Opening Doors with Language

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Karina Mobley, YES Abroad Bulgaria ’19

Здравейте (hello) from Bulgaria! I’m in the midst of my second flu vacation which has given me time to reflect on the last six months in this country. The most obvious accomplishment to me is that I can now (almost) speak Bulgarian! I came here knowing a few words and not being able to read the Cyrillic alphabet, but with time and a lot of patience I began to grasp a better understanding of things. Every day presents new challenges. In school, most of my classes are taught in Bulgarian, with a few classes taught in English and French. Sitting in classes in a language I have only a basic level of proficiency in felt a bit pointless at first, but as time has gone on I consistently surprise myself with how much I can pick up from lectures. Our teacher Nadia always encourages us to write as much as we can in Bulgarian so that we can practice different phrases that may not come up in typical conversation. The other girls and I have ongoing challenges as to who can write the most outlandish stories. Past installments of our stories have ranged from fictional cow infestations in our schools to fighting the mafia and I am certain that poor Nadia must think we’ve gone insane, but our lessons always end in smiles.

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Bulgarian language lesson

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However everytime I think I have a firm grasp on Bulgarian, I very quickly prove myself wrong. Like all languages, there are a lot of nuances which require time to practice and master. Searching for the parallels between Bulgarian and English makes the process easier, but other times, foreign and confusing grammar concepts seem so far out of reach. I often compare learning Bulgarian to a game of darts. I can study certain words and concepts, practice new phrases, and use them, but sometimes I get a bullseye while other times completely and embarrassingly missing it. I can religiously look at the same word twenty times before I actually retain it and can use it in conversation, whereas other times a word will come to me instantaneously. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned is to have a sense of humor about making mistakes and to never be discouraged by them. All of my cultural and language mishaps have turned into funny anecdotes that encouragingly remind me how far I’ve come.

One of the most gratifying parts in this journey is that I get the chance to connect with people in the community. There are foreigners in Sofia, but I seldom meet people who are attempting to learn Bulgarian like me, so I’ve found that Bulgarians take immediate interest in me. Going out into the city and practicing my Bulgarian with complete strangers initially scared me, I would practice the same line over and over before mustering up the courage to order something as simple as a cup of coffee, in Bulgarian “може ли кафе?”. But my efforts don’t go unnoticed. In the cafés I frequent, the cashiers recognize me and have watched me go from only being able to say one line in Bulgarian to actually being able to keep a conversation. It amazes me how patient people are in this country.  I sometimes feel guilty for asking my friends at school to repeat what they just said but slower, and even still not understanding, but luckily they never become annoyed with me. My friends and family here are all rooting for me and celebrating my accomplishments with me.

My host mother, unlike my host siblings and my classmates, doesn’t speak perfect English. Especially in the beginning, my host mother and I struggled to understand each other on a very fundamental level. At first, we relied on the rest of my host family to translate things to one another. I realized that I would never have a connection with her if I didn’t learn better Bulgarian, so that’s exactly what I did. I learned the essentials first, centered around things in my daily routine like “I am going to take a shower” and “I am going to bed” and for a while, I was very limited in what I could effectively communicate. My host family jokes that my host mother and I have our own hybrid language. Because I know that with her I can’t defer to English, I always have to try in Bulgarian. Our conversations branch beyond my shower and bedtime routine now, we talk about all sorts of things and I know that the confusion and hardships are worth it because I get to connect with someone that I wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

Overall, these past few months in Sofia have made for  some of the interesting and tumultuous experiences of my life. I fluctuate between feeling disheartened in how much I have left to learn and being astonished at how far I’ve come. Focusing on the small accomplishments, instead of having unrealistic expectations, has made learning more manageable. To be honest, leaving the United States to go to an entirely new country was very isolating at first and I felt misunderstood and clumsy in every aspect of life. Making friends and bonding with my host family felt forced because I couldn’t truly communicate my personality in Bulgarian. Looking back, these relationships have developed naturally to the point that I no longer feel like an uneasy foreigner. Unsurprisingly, kids in Bulgaria talk about the same things as kids in America which helped me find common ground between me and my classmates. My time in Bulgaria has been made better because I am surrounded by understanding and empathetic people who have treated me with nothing but patience. Eventually, I stopped missing the familiarity of home in the U.S. because gradually, without me realizing it, Bulgaria became the new normal. Sometimes I forget that I am still a foreigner. The feeling of displacement and homesickness has faded away, replaced with warm gratitude for the lively country that has accepted me with open arms.