Mastering Bulgarian is an essential exercise for any long term expat
"In Paris they simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language." American author Mark Twain's tongue-in-cheek assessment of his somewhat dubious linguistic skills in The Innocents Abroad serves to remind us even today that learning to speak a new language presents a cultural, as well as a guttural, learning curve.
Anyone living in Sofia could be forgiven for harbouring the erroneous idea that it is easy to get by in Bulgaria without learning the native language. But, as anyone who regularly sets foot outside the capital will know, English is not widely spoken. You are just as likely to encounter Greek or Turkish, depending on the area of Bulgaria you are in. But that's not really the point. Simply "getting by" or relying on somebody else to speak your native tongue should not be any long term resident's goal. As you move on from basic greetings and small talk (after all there's only so much you can say about the weather or your point of origin isn't there?) having more than a basic grasp of Bulgarian is crucial. Not only does it enable you to engage with new friends in their own language, but it places control of your business and personal affairs firmly back in your own hands - after what can seem like months of childlike dependence on others.
"It's almost impossible to get along in this country without learning Bulgarian," states Boris Angelov, assistant professor of Bulgarian language and literature at the University of Plovdiv and a tutor with the Mastylo Language School, which tutors students from all over Europe, North America and Asia. "After all, how could you survive in a jungle without a weapon? This country is a jungle even for its own inhabitants."
Finding a Bulgarian language course prior to arriving in Bulgaria can be a tricky - and expensive - exercise, but once you're in the country itself you will come across plenty of language schools offering intensive and part-time courses (Mastylo even conducts lessons via Skype). Most towns will offer some facility for foreigners and the prices will be a lot cheaper than in Britain or the US. For example, individual hourly tuition rates in London can be around £25, whereas in Bulgaria you're likely to pay around a third of that, or even less.
To English-speakers, who have no previous knowledge of a Slavic based language, Bulgarian, with its seemingly random sentence structure and Cyrillic alphabet, can seem a lot more complicated than the French or German they studied at school. It is actually the language's articles and prepositions that cause foreigners the most headaches, says Angelov. "For example, they tend to say 'at three o'clock' as it would be in English, rather than the correct Bulgarian 'in[itals] three o'clock'" he explains. "Its a fallacy that the aspect and conjugation of verbs is the biggest problem for foreigners though. In fact, it's only difficult at the beginning."
Elena Paskaleva, a teacher at the Sandanski branch of the Alexander Language School believes that conversation is a crucial tool for learning: "You need to talk as much as you can and try to use colloquial words or phrases - it will help you mix with the locals. Ask people to talk to you in Bulgarian. It's not a big thing if you make mistakes, they'll often understand you and help correct you," she says. "You also need to listen to a lot of Bulgarian and get a feel for the language."
While foreigners will find English become far more widely spoken outside the capital in future, being able to understand Bulgarian will always give you an advantage - in both business and the local mehana.