Learning Bulgarian

Why learn the Bulgarian (Български)? There are endless practical reasons to list, and I will, but the most meaningful reasons can be summed up in two quotes. Firstly:

“A different language is a different vision of life” – Federico Fellini

For all of us foreigners (we all are in more places than not), speaking a new language opens us up to experiencing and appreciating a country and culture closer to those that have made it and lived it. This kind of thinking argues that language explicitly frames our experience of reality and it’s summed up amazingly by Lera Boroditsky in her TED talk How Language Shapes The Way We Think. This appreciation of a new perspective also gives us a great opportunity to reflect on our own context- if by learning Bulgarian we can see life through a new perspective, then surely our original language and experiences must take on new meanings.

“He who knows no foreign languages knows nothing of his own” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

From my perspective I can see that through Bulgarian, these insights give me a better appreciation of friendship, pride, acceptance, and celebration. I’m still wrestling with how this makes me see and shape my British upbringing, but I’m enjoying reflecting on it.

When first approaching Български, it can be intimidating. For many foreigners it might be the first time you’ve experienced the Cyrilic alphabet, a script invented for Bulgaria over a millennia ago which now informs countless languages over the world (never ever ever refer to it as the Russian alphabet. That’s wrong and an injustice). Cyrilic looks beautiful and familiar. There are many letters that you seem to know, and there are, but there’s also new letters and ‘false friends’ which give you a new pallet of sounds- you might expect it to sound like Russian, but drop that thinking quickly, Bulgarian is hard and energetic, and as the Ivan Vazov, the famous author says “the Bulgarian language has muscles”, and it certainly does. Weirdly, whilst researching people’s opinions on the sound of the language I found one example of an Indonesian claiming that they found Bulgarian sounded most similar to Japanese, but I’ll leave that for you to question. Back to the alphabet- The letters themselves are near perfect representations of their phonetic sounds, so no longer will you ever wonder how to pronounce a name. When it comes to learning the grammar, it can be fairly familiar for a lot of European speakers- there are three genders which are usually easy to decipher due to their endings; pronouns are logical and seem to flow easily; and there are a lot of loan words- you will hear merci (мерси) and ciao (чао) regularly in the city.

So why learn Bulgarian? Lots of young people in the major cities now speak English with a near perfect accent. In fact, when I met my first Bulgarian friend it took my years to believe her when she told me she that wasn’t from East-London. Though this is a huge support for English speakers who haven’t yet learnt the language, for those people that can’t, they miss so much; though it’s a small place, Bulgaria has more wonder than most continents. Every inch of its surface is carved with detail and adventure that demands you get out of the city and meet people of diverse places and backgrounds, and it is in these situations that knowing some Bulgarian allows you to thrive. The more you can speak, the more authentic culture you can experience and the more integrated you can become. You’ll also be able to interact with older generations who tend not to speak English yet have more stories and history than you have space to store.

It can be daunting, but for someone who spent a lifetime convinced that I’d ‘missed the boat’ with languages, learning Bulgarian has been a pleasure and a surprise, with every word adding to an experience.