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Learning the Lingo

One of the most daunting prospects about moving to Bulgaria is not only the fact that they speak a different language here, but the fact that they use a different alphabet.

A Bulgarian friend once told me that his native language is the second most difficult in the world second only to something like Mandarin.


Many expats move here without even attempting to learn the language, or, if they do, their skills stop after “da” and “ne” and on finding that most of the locals can speak some English – in the towns and cities most locals speak good English as well as Russian and German – they don’t try to further their linguistic experience.

Yet with a little effort, it is not too difficult to learn and therefore integrate with the local population. Indeed, local people are so happy to hear a foreigner attempt to speak their language and will shower the speaker with much praise and encouragement, respect and close friendship. It is much easier to ensure that you don’t fall prey to some unscrupulous wheeler-dealer if you can speak some Bulgarian. You will also find that you are not demoted to the label of “foreigner” if you make an effort.


The Cyrillic Alphabet

After the Roman alphabet, Cyrillic is the second most used alphabet in the world and with a little time and effort it is as simple as ABC! At first sight Cyrillic looks like gibberish.

The alphabet contains some letters which are identical to those in the Roman alphabet – letters like A, E and M all sound and are written in the same way as the Roman alphabet.

Some letters look like letters that we know from the Roman alphabet, but they have different sounds – B is sounded as V, C as S, P as R. then there are those letters that look like something from another planet – the letter with a circle with a line through it (ф) is an F, a triangle with a line at the bottom (д) a D and what looks like the number 3 (э) is actually a Z.

The alphabet was created by two Bulgarian brothers, Kiril and Methodius who were monks and because of their contribution to language were later made saints. They developed the Cyrillic alphabet in the 9th Century AD. It has been modified over the centuries and today it consists of 30 different letters. Blend sounds like CH and SH, which in English are represented by two letters together have their own individual letter in Cyrillic – ч and ш. The lower case alphabet is different again with a backwards “s” representing a lower case g, and a Roman lower case “g” representing the letter d.


Learning to Read

A good place to start learning is to read the road signs whilst being chauffeured about the country. At first it is difficult to translate Cyrillic into Roman script and then the word in to your native language, but practice makes perfect and incidentally the names of most towns and cities are now translated into Roman script, although street names tend to be written only in Cyrillic and the names of shops and businesses a mix of both. All bookshops have text books designed to teach school children the alphabet and this is the best place to start and far easier to understand than buying an adult language learning text book. Once you have mastered the alphabet you can progress onto simple texts designed for first grade children.


Learning to Speak

A good way to remember and practice new words is to concentrate on life’s necessities – a glass of beer, a red wine a bar of chocolate or a packet of cigarettes.

If you use these words at every available opportunity you will commit them to memory and can then progress onto more complex sentences like “do you have a light please?” or “how much does this cost?” Do not be embarrassed to practice these simple sentences over and over again. Explain to anyone who thinks it odd that you are trying to master the language and they will be more than happy to help.

Private language lessons are well worth the money and cost from 10 Leva per person per hour.

If you have children who will attend school here it is worth investing in a private teacher to make their experience more comfortable. Children will pick up the language far more quickly because they will be immersed in it through school, hearing the same commands and phrases on a daily basis. Playing with Bulgarian children also speeds up their command of the language.


The Dreaded Structure of the Language

Bulgarian grammar is odd particularly to those who have never learned another foreign language. There is no definite article i.e. the word “the” instead every word carries an ending to denote this and there are plenty of endings to choose from with endings denoting both gender and case. A good way to pick up the grammar is to watch TV, read or chat with neighbours. At first it will all feel like mumbo jumbo but slowly you will hear the same words over and over again. There are a few howlers to watch out for in this language – the best is to remember that “preservatif” means condom in Bulgarian!


The Quest Bulgaria Members Area contains a 12-part complete language course.