“I think that everyone who lives in another country should try to learn the language because you really become a part of the place way more.”
Interview by Alice Turner, edited by Tamar Weisert, photography by Petur Krustev.
We are sitting in the twilight shade of a wild garden of a characterful little cottage in Krasno Selo, sipping on the most delicious homemade elderflower juice I’ve ever had. Despite being within the confines of the capital, wild animal noises abound from resident trees and the evening has a rich and verdant air. This witchy cottage is the home of Joana Nikolova and Mila Milieva – two talented twenty-something Bulgarian language teachers, artists, activists, and community organizers.
‘Bulgarian is a notoriously difficult language,’ says Joana. ‘Foreigners often start classes but become worked up by how fast they think they should be learning.’
I reflect on what Joana says, reliving all the times I have compared myself to native speakers and gotten frustrated with myself when I couldn’t communicate. I’m embarrassed to speak because I don’t want to sound like an overgrown toddler. It’s humiliating. Especially since I can comfortably use words like ‘verdant’ in the English language. It’s a big drop in status!
Joana explains that feeling like a toddler is part of the process, and it’s a slow process that contrasts with our culture of one-click instant gratification. So it’s natural for learners of Bulgarian to get frustrated.
‘There is no need for self-doubt. There is a need for acceptance, and there is a need to have fun, but also, it’s important to realize that it takes years to develop good language skills.’
But it’s hard to keep motivated to learn, especially when English is such an international language and so many people already speak it.
So why bother with Bulgarian?
‘I think that everyone who lives in another country should try to learn the language because you really become a part of the place way more. You are going to connect more; you are going to have more opportunities to share and learn, and that brings greater happiness overall.’
Okay, so I want to continue learning Bulgarian. How can I make my learning experience more fun – how can I learn to enjoy the journey instead of getting frustrated that I’m not able to communicate at the level I want?
‘You need to find meaningful and engaging resources, and become part of a Bulgarian-speaking community,’ explains Mila.
Tell me more about what you mean by ‘community’.
‘It’s a good idea to find a group of people who share your interests and who want to do things together and communicate in Bulgarian – they might be Bulgarians, they might be fellow foreigners, they might be teachers or yoga instructors or whatever. But this is definitely a key to fluency – to find and share in a community where you feel comfortable. This is part of the magic of enjoying the journey instead of getting frustrated about reaching the goal.’
So the journey is the goal. I reflect on the deepness of this statement. It sounds like something you might read on a cushion.
‘Hahaha, yes. We are looking to build our community, and we are starting to organize events like the photo marathon we just did in June, which was great fun. So if you want to join our community, reach out! We would love to hear from you.’
What do you mean by engaging resources?
‘As teachers here, we know how difficult it is to find material for learning. To engage with a new language, it’s important to have something relevant and interesting to study. Since Bulgarian isn’t a universal language, there’s pretty much nothing out there, besides some kid’s books and a few dry, boring textbooks.’
To change this opinion, the couple is developing a short story/comic book experience that intends to help people studying the Bulgarian language get more knowledge, practice, and perspective about Balkan life and culture. Mila explains that the book features several characters that we follow throughout the chapters; ‘The experiences of the characters in the book are taken directly from hundreds of our students who have moved here from abroad.’
Why is this book different from a regular study book?
‘Well, the book isn’t necessarily a study book – it’s more like a comic book/ selection of short stories adapted for foreigners. It’s very specifically Bulgarian – we want to share with you interesting peculiarities about our culture. We have a history and traditions that you might not hear about, such as the household habit of throwing water in front of someone as they leave the house, a Bulgarian ritual for luck.’
That sounds like a fun read! But the book isn’t just about fun facts, is it?
Joana and Mila explain that they aim to offer solutions for problems that they have noticed are regularly encountered by foreigners.
‘We grew up here,’ says Joana, ‘and we know how things work. We want to share relevant and practical knowledge, for example, advice on how to deal with neighbors, problems in restaurants, and regular things that foreigners experience.’ Real-life situations encountered by their students inspire many of the stories.
How is the book designed to be read?
‘The language must be accessible for learners with a basic grasp of Bulgarian, so we’re using short sentences, easy words, everyday phrases, things that you will hear. Functional stuff, not too abstract or irrelevant. It can be solo or in a group as part of a classroom activity, or with a tandem buddy. It’s very flexible, and there’s not a specific ‘way’ to read it.‘
And is it suitable for absolute beginners?
‘You need a grasp of the Cyrillic alphabet to read at all unless someone reads it to you. It works best for those who already have a basic knowledge of Bulgarian, and want to improve. So A2-B1 level.‘
When will it be available?
‘We are currently testing it and building on it. There’s still a lot of research and illustrations to complete, but we aim to have the first edition published by autumn this year.’
How can I get my hands on a copy?
Get in touch with us to make a pre-order! We also want to hear from anyone interested in joining our community. You can contact us through our Facebook page, or you can pre-order or donate on our funding platform.
Interview by Alice Turner
Alice is an English teacher and manager of White Rabbit School for English – a school for learning English through gamification, theatre, and storytelling. You can get in touch with her here: www.whiterabbit.bg
Photography by Petur Krustev https://www.facebook.com/pkrustev