Bulgarian is one of the many Slavic languages and often overlooked by language learners who more often look to take on Russian or Polish as a new language. That being said, I personally think Bulgarian is well worth your time to learn and in some ways it is way more interesting than other Slavic languages.
So, how hard is Bulgarian to learn?
Well, it is really quite difficult especially in terms of grammar and if you are not familiar with Cyrillic. So, lets have a look exactly how difficult it is.
- Vocabulary – Anyone who has experience with a Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian and even Russian is going to have some shared vocabulary with which to draw upon. There are also loans words from French, Greek and a few from English. But as a native English speaker you are not starting with much of a head start. Building the new vocabulary base will take a lot of time and effort.
- Grammar – Unlike other Slavic languages, Bulgarian doesn’t have a case system which is helpful and limits complexity. However, the verb conjugations for Bulgarian are much more complex than similar Slavic languages as there are many more variations and combination to commit to memory. Also, if you only speak English you won’t be familiar with gendered nouns and for Bulgarian there are three. All your adverbs and adjectives have to agree in terms of gender which can make your speech slow and clunky to start. In short, the grammar for Bulgarian is very hard and will take a lot of memorisation and practice.
- Speaking/Listening – The consonant and vowel sounds in Bulgarian are not too tricky or new for an English speaker. That being said, the placement of stress is irregular and doesn’t follow some general rule so you have to learn its position for each word.
- Writing/Reading – Bulgarian uses the Cyrillic writing system and the spelling is relatively phonetic. So, if you have used this writing system before then you are at an advantage. Nevertheless, the writing system doesn’t take too long to master and you should have it down in a matter of weeks.
But we are really only scratching the surface. Lets dive in further!
How Hard Is Bulgarian to Learn Really?
Bulgarian is closely related to many Slavic languages. Around 80% of the Bulgarian vocabulary has a shared root with languages like Macedonian, Serbo-Croatian and Russian. Other languages from which Bulgarian has borrowed from include Greek and French with English in recent years playing an increasing role. Some clear examples include the following.
- Bacon — беко́н — (bekón)
- Business — би́знес — (bíznes)
- Retrovirus — ретрови́рус — (retrovírus)
- Sandwich — са́ндвич — (sándvič)
- Taxi — такси́ — (taksí)
- Hamburger — ха́мбургер — (hámburger)
- Gentlemen — дже́нтълмен — (džéntǎlmen)
Nevertheless, the number of loanwords from English is pretty minimal. So, really only those with a background in Slavic languages will have an advantage with the vocabulary.
The keys problem areas of Bulgarian grammar are variety of different conjugations for verb forms and aspects along with the complexity of rules for direct and indirect objects.
- Word Order – The word order of Bulgarian is subject-verb-object, however this is not fixed and much looser than in other languages. There are some cases like with negatives in sentences where an order is fixed but defaulting to s-v-o is your best bet.
- Cases – Unlike other Slavic languages, Bulgarian doesn’t have a case system. When Bulgaria was ruled by the Ottomans it lost this feature so it is simpler in this aspect to other Slavic languages.
- Pronouns – Much like in English, Bulgarian has a standard set of pronouns. Be aware that there are informal and polite pronouns for you and the pronoun for it is only for neuter nouns, not masculine or feminine which use the he/she pronouns.
- Nouns – There are 3 genders in Bulgarian for the nouns. Masculine, neuter and feminine. These usually have regular endings which you can learn. These in turn are altered for the plurals. There are no indefinite articles in Bulgarian but there are definite articles which are placed after the noun.
- Prepositions – In Bulgarian prepositions act much like in English and there are many you have to learn and apply.
- Adjectives – The adjective is placed in front of the noun and agrees in terms of gender and number.
- Verbs – The verbs have different forms depending on the subject, in other words they are conjugated. There are 3 types of verb root denoted by the endings, either -e, -и or -a. These three types of verb root have different rules for how they change. In other words you have 3 groups of subject conjugation on the verb. There are also 2 aspects for verbs, completed actions and habitual actions, for which you can form 3 different tenses. The verbs for be and have are simple and change much like normal verbs for subject, tense, type and aspect. Also, its worth noting that there is no infinitive, rather they place a that between the two verbs which both have to be changed for the appropriate subject, tense, verb type and aspect. As you can probably tell this means you have to hold a lot of rules in you head when deciding how to use a verb in a sentence.
- Direct and Indirect Objects — There are long and short forms of both direct and indirect objects. The use of both long and short forms relies on specific rules which in turn can alter where they are placed in the sentence. This can be very difficult to understand.
- Questions – There are a number of question words in Bulgarian which are simple enough to remember. Also you can place the word ли after the main verb in the statement. Its pretty straight forward.
- Consonant sounds – There are 20 consonant sounds in Bulgarian. These are all found in English. Some beginners have trouble producing the ts sounds, similar to the ts sound at the end of bats.
- Vowel Sounds – There are thought to be 7 distinct vowel phonemes as well as 4 diphthongs. These sounds are all found in English so shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The vowels in syllables that are unstressed are shorter than in syllables that are stressed but this isn’t too important to the meaning.
- Stress – There are no general rules for stress in Bulgarian. The syllable stress is learnt for each word. This can be at times maddening when compared with simple generic rules for stress like in Spanish.
The Bulgarian writing system uses a Cyrillic script similar to say Russian or Mongolian. There are 30 letters in the Bulgarian Cyrillic alphabet. In the 9th century people in Bulgaria began using something called a Glagolitic script which was then slowly replaced by the Cyrillic script. The script is almost entirely phonetic which means that once you pick up the pronunciation of the letters you can quickly advance to reading and sounding out the word.
The writing system at first looks daunting but most learners of Bulgarian find that they can learn the rules of pronunciation quickly. Compared with say Chinese or Japanese it is a walk in the park.
Why Learn Bulgarian?
Now we have found out how hard Bulgarian is, you are probably thinking about why you should want to learn the language. Here are my 4 biggest reasons, enjoy!
- Bbulgarian is a Slavic language but without all the cases to learn. Bulgarian thankfully doesn’t have the difficulty of cases which other Slavic languages in some cases still have. You can thank the Ottomans for that. It also gives you the chance to experience and learn a Cyrillic script. A very interesting script that is basically shared by many languages as diverse as Russian and Mongolian.
- Bulgaria has a fascinating history. It has played host to a variety of different civilisations over the years. From the Romans to the Ottomans, the Greeks to the Russians. And yet, it has managed to maintain a strong sense of personal identity. There are many folklore traditions and the music, food and art scene is worth checking out. All of this would be lost on you if you don’t at least attempt to learn a little of the language.
- In terms of travel is awash in options. You have the bustling capital of Sofia, the beautiful Black Sea coast in the East and the central forested regions. Bulgaria is a truly beautiful country and if you venture off the beaten track a working knowledge of the language would be invaluable.
- Not many people speak Bulgarian in the world, so if you are looking for a language sufficiently removed from the oversubscribed European languages of western Europe, then Bulgarian is a good choice. It has powerful chic factor and you will be well respected for having invested the time and effort to learn this language.
Who Speaks Bulgarian?
Bulgarian is the official language of the European country of Bulgaria. Modern Bulgarian is based on the dialects found in the northeastern part of the country.
There are around 12 million people speaking the language in the world today. The vast majority of those people are in Bulgaria but there are minorities speaking Bulgarian in Romania, the Ukraine, Moldova, Croatia, Serbia, Hungary, Greece and Turkey.
In fact there are also some dialects on the borders of Bulgaria which are very similar to the languages of Serbia, Bosnia, Slovenia and Macedonia. It is actually said by some linguists that Bulgarian is mutually intelligible with Macedonia.
Is Bulgarian a Phonetic Language?
Bulgarian is somewhat a phonetic language. In other words, the written Cyrillic form very closely represents the spoken form of the language. There are of course some exceptions like with the irregularity of stress on words which is not denoted in the script and some consonants at the end of a word change their written form a little. But, most linguists would say that Bulgarian is very close to being a fully phonetic language.
How Old is the Bulgarian Language?
Bulgarian is part of the Southern Slavic grouping of languages with Macedonia and Serbian as close relatives. But, it also has relationships with other non Slavic languages like Greek and Romanian. The language changed when the country was part of the Ottoman empire and lost certain grammatical features like the noun case system. The history of the language is divided into 3 periods, the old Bulgarian of the 9th to 11th centuries, the middle Bulgarian of the 12th to 15th centuries and the modern Bulgarian of the 16th century until now.
In terms of the written form, Bulgarian was first written in the 9th century using a Glagolitic writing system. This evolved over the years and was replaced by the Cyrillic alphabet which was fixed in 1945 with a the current spelling form.
Is Bulgarian the Easiest Slavic Language?
The short answer is possibly, but it is difficult to really say exactly as there is so much variety in the Slavic languages across different areas of complexity. First you have to break down the Slavic languages into 3 groups
- East Slavic Languages – Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian
- West Slavic Languages – Polish, Czech, Slovak
- South Slavic Languages – Slovenian, Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, Macedonian and Bulgarian
Assuming you are a native English speaker, in terms of vocabulary, the west Slavic languages are probably the easiest and have most shared loanword roots. In terms of grammar the south Slavic languages probably have the edge and are most regular but Bulgarian has complex verb conjugations. In terms of the writing system, Cyrillic is harder than the Latin writing system but can be learnt in a few weeks so shouldn’t slow you down too much. And finally in terms of speaking there aren’t too many new sounds to learn, so it compares well to other Slavic languages.
So, overall, Bulgarian is probably one of the easier Slavic languages once you overcome the Cyrillic. But language learning is heavily dependent on experience. Nevertheless, i’d thoroughly recommend Bulgarian as a good place to start if you are thinking of taking up a Slavic language.
Resources to Learn Bulgarian
I speak three languages to a fluent level and an ever growing number to a conversational level. The method I use is pretty straight forward and can be tweaked for any language be it Mandarin, Swahili or Bulgarian.
My hybrid method borrows systems and techniques from a number of sources that I have encountered over the years I have been learning different languages.
In particular, the book Fluent Forever which I thoroughly recommend. You can pick it up on Amazon for pretty cheap these days.
My hybrid method is as follows.
- Ankidroid Space Repetition — Get hold of a vocabulary frequency list for your language and build vocabulary flashcards and upload them to Ankidroid. Review the cards daily, and build new sets every week.
- Graded Reading — Scour the internet for graded reading material in your target language. Buy everything you can find, and then take some time everyday to work your way through the stories.
- Speaking Practice with italki.com — Use italki to get very cheap video chat lesson with a native teacher in your target language. The cheaper the better, and don’t mess around with overly formal lesson plans.
- Writing Practice with lang-8.com — Use Lang 8 to upload pieces of writing everyday to the community. They will correct any errors you have and you can get great native level feedback for free.
That’s basically the entire method. Don’t get bogged down in expensive drawn out language courses. Adopt, apply and even tweak this template and just keep at it!