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Learn Bulgarian: An Insider’s Tips

Bulgaria

Is Bulgarian a language? Is Bulgarian Russian? Is it difficult to learn Bulgarian?

Those are just a few of the awesome things people have Googledabout my native language. So let me get a few things straight:

Yes, Bulgarian is a legitimate language with centuries over centuries of history. In fact, you know that funky alphabet of ours? The Cyrillic. We had it first and we gave it to Russians.

So no, Bulgarian is not Russian and it is not even that similar to it. Me, personally, I could probably make out some words in Russian, but that’s about it. Because, I speak Bulgarian, not Russian. Think of the Bulgarian/Russian language relationship like English/German or English/French.

Yes, native English speakers could probably make sense of some (very few) German or French words. However, speaking one does not guarantee you will be functional in the other.

That being said, a lot of people in Bulgaria do speak Russian, mostly for historical and political reasons (yes, we were big USSR fans). Moreover, we share the same alphabet and both of our languages come from the same family. This basically means that as a Westerner, you would learn Russian much easier if you learn Bulgarian first, and vice versa.

Lastly, for the most common fear of language learners — no, Bulgarian is not actually that difficult. Well, wait. I think I take this back. There are weird and hard-to-grasp features of the Bulgarian language, and then there is plenty of stuff that is actually very simple (and much simpler compared to other Slavic languages). Let’s examine a few key characteristics of the Bulgarian language!

learn bulgarian

To Learn Bulgarian, Start With the Alphabet

You take a single look at the Cyrillic alphabet and you feel ready to give up on your mission to learn Bulgarian altogether. At least that is what I’ve heard from foreign friends.

True story: I know a dude that spent over 6 months in Bulgaria without learning how to read properly. How did he survive? That’s a mystery to me.

Much like in neighboring Greece, signs here are supposed to be in both Latin and Cyrillic alphabet but this is not always the case. Of course, on highways and generally on the road, you probably won’t have to test out your Cyrillic reading abilities (we are in the EU after all, and that comes with the obligation of having street signs in Latin letters too).

With all else (shops, door buzzers…), 9 out of 10 times you will only see the sign in Cyrillic.

Bottomline?

Don’t give up on learning the letters, and if you only do one thing before your trip to Bulgaria — make that learning the alphabet. I promise it will come in super handy.

So why do people fear our alphabet so much?

I have no explanation for that. For me, using two different alphabets comes naturally and my handwriting hardly even changes when I switch from Cyrillic to Latin. It does create funny situations when I try to type out an emoticon, but that’s a different story.

In Bulgaria (just like in Russia, Greece, Saudi Arabia and any other country where they use a different alphabet) we start learning English by learning the letters. You really can’t go beyond the alphabet before mastering it, right?

So none of this ‘I spelled this phrase out for myself in normal letters.’ if you want to learn Bulgarian — because that sounds ridiculous and whatever you thought you had spelled out for yourself will also sound ridiculous.

Why?

Because the Cyrillic script is finely tuned to our pronunciation. Writing a Bulgarian word properly in Latin letters is about a thousand times more difficult than doing it in Cyrillic.

And at the end, it’s not even that hard to master our alphabet. Many letters are similar to letters you already know and the graphics themselves are not that tough. Greek letters you have probably used in Physics class (or most natural science classes for that matter) are much harder to write. Of course, since letters look familiar you might be tempted to skip over the time taken to learn them. This backfires very quickly, simply because the letter ‘P’ is used for the ‘r’ sound.

In conclusion: Take a few hours to learn the alphabet, don’t sweat it, because it isn’t hard, and think of it as a separate thing, rather than trying to make out what sound goes with what letter.

Grammar

Good news or bad news first?

OK, how about bad news? We do have genders for nouns in Bulgarian.

A table is female and a chair is male, that’s just the way it is for us. There is also a neutral gender and neither of those three makes much sense in terms of the definition of the word. For instance, момиче (momiche), our word for girl is in the neutral gender. There are however some general rules (or more like guidelines) that could hint the gender of a certain noun.

One of those handy rules with too many exceptions to even count is: If it ends in a consonant it’s masculine if it ends in -o it’s almost always neuter and if the ending is a vowel — feminine it is.

The most important exception to that rule is nouns that end in -ост/-ost, which are feminine. For your consolation, I will say that those are somewhat ‘advanced vocabulary’ nouns that you would probably not need at first. Ultimately, there are two things about grammatical gender you need to remember:

1. A consonant is for masculine, a vowel is for feminine unless it’s an o — then it is for neuter.

2. At the end of the day, you will have to memorize words with their genders. No other way to be sure about the gender of a word, unless to have actually learned it.

Remember I also promised good news?

Well, the good news is that we have no cases and declensions. What are cases and declensions? If you have had to deal with German, Russian, or Latin you already know. Explained in an over-simplified way, cases are when a word changes depending on it’s grammatical function and declensions are different ways in which different words change.

Yes, it’s complicated stuff and it is also stuff you will not have to deal with. You are welcome for that (yes, I know I have no merit in the lack of cases and declensions, but still I like to brag about it).

Vocabulary

Once again, good news and bad news at the same time.

The thing about our vocab is that is hardly has anything to do with English (OK, I lied a bit here, there are actually quite a lot of English language words we imported into our language, just not the basic ones). That’s why it will all be super foreign to you at first.

But stick with it and soon it will all make sense. We are a lot about word families and different ‘roots’ which comprise words and can help you understand even ones that you have not technically learned.

Once you overcome the initial shock (where it is literally all weird and you seem to understand nothing), I promise you will feel a noticeable push and suddenly it will all become easier. Another benefit to learning our vocabulary, undoubtedly, is that it can be a gateway to other Slavic languages, including Russian, Serbian and even Polish and Czech.

When it comes to pronunciation, things are pretty straightforward. As usual, your best bet would be to listen to a lot of native speakers and to try to speak as much as possible. We Bulgarians love to see a foreigner interested in our culture and we will help as much as possible. True, it may be nerve-wracking to have to actually speak a language you have just began to learn, but try it out as soon as possible. It’s the fastest way to improve pronunciation.

Then for another thing that you would be happy we don’t have in Bulgarian, consonant clusters.

Well, technically all languages have them (English is no exception –- think splits) but we certainly like to avoid them. In Bulgarian, there are no consonants that can serve to form vowels on their own, so you won’t see words like skrbstvo (Slovene for sorrow) or Strč prst skrz krk (a Czech tongue twister, stick your finger through your throat).

Another easy way to illustrate the minimal amount of consonant clusters we have is a certain very popular name. In Russia, there are plenty of guys named Dmitry (including their current Prime Minister). In Bulgaria, we have almost the same name. Just that it’s Dimitar. Notice how there are vowels in each syllable?

Again, you are welcome 🙂

So what do we say in conclusion?

We can just repeat the key things:

  • Bulgarian exists.
  • It isn’t Russian, although it has a similar vocabulary.
  • It’s certainly not as hard to learn Bulgarian as some people make it out to be.

Go out and try to learn Bulgarian, even if it’s just for a 3-day city break you are having in Sofia. It will make your life easier, it’s fun and it could help you if you decide to learn another Slavic language.

Good luck,
-EET

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[…] Bulgarian is spoken by 9 million speakers in and around the country of Bulgaria. Curiously enough Bulgarian is one of the few Slavic languages which doesn’t use grammatical cases and uses articles. This makes it easier to learn for native English speakers than most Slavic languages. […]

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