By Margaret Gleason, YES abroad 2017/2018, Bulgaria
“Happy October everyone!
I got here in August.
I have now officially spent an entire calendar month in Bulgaria.
I would write a reflection looking back on my first month in Bulgaria — what I’ve learned, what I’ve done, what challenges I’ve faced — but I feel like most of those things have been documented in previous blog posts, so if you want to read about them I suggest you click here and spend some time exploring the archives.
Instead, I thought I would commemorate the completion of 1/10 of my exchange with a post on the subject about which I get the most questions and whose influence on my exchange will probably be greater than pretty much anything else: Learning Bulgarian.
For those that don’t know, Bulgarian is a Slavic language (like Russian, Polish, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian and others) which uses the Cyrillic alphabet. In fact, according to most people I’ve met here, St. Cyril and his brother Methodius, the men who created the Cyrillic script, were Bulgarian (though the Greeks and Macedonians also claim them as their own and historians can’t agree on who’s right).
If you are like the majority of my friends and family, you are now thinking, “Wow, a whole new alphabet? That must be insanely hard.” Believe it or not, learning Cyrillic has probably been the easiest part of my Bulgarian studies so far. It was basically the only thing I knew when I arrived here! I’m still a very slow reader and occasionally (read: frequently) make mistakes when sounding words out, but if you were to quiz me on what sound each letter makes I would get 100%.
For me, the most difficult part has been memorizing vocabulary. Over our first two weeks in-country we had 28 hours of intensive Bulgarian lessons where every day I filled at least two pages with new grammar rules, verbs, and words. It was incredibly useful, but my daily retention of the material was maybe 15%. Seriously. I asked my host mom how to say ‘delicious’ every single night for a week before I finally got it down (Вкусно!). My inability to remember the simplest of words was in no way the fault of my teachers (s/o to Надя and Русанка for dealing with my exhausted, French-filled brain), but rather an inevitable side-effect of trying to shove an entirely new language in your head for four hours a day. Also I didn’t study enough.
Along with struggling to retain everything I was taught, I had to build up the courage to actually use what little I did remember in daily life. My host mom speaks sufficient English for us to communicate all the necessities plus some, so for the first few weeks I spoke essentially no Bulgarian at home. This was for several reasons: 1) I didn’t really know enough yet! (“Hello, I am Margaret. I am a student from America. I go to 18th School ‘William Gladstone’,” does not a conversation make) and 2), the more legitimate reason, I was nervous. Speaking a foreign language to native speakers when you know for a fact that you’re going to make mistake after mistake after mistake is terrifying. Most Bulgarians under 30 speak fluent or near-fluent English, making it very tempting and very easy to stay where I’m comfortable. But here’s the thing: Exchange isn’t supposed to be comfortable. This experience is all about stretching my boundaries and trying new things! So, about three weeks after I arrived, I informed my host mom that from there on out I would use Bulgarian whenever I could. Even if it meant forming half-Bulgarian, half-English sentences (which it almost always does) or if it took me three tries to accurately communicate a thought. I would make the effort.
Since then, I would say I’ve stuck to my promise…more or less. Because I know most basic verbs and a lot of random vocabulary but nothing particularly complicated, I often get halfway through a sentence before realizing I knew how to say most of it in Bulgarian. In order to form a phrase I usually have to think through the whole thing in my head first, which isn’t ideal for maintaining the flow of a conversation. Still, I’m working on it and can feel myself understanding a little more each day. Being surrounded by Bulgarian in school, while it can make staying focused a bit of a challenge, is definitely helping train my ear to pick out familiar words and phrases, as well as become more comfortable with the language’s rhythm and flow.
Most foreigners who come to Bulgaria don’t bother to learn the language, so the response from my peers, teachers, and random people on the street when I do use Bulgarian has been really positive. A favorite moment is when I was at one of the many bookstands on Slaveykov Square looking at a book that had Hristo Botev, Bulgaria’s most famous and beloved poet, poems printed in Bulgarian and French. Upon seeing me look only at the French side of the page, as well as some English-language books, the bookseller assumed I spoke no Bulgarian and began using hand gestures and basic English words to try and communicate to me that the price on the sticker was not what I would have to pay. As she was drawing “18” in the air, I managed to interrupt and say in Bulgarian, “I know numbers.” Her face lit up and she exclaimed, “Oh, чудесно!” (meaning “great”) and we proceeded to complete the transaction in her native tongue. It felt really, really good. This experience also stands out because in most stores, restaurants, etc., people respond in English even when I try to use Bulgarian because they can tell I’m a foreigner. Though English clearly wasn’t an option here, I loved hearing beautiful, native Bulgarian in response to my own broken attempt at the language.
Having not been at square one in serious language study since I was five, the extreme difficulty of this endeavor caught me slightly off-guard. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but some part of me also assumed I would have some sort of intuitive sense for Bulgarian as I do for French, that I would be able to just figure things out as I go. Realizing that my Bulgarian will only develop through actual study and a lot of hard work, rather than by mere observation and absorption, took some adjusting. Luckily, Delaney, Makana, and Lily share in my desire to become as fluent as possible and we have plans to continue taking lessons together throughout the year. My host mom found me a private tutor who she wants me to meet with regularly as well. Hopefully the combination of two sets of lessons, studying on my own, and paying close attention to the Bulgarian swirling around me will do the trick. I guess I’ll find out soon enough! For now, I’ll have to be content with stumbling through the world, embarrassing myself at every turn, in the hopes that one day, someday, I’ll be able to order a salad all on my own.”
* The article is from Margaret Gleason’s blog.