content, investigative journalism and translations of Slovene media, JL is always on the lookout for a hot Slovenian story.

Describe your level of Slovene

Basic, but developing fast. I can understand daily conversations that happen around me, in terms of topic, attitude and some details, and I can watch the news and get things out of it, and can also read comic books.

With regard to production, I have most of the words needed to express the things I want to, but my declensions are all by rote (learned in chunks) or random, with no theoretical basis, and thus three errors can appear in the most basic statement. But automaticity is coming along well – I can babble like a 3-year old and amuse myself for hours.

To put it another way: I’d say after a long time of hacking away at a piece of wood I finally have something that looks like the human form, my new Slovene self. Now I just need to spend the rest of my life working down the rough edges and then polishing things to a high shine.

I expect to be “functionally fluent” by the end of the year.

How do/did you approach learning Slovene?

I was very enthusiastic about starting to learn. Before Slovenia I lived in Taiwan for 16 years and learned Chinese on “the streets”, so I thought Slovenian would be easy. Then I got here and discovered skloni, and the good English of all the people I interacted with in cafés and stores, which prevented me from practising the basic I want, Do you have, How much, and so on.

So instead of speech I threw myself into reading. I took pictures of street signs and billboards and learned basic phrases from there. I started writing shopping lists in Slovene as soon as possible, and used (still use) supermarkets as immersive picture dictionaries.

I picked up some translated editions of Calvin & Hobbes and would spend 10 minutes over one strip. I made flashcards with Quizet (an app) and grew a huge vocabulary while barely speaking at all.

My approach remains one of total attack, by any means necessary. So I’ll watch dumb sitcoms with the Slovene subtitles on and the sound down low, pausing to look up words when needed, trying to get the set-up and the joke.

I’ll pick up the brochures and junk mail and go through the drugstore ads and learn the names of new things. If I go to a tourist centre and they have flyers with English and Slovene versions then I’ll use those as dual texts.

I also have a lot of dictionaries, which I like dipping into so I can see the related words and make notes of word families. And I listen to Slovenian hip hop to feel cool and get some idea of how the language can be played with.

What are your top tips for learning Slovene?

My favourite book, which I’m really starting to benefit from now, is Peter Herrity’s Slovene – A Comprehensive Grammar. This covers everything, and is an invaluable reference, with the best thing being that every example word, phrase and sentence is presented in Slovene and English, so you don’t need to turn to a dictionary every 30 seconds.

It’s expensive, but all books for learning Slovene are, and this one will provide a lifetime of learning. I have two copies – paper and e-book, so I never need to be without it.

What’s the hardest thing for you about learning Slovene?

I live in downtown Ljubljana, so for me the most difficult thing was getting motivated when everyone around me could speak much better English than I could hope to speak Slovene for years.

Then when I did get motivated I’d ask what’s the word for X? And I’d get one answer in this context, and a slightly different one in another, and then the full horror of skloni was revealed in those tables that turn up in textbooks and I almost gave up, until I decided to just learn them in chunks and not worry too much.

Another problem is the lack of compelling Slovene language media. I’d love it if there were telenovelas in Slovene with Slovene subtitles.

What are your tips for learning Slovenian? Add a comment below.


One comment

  1. A very helpful piece as my family and I embark on our own Slovenian adventure. Fingers crossed we exchange on a little hiking hut in the next couple of days and our journey into the world of skloni will begin!

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