Learning Bulgarian

Bulgarian is tough. Really tough. My class here moves quickly, and as one of just a few students without some prior experience with Bulgarian (or something similar), I find that I’m having to work very hard just to keep up. For instance, today I accidentally told my class that the capital of North Carolina is Greensboro. Now I’ve lived in North Carolina since I was 6 years old, so obviously I know the capital is Raleigh, but I misunderstood the exercise, and told everyone where I was from instead. It’d be easy to feel embarrassed (note: I did), but I try to remind myself that this is brand new for me, and it’s going to take a lot of time and effort to develop new language skills. Fortunately, my Bulgarian friends are all eager to help!


My friends Valentin and Alexander have been great resources for learning Bulgarian!

Now for a little more on the language itself…Bulgarian is a Southern Slavic language based on an entirely different alphabet called Cyrillic. The Bulgarian alphabet has 30 characters, including several unique sounds and letters that we don’t have in English.

Bulgarian Alphabet

As a native English speaker, there are a few characters that are especially confusing. For example the Bulgarian character “H” makes the sound I’ve always associated with “N,” and the Bulgarian “X” character makes a sound similar to what I’ve always associated with “H.” Not to mention that several characters are entirely new such as Ж, щ, and я. If you aren’t already familiar with the Cyrillic alphabet, I’d encourage you to watch this video for a quick lesson! One other thing that I’ve found very interesting is that in Bulgaria, there is no infinitive verb form (in English that’s the equivalent of putting “to” in front of any verb).

Last night, I was sitting around with some friends and classmates while working on my Bulgarian homework. I was incredibly impressed with how seamlessly the conversation flowed between English, Spanish, German, Russian, and Bulgarian. If a word or phrase was forgotten in one language, it was quickly provided in another, and the conversation continued. This wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this at FISI either. In fact, it was only one of many similar instances I’ve encountered over the last week and a half. As I sat there struggling to learn Bulgarian, it struck me that a situation like the one I described above would be incredibly rare in the United States. From my vantage point, the “normal” American foreign language experience consists of a handful of years spread out across high school and college. By contrast, I was talking to a Bulgarian friend today who started learning Russian in first grade, English in second grade, and has also studied Spanish and German. He described his experience as typical for all of the language schools in the country. Having studied some developmental psychology, I know language acquisition is much easier at a younger age. It seems that we have the opportunity to put a larger emphasis on learning new languages much earlier in our education.

A few things that I feel are important to note:

  • I realize that my Bulgarian friends here at FISI are a small sample of the rest of the Bulgarian population, and a very accomplished group, at that. I’ll be curious to see if my observations here hold up in other parts of the country.
  • I’m sure part of the reason for my thoughts can be explained geographically. In America, you are bound to encounter fewer foreign language speakers, and can easily get by just fine your entire life without learning a second or third language. However, in Bulgaria and surrounding countries (and Europe in general), many more languages are spoken by sizable populations.
  • There are certainly many Americans with a passion and talent for learning languages. My thoughts above are more generalized, and I don’t mean to take anything away from those who work hard at language acquisition.

Because I enjoyed the last poll so much, I’ve got another one for you. I’d love to hear some reasons behind your vote in the comments section below!

Correct or not, there is a notion in parts of the world that learning new languages isn’t very important to Americans. While I know many Americans commit themselves to learning a new language, I also think the value of being multilingual is often overlooked in the United States. Either way, I am a firm believer that connecting with people from a variety of diverse backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives is important. Language is an essential tool that helps us do this effectively, and learning a new language directly increases the number of people we can exchange ideas with (this link is for you, Ed Finley).

P.S. A Bulgarian friend told me that Bulgarian and Macedonian are similar enough that if you learn one, you essentially learn both…more motivation to learn Bulgarian!

9 thoughts on “Learning Bulgarian

  1. Thanks for sharing your experiences, Michael!

    When I was younger, I dabbled a little in French (for reading knowledge only) and Spanish and Sign Language after having taken several hears of Latin in high school. Unfortunately, if you have no one with whom to converse in a language, you lose the skills. I think, for children who learn other languages, it is much easier to “relearn” when they are older–I think the language sounds are still lingering somewhere in the brain! With the greater divergency in our communities, I hope all young children are exposed to other languages during their formative years.


    Great-Aunt Marge, who has all she can do to handle Ingles these days!


    • I agree with you 100% that we lose language quickly when we have no opportunities to practice! I was almost fluent in Spanish 6 years ago after living in Peru, and I’ve taken several steps back since being out of practice. I’m sure finding someone to practice my Bulgarian with will be almost impossible once I’m back in the US. I’m hoping my new friends here are open to Skyping!


  2. Great observations on your part about learning a new language. In retrospect if I had known just a wee-bit of Chinese it would have served me well in my days of international textile experiences all that much better.


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