Whereas my students’ English is on the whole excellent, I’m at the point now where I actually feel like I’m regressing somewhat in my Bulgarian and actual improvement would take a Herculean effort which I’m not quite sure I have. When you first start learning a language, every new vocabulary set is applauded and you feel accomplished just for being able to do small things and string together short sentences. But now, despite – or perhaps because of – the fact that I have FIVE Bulgarian tutors (the one official teacher employed by the school, two of my students, and two Bulgarian teachers who do a language exchange with me where I also work with them on English), I’m learning a lot that, in turn, sets me back further.
Verb Tenses – Now that I’m trying to actually say real things in Bulgarian, I’ve come face to face with all kinds of horrible complicated Bulgarian tenses. For example, there is a finished and a continual form of every verb in Bulgarian – it’s sort of like simple vs. progressive form in English…except not really. (You can have the equivalent of past simple continual in Bulgarian, for example). The finished form is for a completed or finite action. The continual form is for repeated, ongoing, or general action. Meanwhile, I’m also learning past and future tense, and there are different conjugations for finished vs. continual in those tenses as well. Add to that the fact that I haven’t been able to just sit and master ONE of these tenses/forms (heck, I never even fully mastered all the different conjugations for present simple) before getting thrown another one, and it’s like, “Muhhh…brain…huuuuurts” (CONTINUAL ACTION).
Vocabulary – Also now that I’m trying to say more things in Bulgarian conversations with my tutors, I just start Bulgarifying existing English words when I don’t know the Bulgarian word. This actually works a surprisingly high percentage of the time. However, it can also trip me up in the reverse direction. For example, last week my boy student tutor was teaching me football-related terms:
Student Tutor: “So do you know what a corner [kick] is?”
Me: “Yes. Oh! And I know how to say “corner” in Bulgarian, too! It’s ъгъла.” (uh-guh-la [or uh-guh-wa, heh] – the only word in Bulgarian that starts with the letter “uh”)
Student Tutor: “Oh, well actually…that’s true, but in football you just say корнер (cor-ner…said with Bulgarian pronunciation).”
Pronunciation – This also leads to another problem of Engarian: Bulgarians are really really picky about your pronunciation. Even when context is provided and there’s really only one word you could possibly be saying, Bulgarians still pretend they can’t understand you because of your pronunciation.
For example, I will be ordering lunch in the cafeteria, and here are the options on the day’s menu (just the first words, to simplify, and a pronunciation guide):
- кебапчета (ke-bap-che-ta) – a stick of grilled meat
- боб (bob) – white bean stew
- кюфтета (kyoof-te-ta) – grilled meat patties
- свинско (svin-sko) – pork
The woman asks me for my order (in Bulgarian – they don’t speak any English – or at least they claim they don’t!), and I say, “Bob.”
Lunch Lady frowns at me and cocks her head.
Me, again, “BOB.”
Lunch Lady, getting increasingly irritated, barks at me: “Какво?!”
Lunch Lady, having an epiphany at last: “Ah, боб!” said with a marginally more Bulgarian accent, then marches off grumpily to get the white bean stew (which is delicious, by the way) for the stupid American.
I can’t think of an example, but I swear this has probably also happened with a word that was originally English as well. Like I might say, “corner” and some Bulgarian would be all, “WTF???”
Now, there could be some very reasonable explanations for all this. Our head lunch lady, like so many lunch ladies seemingly the world over, is incredibly grumpy (I guess you would be too, if you were a lunch lady). And it’s true that Bulgarians would probably not be as accustomed as Americans to hearing their language spoken in such a wide assortment of accents and tones, so maybe they’re just not as used to deciphering it. And to be fair, most Bulgarians in stores and such are quite accommodating and willing to work with you, and often appreciative that you are at least trying to speak their language even though they have no idea what on earth you’re saying, poor dear. (I swear my Bulgarian pronunciation is not THAT bad!)
The Entertainment/Pity Factor – Overall, as an American trying to navigate Sofia speaking Bulgarian, you just have to be prepared to be an endless source of amusement to Bulgarians. People often seem to be barely suppressing giggles when they’re dealing with you (hey, I’ll take that over lunch lady grumps). However, as is unfortunately the case the world over, including frequently in the U.S., if you don’t speak the native language fluently but aren’t in a touristy area or don’t appear to be a tourist, the natural conclusion is that you must, of course, be retarded.
Granted, I am sometimes guilty of actions that help further this belief. Yesterday I went out to buy some basic tools: a screwdriver, so that I could unscrew the bathroom light cover and replace the lightbulb (it turned out, after a lengthy and difficult investigation during which I was convinced I was about to break through the seat of the flimsy kitchen chair I was standing on, that the bulb wasn’t burned out at all but rather had somehow managed, despite working perfectly well for 8 months and without anybody touching it, to wiggle itself loose in its socket and merely had to be tightened in order to start functioning again), a tape measure, a hammer, and some small nails so that I could start hanging pictures and artwork in my apartment (yes, it’s taken me 8 months to put anything up on the walls).
I managed to buy everything except the nails at the lev store across the street from my apartment. I knew there were some small hardware shops in the little street market a couple of blocks down, so I headed there after looking up in the dictionary how to say “nails” (гвоздеий) and “hammer” (чук) for good measure, even though I already had a hammer, just in case I needed to try to explain anything further, because somehow I never quite believe that the words printed on a dictionary page will actually work in a real-life context – like I’m convinced it’s all some crazy conspiracy.
Armed with this suspect vocabulary, I march into the little hardware shop (which, you have to understand, is about the size of a bathroom). Dude pauses the football match he’s been watching on his little TV.”
Dude: “Добър ден.”
Me: “Добър ден. Имате ли…гвоздеий?”
At this point, based on prior experiences, panic immediately starts to set in. It’s not the right word – the dictionary failed me! I’m pronouncing it SLIGHTLY off so that he doesn’t understand what I’m talking about even though I’m in a hardware store and asking about something that sounds BASICALLY like the word for “nails”!
So I repeat, “Да, гвоздеий” – and this time add a miming motion like I’m nailing something into a wall. Or, you know, pumping my fist like Arsenio Hall. Or trying to play rock-paper-scissors.
This is, of course, why Bulgarians sometimes think I’m retarded.
Apparently, though, the word and/or the miming was accurate enough that the dude understood what I needed. He pulls out a clear plastic packet of big-ass nails that are labeled with a sticker “7 cm.”
Me: “Имате ли по-малки?” (Do you have any smaller ones?)
He pulls out a packet of smaller nails labeled “3 cm” that still have kind of big round heads, and as I’m pondering whether they’re still a little too big/clunky to be putting into my apartment walls, he mistakes my hesitation for retardedness and starts kindly trying to explain to me that the bigger nails are BIGGER than the smaller nails, and that the bigger nails are 7 centimeters long – here he pulls out a tape measure and shows me 7 centimeters – whereas the smaller ones are 3 centimeters long. You know, because I can’t see the nails through the clear plastic. And the universal NUMBERS on the stickers might be really confusing to me.
Anyway, he was really very nice and meant well and I got my nails and he wished me a happy Easter on my way out, but this is just the kind of Engarian transaction you have to get used to as an ex-pat.
PS, out of curiosity I just Googled how you might say the other kind of “nails” in Bulgarian (like fingernails), and aside from the actual Bulgarian word for them, I found a bunch of nail salons called ______ Нейлс, which would be pronounced “______ Nails.”
The X Factor – The one added component that I have to deal with in Bulgaria that the other American teachers don’t is that I’m not white and so Bulgarians are sort of mystified in general about where I might come from and why on earth I’m in Bulgaria. At the vet’s office after I took Romy in to get her stitches out, the assistant (the one who always goes straight to the back to get an English-speaking vet because he’s one of those Bulgarians won’t admit he actually speaks English) was filling out the paperwork at the front desk while one of the English-speaking vets was sort of dawdling and hanging about uselessly, when he finally says to me in a way that makes it clear that he’s been thinking about it for a while,
English-Speaking Vet: “I am sorry, this is very rude of me, but I wanted to ask you where you come from?”
(Mind you, everyone in this vet office knows me by now, and this vet has dealt with Romy and me numerous times in the past)
Me: “Oh…it’s ok. I’m from the U.S., but my family is from Taiwan originally.” Because that’s what Bulgarians are actually asking when they say that.
(Assistant is meanwhile grinning into the paperwork, totally understanding every word…I wonder if it was a bet between them or something.)
ESV: “I am sorry to ask because I think is very rude but I am wanting to know this because you speak English extremely well.”
ESV: “You have no accent at all.”
ESV: “Is like you were born in a native English-speaking country.”
Me: “…uh, thanks?”
Assistant effing loved every second of it.