Over the years I’ve spent learning and refining my Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian, I’ve tried out plenty of textbooks and learning guides. Most of them were terrible. But a few have risen to the top and are worth recommending.

These books aren’t the very first step you should take into the language; your first few minutes of Serbian learning should be spent with the Tipsy Pilgrim language method, of course! Get down those classic, beautiful, ridiculous bits of culture that will make you sound like a local in Croatian, Bosnian, and Serbian first. After that, these books are great — wether you want to prepare for a short trip, others, for embarquing on a lifelong use of the language.

Of course no language guide, no matter how good, should be used on its own. You should also get the help of private teachers and/or free language exchanges (for example through Italki), as I discuss in my guide to effective language learning. And you’ll eventually want to work in newspapers, YouTube videos, movies, and more.

I start with my top picks and then work down to the less useful and finally useless books. At the end there’s a summary of what to get for each language.

The Best Self-Teaching Guides for Serbian/Croatian/Bosnian

The Top Pick: Complete Serbian and Complete Croatian (Vladislava Ribnikar and David Norris)

These books are the only ones that I would consider truly excellent for learning the respective versions of the tongue. I used the Serbian guide myself from cover to cover; I’ve checked and the others appear to be similar in structure and content but very much adapted to the particularities of the other variants of the language.

These guides are targeted to autonomous learners and focused around introducing you to situations wherein you would actually use the language as a foreigner visiting or living in the countries. Each chapter starts with a simple dialogue, gives a few notes on the new vocabulary that has been presented, and then show how certain grammar and structures can help you get across your point in similar situations. There are then a limited number of exercises wherein you can practice using the vocabulary and grammar.

The books’ focus is on getting you through a large amount of useful grammar very quickly, but for my personal taste this leaves you without enough opportunities to practice for example a new verb conjugation in a variety of sentences. Still, the books provide an incredible foundation to work from. I wish they would offer a workbook with even more grammar exercises to accompany each chapter for those who enjoy/need that.

The recordings that accompany the books show the language in action in situations like shopping, gossiping, making plans, etc. — daily activities that you’re likely to first really need the language for. For the Serbian version, the pronunciation in the ears of Serbian friends (professional writers and translators) is “correct”, meaning that the speakers use an educated Belgrade accent and have what have been considered the proper rising and falling intonations required of broadcasters.

Note that there are (cheaper) versions of these books that lack the audio recordings — but you will definitely want those CDs. If you want to save money buy a used version, but definitely make sure the CDs are included.

The Best for In-Depth Grammar: Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: With Sociolinguistic Commentary (Ronelle Alexander)

This is the only serious grammar guide currently widely available in English for Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian. It is not particularly approachable for most language learners but is a nice reference to supplement advanced learning.

It’s particularly hard to find good, experienced teachers of these languages who know how to explain grammar points of the languages to non-native speakers, and when inquiries to my teachers failed I would often turn to this book. You can find just about anything in it and figure out the (dry, comprehensive, academic) explanations with a bit of work. In my experience it accurately describes the use of Serbian, and clearly designates features of Croatian and Bosnian as well throughout the text.

You will need to master some basic grammar concepts and abbreviations used in this book in order to make it a useful reference for your studies.

Other Books to Consider

There are a few other books that may be worth your time, especially as supplements to those above.

A Difficult Academic Textbook: Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Textbook: With Exercises and Basic Grammar (Ronelle Alexander and Ellen Elias-Bursac)

This is similar to the Complete Serbian and Complete Croatian books recommended at the top, in that it provides dialogues, basic grammar explanations, and practice exercises. However, it is designed for adult classroom learners, and they would have to have a pretty solid previous understanding of language learning and grammatical terms in order to follow many of the explanations. Even then, the abrupt, acerbic tone is not exactly welcoming you into the language.

This book does have the advantage of being designed for use with Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar (described in the previous section), which provides the most complete grammar explanations you can get in English. Experienced students could thus consider using this book to brush up on their skills, alongside the grammar book. However, for most people I don’t think this is a worthwhile book and you’re only likely to buy it if forced to do so by a classroom teacher (and I don’t think that’s the most effective way to learn languages).

The book does not provide an answer key for the exercises.

Beginner’s Croatian (Aida Vidan and Robert Niebuhr)

I’m not familiar with this book, nor the series, but I wanted to include it in my listing as it appears to be doing everything I like in a good self-teaching language guide (integrated dialogues, vocabulary, grammar practice), and the reviewers over at Amazon who seem to have actually used it to learn the language seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit. If your focus is purely Croatian, this seems worth considering!

Colloquial Serbian: The Complete Course for Beginners (Celia Hawkesworth)

This book has examples from daily life and is pretty straightforward and similar to the Complete Serbian and Complete Croatian books above. To my taste, those books are a bit clearer and more complete in terms of grammar explanations. But these books are also pretty clear and since they present the ideas in a slightly different way, these could be a good complement to the Complete books, especially if you’re looking for review or extra practice of fundamentals. The versions are:

Spoken World: Croatian – by Living Language

I haven’t checked this out yet, but it appears to be a competently produced guide.

Serbian for Foreigners with a Short Grammar (Petar Banjac)

The fourth edition, which I own, has the correct use of the article in the subtitle; it appears to be a later version than what is available on Amazon (“with Short Grammar” sic! sic! sic!).

This book is mainly useful for extra listening and reading practice. I found some of the short texts actually rather interesting and approachable, especially about music. However, the grammar explanations don’t make much sense to me, even when they’re discussing subjects that I already know.

Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian Guides to Avoid

There are many, many poorly edited books cropping up on Amazon that appear to be mass-produced by startups and poorly paid freelancers, with little heart or care. Then, there are books that seem to be slapped together by writers without much pedagogical experience or insight. It’s worth mentioning a few of these just to show what types of books to avoid.

Učimo Srpski: Serbian for Foreigners (Nataša Milićević-Dobromirov, Ljiljana Ćuk, Nataša Radulović)

I purchased this colorful intermediate-level workbook plus CDs in Belgrade thinking that it would at least offer some useful practice and guidance in parts, and I completely regret the purchase. The book seems to have been designed by native speakers who don’t really understand how to explain grammar rules to foreigners. To give just one example, it offers practice on distinguishing when to use na from u, a topic that is always complicated for learners and appears quite obvious to the locals. There are rules that can ease your path to using na vs. u, but this book doesn’t clue you in to them at all.

Book2 English – Bosnian For Beginners: A Book In 2 Languages (Johannes Schumann)

This barely counts as a book. It is a collection of words and phrases in Bosnian with translations into English. The series appears to be rather thoughtlessly mass produced; there is also Book2 English – Croatian For Beginners: A Book In 2 Languages and Book2 English – Serbian For Beginners: A Book In 2 Languages by the same author.

How to Speak Serbo-Croatian: A Complete Serbo-Croatian Language Guide (Translation Readers)

This appears to be a sloppy pamphlette slapped together with no real pedagogical concept to speak of.

Beginner’s Serbo-Croatian: Hippocrene (Duska Radosavljevic Heaney)

This is a bit dated.

Croatian: Learn Croatian in a Week! (Project Fluency)

The preview for this book suggests that it has been sloppily assembled and is inaccurate. This does not appear to be even a serious attempt at creating a useful guide to to the language. Who knows, maybe it gets better…but I’m not about to spend a smidgen of time or money to find out more.

Conclusion

Top Book Picks for Learning Serbian

Heading to Belgrade? Start with Complete Serbian, and pick up Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: With Sociolinguistic Commentary to round out your work with grammar. Serbian for Foreigners is good for extra practice. To practice what you’re learning out loud via Skype, check out  Italki, where there are plenty of great Serbian teachers.

Top Book Picks for Croatian

If hrvatski is more your flavor, start out with Complete Croatian and add in Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: With Sociolinguistic Commentary for more complete grammar explanations. Beginner’s Croatian might also be worthwhile. For Croatian teachers to help you along the way, head to Italki.

Top Book Picks for Bosnian

If you want to discover sevdah and other bits of Bosnian brilliance, you don’t have a truly great guide for the language. I’d recommend using Complete Croatian (assuming you’d like to avoid the cyrillic alphabet found in Complete Serbian). Alternately, if you can tolerate unapproachable academic writing and want to make sure you’re focused purely on Bosnian, you could use Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Textbook: With Exercises and Basic Grammar; this book very clearly separates what is Bosnian from what is not, and enables you to stick with your chosen language. If I were learning Bosnian, I would use the dialogues and grammar explanations in Complete Croatian and then look for similar dialogues and exercises to practice each topic in the textbook.

Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, a Grammar: With Sociolinguistic Commentary will help you with grammar and is very specific about which usages are Bosnian.

Finally, choosing a private Italki teacher from the Bosnian region speaking your target version of the language will help enormously.