Foreign languages: How well do Bulgarians speak them?

Written by on February 27, 2017 in Culture, Latest, Leisure - No comments

In Sofia or Plovdiv, anyone could walk up to any pedestrian aged 12 to 25, and ask him or her anything in English. Something like “Where did you purchase those fancy sneakers?” or “Dude, where in the hell is the next Porsche dealership?” The answer will be swift and masterful.

When walking up to Bulgarians at age 40 or older, the result will be very different, especially outside the large cities. Here you would have to try in Russian or German.

All in all, foreign language levels in Bulgaria are relatively high. Of course, there are good reasons:

>> There are countless secondary schools in the country, which offer intensive English, German, Spanish, French or Russian classes. What this means is that students would learn that foreign language almost all day long in 8th grade, until they reach a good working level. At some of those high schools, they even have teachers who are native speakers.

>> One million Bulgarians live abroad, mainly because they want decent salaries for their work, which they will not get in their home country. Tens of thousands more are preparing to leave the country. Therefore they take an effort in learning the foreign language needed.

>> Within Bulgaria, more foreign languages lead to better jobs. Sofia is one of the European outsourcing Meccas. Young Bulgarians with good foreign language skills will get well paid jobs, for Bulgarian standards. And the demand is high. Big companies like HP are even looking for people with good command of German in neighbouring countries, since they already employed everyone who speaks that language in Bulgaria.

English is not a Slavic, but rather a Germanic language, which is why it might not be an easy language to learn, from the perspective of nations which speak Slavic languages, such as Bulgaria. On the other hand, English is the language of the internet, of computer games and of movies, and it is the world language. Also, in today’s world, the U.K. and the U.S. are just around the corner.

Just like in other countries, there are pretty bad English teachers in Bulgaria, and excellent ones. Three years ago, at Sofia’s school no. 19, there was a so-called English teacher who actually did not speak a word of English. On the other hand, there are teachers and linguists in Bulgaria, who can recite Shakespeare plays while sounding like a native from Stratford-upon-Avon.

Generally speaking, only 20 to 29% percent of Bulgarians speak English. This outcome of a survey conducted in 2006 is comparable with the results reached in Spain or Hungary, at the lower end of the scale, in comparison with E.U. countries. While English is the most spoken second language in most European states, including in the neighbouring countries Romania and Greece, Bulgaria has two of them, English and Russian, which means the foreign language skills are divided between the two.

The Russian language skills of Bulgarians, of course, developed due to the partnership between the Soviet Union and communist Bulgaria. The second language taught at most schools used to be Russian, a language which adapted the Cyrillic alphabet invented by Kyrill, a Bulgarian.

Regarding French and Spanish, there are secondary schools, in Sofia and elsewhere, which concentrate on these languages and do have a good reputation. Foreign language enthusiasts in Bulgaria like Spanish a lot, because it is a nice language indeed, but also because at least the pronunciation is similar to the Bulgarian one.

German is a difficult language to learn and almost every Bulgarian (or almost any person of any nationality) who speaks it, will mess up the grammar, which is understandable. Still, German has a big significance because many Bulgarians studied at universities in the former GDR, before 1989. Bulgarians with technical professions study German a lot, even today, either because they need it, in order to get a job in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, or because they have important business contacts in those countries.

Today, quite a few German companies present in Bulgaria, including Kaufland, offer German courses to their employees at their Bulgarian HQs, because part of the internal communication is usually in German.

Sofia and other cities in Bulgaria are full of language schools, due to the high demand. At the upper end of the scale, in institutions such as the British Council, the Goethe-Institut, the Instituto Cervantes or the Institut Français, students will be taught by natives who are professional language teachers. At private language schools, which employ native teachers exclusively, such as the International House, prices are relatively high in comparison. In the average price range, e.g. at Berlitz, there are both native and local teachers, which does not automatically say anything about the quality of the classes, while at the cheaper schools, local teachers will torture their students with the past perfect tense, or, even worse, “Akkusativ und Dativ” and that kind of thing. In the latter kind of schools, and probably the other ones as well, there are excellent, average and less gifted teachers.

In the meantime, the number of Bulgarians interested in more exotic languages, such as Korean, Mandarin or Japanese, seems to be on the rise, judging from the number of schools offering courses of this kind. I know one expression in Japanese: California Roll.

By Imanuel Marcus




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