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How to Learn the Bulgarian Language and Cyrillic Alphabet

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How to Learn the Bulgarian Language and Cyrillic Alphabet

They say that people learn Bulgarian for love, not business – but no matter why you’re doing it, studying Bulgarian is a rewarding undertaking.

And whether you want to visit Bulgaria’s gorgeous mountains or historic cities, chat with warm-hearted Bulgarians in your own hometown, or immerse yourself into the country’s poetic and powerful literature, there are plenty of reasons to start learning this undervalued language.

So, if you’re setting out to teach yourself Bulgarian, let’s take a look at what you need to know about this language and the best apps, language courses, and textbooks to help you along the way.

About the Bulgarian Language

Around 15 million people speak this Southern Slavic language, which is also mutually intelligible with Macedonian and closely related to Serbian, Croatian, Bosnian, and Slovenian.

Some words will sound familiar to speakers of Romance languages, since Bulgarian is influenced by Latin, French, and Italian, as well as Russian, Greek, Arabic, and German. English loanwords are also increasingly common, such as чат (čat), which means text or internet chat, and тост (tost), which means toast.

Turkish has also contributed a large number of loanwords. Bulgaria was conquered by the Ottoman Empire in the late 14th century and continued under Ottoman rule until its unofficial independence in 1878 (followed by a formal declaration of independence in 1908). Hundreds of years of influence have led to distinct similarities between Turkish and Bulgarian words for everyday objects such as clothing and food.

Bulgarian and the Invention of the Cyrillic Script

Bulgarian was originally transcribed in Glagolitic script – the oldest Slavic alphabet. However, unless your aim is to study historical Bulgarian texts from the ninth to twelfth century, you won’t need to study Glagolitic and can instead busy yourself with Cyrillic.

Cyrillic was created in the ninth to tenth century in the Preslav Literary School in Pliska, the ancient capital of the Bulgarian Empire, under the orders of the Bulgarian Tsar Simeon I the Great.

And under the Bulgarian Empire, it spread across Eurasia. According to the Bulgarian Presidency of the Council of the European Union, more than 300 million people use the Cyrillic alphabet. It’s the script of Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, and many more.

Yet although Russian and Ukrainian speakers might have a head start on the script, they will still have to learn the Bulgarian version of it, which uses fewer characters and has some differences in pronunciation.

The modern Bulgarian alphabet uses 30 Cyrillic letters, 6 of which are vowels. Although some of them bear similarities to Roman script, don’t make the mistake of pronouncing them the same way. “P” is closer to an “R” sound, while Я sounds more like “ya” (and is a vowel).

Here’s the Bulgarian alphabet in full:

How Difficult Is Bulgarian?

Bulgarian is not the world’s easiest language to learn. But let’s be honest, you probably aren’t considering picking it up for its simplicity, are you?

And we have some good news for you: the pronunciation is relatively easy – especially compared to English. The vowels, for example, are always pronounced the same way.

You do have to learn a new alphabet (which we will cover in more detail below), but there are only 30 letters. That’s more than in English, but the writing system is much simpler than many Asian languages such as Chinese, Japanese, and Thai.

Contemporary Bulgarian has roughly 200,000 words, which isn’t much more than English (171,476). And while you may find yourself equally amazed and exasperated by the number of ways to say “but,” you’ll also find that this facilitates a rich, persuasive, and elegant way of speaking. You’ll love the poetic beauty of Bulgarian literature.

Bulgarian grammar will probably be the most frustrating part of your language journey. Yet while it is trickier than English grammar, it isn’t as challenging as German or other Slavic languages. There will be some things that English speakers recognise, such as articles (e.g. “the”) and a heavy use of conjunctions.

There are three grammatical genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. If a word ends in a consonant, it’s usually masculine – but, like with most languages, there are some exceptions to the rules. Nouns and adjectives demonstrate the gender, as well as if the object is plural or singular.

There are technically three different cases – accusative, dative, and nominative – but in modern Bulgarian, these are only used with personal pronouns. The accusative marks the direct object (You introduced her to me), the dative marks the indirect object (You introduced her to me), and the nominative marks the subject (You introduced her to me). As far as cases go, this makes Bulgarian significantly easier than other Slavic languages and also German.

On the other hand, the language has thirty different tenses once you take into account the subjunctive (“If I were you”), imperative (“Do it!”), and conditional.

Yet once you’ve got your head around the grammar, you’ll find that learning Bulgarian opens the door to a country with breath-stopping landscapes, a fascinating history, and friendly locals.

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How to Learn Bulgarian

Your Bulgarian language journey is going to be a lot easier once you’ve mastered the alphabet. Doing so will enable you to use more textbooks, apps, and language courses – and help you out with street signs if you eventually visit the country.

Fortunately, with just 30 characters, you can probably master this quite quickly. In fact, we suggest learning this before you start work on any vocabulary or phrases – even Здравей (Zdravey) or “Hello.”

Once you’ve got the alphabet sorted, you’ll be ready to dive into the world of Bulgarian grammar, vocabulary, listening and more.

Your main focus will probably depend on your language goals. Want to make local friends? Listening, speaking and informal expressions will be essential. Interested in Bulgarian literature? Focus on reading. Hoping to stay in touch with a Bulgarian exchange student? You’ll need to work on writing for all those online messages.

Yet while effective language studies won’t necessarily hone all skill sets to the same degree, your studies will probably benefit from a certain amount of balance. Try to find a language-learning routine that allows you to practice your reading, writing, listening, speaking, vocabulary and grammar – even if it’s more weighted towards some elements than others.

Perhaps even more importantly, be kind to yourself. Don’t overwhelm yourself by taking on too much at once. Aim to study for shorter periods but more frequently, and don’t beat yourself up if you get off track.

Remember that learning a language is a marathon rather than a sprint. It’s better to go slowly but consistently than push yourself too hard and become demotivated.

In fact, you may find one of the best ways to learn Bulgarian is by adopting a little айляк (aylyak), a Bulgarian concept for taking things easy, enjoying the moment, and going at your pace.

Resources for Learning Bulgarian

Courses, apps, websites, textbooks, online tutoring – there are plenty of ways to learn Bulgarian at home, whether you’re teaching yourself the language or looking for supplementary materials for formal studies.

Mastering the Bulgarian Version of the Cyrillic Alphabet

Learning a whole new alphabet can seem intimidating, but once you get started, you’ll soon find you not only recognise the different characters but can automatically sound them out in your head.

BulgarianPod101 (who we’ll touch on in more depth under Bulgarian Language Courses and Bulgarian Podcasts) has a free downloadable ebook for learning the alphabet.

You’ll want to combine this with some kind of audio or video, however, to learn how to pronounce each letter. YouTube videos, such as this one from Learn Bulgarian Easily, will help you with this. Alternatively, if you know IPA, this Omniglot guide could be perfect for you.

If, on the other hand, you prefer to learn on your phone, try one of these two community-created courses (here and here) on Memrise.

Of course, once you’ve learned the alphabet, you’ll need a way to type it. When writing on your computer, you can use the Lexilogos Bulgarian keyboard. As for your phone, you should be able to download your phone’s official Bulgarian keyboard, the Bulgarian version of the GO Keyboard, or another Bulgarian keyboard app.

Bulgarian Language Courses and Websites

Freemium course BulgarianPod101 has a wide range of video and audio lessons. We recommend it as a supplementary course, especially since it will help you practice your listening and vocabulary, but it would be good to use it alongside a textbook as well. You can get some of the material for free, but if you decide you want the full subscription, you can use our promo code ‘ALLLANGUAGERESOURCES’ to get 25% off.

Bulgaro.io is an online course focused on grammar and vocabulary. We like that each level or lesson starts off with a detailed explanation of the material, and then there are a series of quizzes you have to complete, as well as links to corresponding Anki decks. You get the first few classes for free, but to access the full material (47 classes spread over 25 levels) you’ll need to pay €6.90/month. The only annoying thing is that there’s no way to skip levels, meaning that this is best designed for beginners – or people with lots of patience.

My Languages has an extensive Bulgarian section that will break down many of the grammar points for free, but there are no quizzes or exercises. Drilling the material is down to you. You could, however, combine it with these free-to-use grammar drills from linguistics emeritus professor Kjetil Rå Hauge.

Subscription-based Transparent Language will help you drill vocabulary and practice your pronunciation, although we were unconvinced of their teaching methodology, disappointed by the lack of basic grammar explanations, and bored by the repetitiveness. You can read more of our thoughts on it here.

Looking for something like Transparent Language, but that’s free? iLanguages will help you drill basic vocabulary, as will Surface Languages. Polymath covers vocabulary and grammar relatively extensively but doesn’t have audio files.

50Languages has 100 free online Bulgarian lessons. Each lesson presents you with a long list of phrases in English along with the partially obscured Bulgarian translation. You can click to show the entire translation and also listen to a recording of it. While this might sound promising, there is no explanation and you are simply memorising phrases out of context.

101Languages has some basic phrases; information on the history, grammar, and syntax of Bulgarian; and the same online lessons as 50Languages. However, we believe that there are better options available for studying Bulgarian, especially since the grammar breakdown is quite dense and academic.

EasyBulgarian.com is a nine-lesson online course covering grammar, phrases, pronunciation, and more. It’s as comprehensive as a textbook, down to the exercises for each unit. However, it’s pricey and the dated, garish looks and sound effects could soon get annoying.

LearnBulgarianEasily also has an eight-lesson beginner-level course, but again, we’re not convinced that it’s worth it because of the high price. Bulgaro.io and BulgarianPod101, while subscription based, are more affordable and comprehensive options.

17 Minute Languages promises to teach you Bulgarian in just 17 minutes a day through spaced repetition and quizzes, but we recommend avoiding this one – in our experience, it has too many errors and sometimes has trouble with non-Roman texts.

Another one that we would avoid is Loecsen, which helps you drill phrases. While we like the easy-to-use interface and the usefulness of the new vocabulary, we found that too many of the phrases sounded odd in this context. While they might translate directly to the English phrase, they weren’t how native speakers would express this idea.

Should you feel like taking on a challenge, this language course is designed for Bulgarian school children from first all the way up to twelfth grade. You won’t find any English on this website, but it does have a comprehensive curriculum with lots of videos.

Alternatively, if self-directed study isn’t for you, iTalki and Verbling will help you find a teacher for online classes. We’ve reviewed iTalki here and Verbling here.

Apps for Learning Bulgarian

Neither Duolingo nor Memrise have official Bulgarian courses, but there is an extensive range of community-made ones on Memrise.

The paid-for app Mondly is one of the few bigger name companies that offers a course for Bulgarian. We’re not a huge fan of the interface or the one-size-fits-all-languages curriculum, but it can be a good starting point – especially because it will let you switch between scripts, which can be handy if you haven’t yet mastered Cyrillic.

When you’re ready for more advanced vocabulary, try Clozemaster, a game-like app that presents you with vocabulary in context. It’s a freemium app but we feel that you can benefit a lot just with the free version.

uTalk will help you memorize set phrases, which can be useful if you’re visiting the country. We like their use of native speakers, as well as the ability to record and listen back to yourself speaking the Bulgarian phrases.

If you’re looking to practice reading in Bulgarian, you could try the beta version of LingQ. It has its flaws, but the import-a-text option is a handy way to read otherwise challenging books in your new language. We also like that it caters for different language-learning levels, thanks to the huge variety of content. Find more about our experience with it here.

With the paid-for app Glossika, you can practice your speaking and listening through spaced repetition. It’s a good choice if you’re studying multiple languages at once, especially since you can adjust the audio to be in any two of the 60+ languages they offer. However, it is relatively expensive ($25–$30 a month), and since it won’t help you actively practice new grammar, you’ll need to pair it with another resource. You can read more about our thoughts on it here.

Newly launched Lingohackers won’t teach you Bulgarian but it will help you practice writing it through three daily Bulgarian challenges, which fellow learners and native speakers can then correct.

Tandem, HelloTalk, and Speaky will help you find language exchange partners to practice Bulgarian with. We’ve compared Tandem and HelloTalk and reviewed Speaky to help you choose the right app for you.

Anki is a build-it-yourself flashcard program that can help you drill the new vocabulary you come across elsewhere. You can also find Bulgarian flashcard decks that other users have built. We like the way it adapts to how difficult particular words are for you.

Podcasts for Learning Bulgarian

If you want something designed for language-learners, you’re in luck: the BulgarianPod101 series are great for beginner Bulgarian learners through to advanced students, and are often conveniently short.

You can also download the audio files for Colloquial Bulgarian here. Despite the name, it’s not just about vocabulary and phrasing: you’ll also pick up plenty of grammar.

As for regular Bulgarian-language podcasts, you’ve also got a few to choose from. The 10-minute SBS Bulgarian episodes explore world news and Bulgarian culture, while Darik Radio has a podcast section. AWR Bulgarian is devoted to religion and spirituality.

We’ve got a whole article dedicated to Bulgarian podcasts, so find out more about these here.

Bulgarian Textbooks and Reference Books

Sometimes, a traditional textbook or reference book can help you structure your learning or master a tricky grammatical concept.

The Step by Step: Bulgarian Language and Culture for Foreigners (A1) (Volume 1) (Bulgarian Edition) series will take you through beginner-level (A1 and A2) Bulgarian.

Intensive Bulgarian, Vol. 1: A Textbook & Reference Grammar is dated but popular among learners, while Bulgarian: Beyond the First Steps is designed for self-study. You will need to have already mastered the Cyrillic alphabet, however.

Grammar Matters: Bulgarian Grammar in Charts will help you tackle the language’s challenging grammar, while Verb Activator for 212 Bulgarian Verbs breaks down verb conjugation in detail.

LiveLingua has a selection of scanned and uploaded textbooks from bodies such as the Peace Corps, FSI, and more, along with the official audio clips. The quality of these can vary according to the original publisher.

Bulgarian Fiction Books and Poetry

Ready to start tackling Bulgarian novels? Bulgarian literature is poetic, political, and powerful. It often tackles the country’s turbulent past as well as its relationship with the West.

Deyan Enev is a popular contemporary short story writer who questions the relationship between democracy, happiness, and prosperity. Since much of his work is flash fiction, it will not only give you an insight into the country’s culture but also make for an easier introduction to Bulgarian literature.

Meanwhile, Katerina Hapsali’s multi-award-winning Гpъцкo кaфe (Greek Coffee) explores recent Balkan history through the lens of motherhood and relationships. Her newest novel Сливовиц (Slivovitz) is also highly rated, as is her poetry.

Looking for Bulgarian classics? Aleko Konstantinov’s Bay Ganyo is Bulgaria’s answer to Don Quixote. The satirical novel shares the story of the anti-hero’s travels throughout Europe and eventual return to Bulgaria.

Jewish writers have also made significant contributions to Bulgarian literature, especially over the last century. Start with the poets Valeri Mevorah, David Ovadia and Salis Tadjer.

If novels and poetry are too challenging for now, you might want to begin with children’s books. You can download several here, although not all of them were originally written in Bulgarian. You’ll also find a wide range on Amazon, such as КОТКАТА-ЛЕЧИТЕЛКА and Maya i kontzertat na talantite (Феята Розичка и българските деца по света) (Bulgarian Edition).

Slovo is another source for original Bulgarian texts, but you’ll need to understand Bulgarian (or use Google Translate) to use it.

YouTube Channels for Learning Bulgarian

You’ll find a lot of videos from BulgarianPod101 on YouTube, but that’s not your only option. Learn Bulgarian Easily has several short videos drilling vocabulary. While limited in number, what’s nice about them is that in addition to speaking and writing the word in Bulgarian, they also write it out phonetically and indicate where the stress should fall.

Blue Lane adds new content on an almost daily basis, while Speak Bulgarian with Bela is a new but well-structured and engaging channel.

Vasil Todorov has a series of 15-minute (ish) lessons on A1 Bulgarian. The presentation is dry, but the material is thorough.

Learn Bulgarian has a series of 17 videos that are designed to accompany a textbook. The first few won’t be much use without a text, but later ones will help you drill beginner-level vocabulary and phrases.

Once you’re at an intermediate or advanced level in Bulgarian, you might like to try videos designed for native-level or fluent speakers. Some of the most popular YouTube Bulgarian vloggers include ‘Айде БГ, Мъци, and Ала-Бала, while Fen TV BG promotes Bulgarian music and often interviews singers and artists. HeyKids – Детски Песни is also a good option for children’s shows.

Other Resources

Want to practice your reading without diving into a novel? Take a look at typical news sites, such as Bulgaria Dnes and 24часа. If you come across an unfamiliar word, you can turn to English-Bulgarian dictionaries such as Ectaco and NewObjects. Or, if you’re confident with a Bulgarian-only dictionary, use Rechnik.

Meanwhile, listening to Bulgarian music can help you pick up new words and phrases without feeling like you’re studying. Just make sure these are appropriate for everyday use before you try them out in conversation – you don’t want to accidentally pick up disrespectful terms from listening to Bulgarian rap, while chalga or pop-folk lyrics may at times be overly metaphorical.

Not sure where to start? Search for playlists on Spotify, such as Bulgarian Pop Hits and Bulgarian Pop-Folk Hits, or listen to popular radio shows such as BG Radio, Radio Veronika, and bTV Radio.

On the topic of radio, Radio Bulgaria’s website provides a mixture of articles and news-based radio recordings.

There’s no shortage of resources for learning Bulgarian. In fact, one of the trickiest things might be deciding where to get started.

Remember that not all language learners are the same. Your ideal Bulgarian app or book won’t necessarily be someone else’s favourite. Don’t be afraid to switch to a new resource if you find yourself getting too bored or frustrated – with so many options, you’ll be able to find the right one for you.

So, what are you waiting for? Try a few out, find the ones that work for you, and then create your study routine. You’ll be surprised by how quickly you pick up this beautiful language.

Comments (1)

your site is wonderful; thanks for all the tips

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