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Bulgaria: Speaking The Same Language -- Sofia's Long History Of Choosing English Over Russian (Part 2)

  • Julia Geshakova

If they don't understand you in your language, make yourself heard in their own. That has long been the message in Bulgaria, where, as in other small nations, proficiency in a foreign language has always been valued. Interest in the study of foreign languages survived communist-era restrictions in Bulgaria and has been steadily growing as the nation of some 8 million people seeks its place in a united Europe.

Prague, 13 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Bulgaria's communist-era rulers, who liked to boast that the country was the Soviet Union's 16th republic, made the study of the Russian language mandatory beginning in secondary school.

For both parents and children, however, the language of choice was always English. Even for the children of the communist nomenklatura, speaking only Russian was not good enough.

Maybe because it was considered such a close Soviet ally, Bulgaria, an exception among socialist countries, opened its first foreign-language school as early as 1950. The school, in the central city of Lovech, initially had only two English classes, but the English department quickly expanded. In 1958, it moved to the capital, Sofia, as a full-fledged English-language high school.

Native English speakers among the teachers were scarce, but the school compensated by teaching all of the main subjects of the curriculum in English.

The school in Lovech soon became one of the most prestigious high schools in the country, outshining by far the Russian-, French-, and German-language schools that had also opened in Sofia. Similar schools were later set up in a number of regional centers.

Studying foreign languages outside of these schools was difficult. Despite the demand, there were few specialized foreign-language courses.

The children of the nomenklatura were admitted on a special quota accounting for more than half of the students. Graduating from a language school was a prerequisite for a coveted job in the West. For the rest of the students, it meant better professional opportunities inside Bulgaria, as well as a shortcut to the otherwise largely inaccessible Western culture.

State language schools still exist today in Bulgaria, but have lost much of their glamour. As new possibilities to travel and work abroad opened after the fall of the one-party system in the early 1990s, opportunities to study foreign languages dramatically increased -- both in high school and in extracurricular language courses.

Currently, there is hardly a school, or even a kindergarten, in Bulgaria that does not boast of some sort of "intensive" language class.

Eli Toncheva is the director of a school offering language courses for adults that has been in existence for 10 years. In 1990, she told RFE/RL, people were interested in acquiring a basic knowledge of English as quickly as possible to make it easier for them to leave the country and seek their fortunes abroad.

"Immediately after 1990, as new possibilities for travel abroad opened up, the demand for foreign-language studies grew very quickly. Schools offering extracurricular language courses mushroomed, many of them set up by nonprofessionals. People who knew how to make a quick buck hastily set up such language courses for adults with practically no investments because many people wanted to learn the language, or at least to learn its basics, so they could leave the country," Toncheva said.

Toncheva said the high demand in the early 1990s led to the appearance of what she calls "cowboy" schools of dubious professional standards. The state issues licenses for secondary and private high schools but extracurricular courses are not regulated.

Neli Mladenova is a former director of the state English-language high school in Sofia who has set up her own private school. In a country with an average monthly wage of around $150, tuition fees in private high schools are in the range of $1,000 a year. But Mladenova said many are willing to shoulder the financial burden.

"This definitely is not the group of the mega-rich. The mega-rich [Bulgarians] send their children to study abroad. It is the intelligentsia [who send their children to private schools], or that part of the intelligentsia who have made it and who have managed to secure good jobs," she said.

The first wave of Bulgarians seeking to emigrate subsided in the mid-1990s, but interest in studying foreign languages remains high. Toncheva said: "Currently, the interest [in] the study of foreign languages is high but for different reasons. If around 1990, people were interested mainly in learning languages up to a level that would allow them to emigrate -- mostly to the United States and other countries -- now the interest is in other directions. As Bulgaria moves toward [European Union] membership, there is an especially great interest in the opportunity for university studies in European countries, mostly in universities where the teaching is in English, but also in other European languages."

She said it is common now for students to graduate from secondary schools with fluency in English and with a basic knowledge of a second or even a third language. Among high-school students, German is a favorite because of the opportunities for free university educations in Germany for those who master the language.

University graduates, on the other hand, seek more specialized courses, such as business English. And as more and more companies from Greece enter the Bulgarian market, Greek is gaining in popularity and now ranks fourth in demand.

As for Russian study, it lost much of its appeal in the early 1990s when it was pushed out of the school curriculum. But as business ties replace former ideological bonds, the interest in Russian among young people is likely to grow.