Tag Archives: The Language Barrier

Learning Out Loud

“Arright, here’s the deal. I don’t feel like doing any work today.” It’s amazing how much noise a handful of teenagers can make. “But I didn’t say you wouldn’t do any work. You can ask me whatever questions you want, but I’m going to answer them in English, because this is English class and speaking Bulgarian all day is a huge drag. So listen up if you actually want to know the answers.”
The students in my 9A class are intensely curious about me. They often interrupt our lessons to shout personal questions at me, which I deflect with a swift “Ask in English!” It’s a class of 31 kids with an astounding truancy rate; I average about eleven students each class which I’ve heard from other teachers is 9A’s best turn-out by far. One day last week a student shot up his hand and shouted, “Госпожа! There’s 19 of us today! I think this is a record!” Even with such a small group, herding their unruly little minds in the same direction for forty-five minutes is a task akin to passing sweeping health care reform in America. They yell, they flirt, they run around the room. They try to get me to repeat Bulgarian obscenities. Several of the kids are motivated to learn English, but still hopelessly noisy and undisciplined.
Discipline is a huge problem in Bulgarian schools. The bigger problems, though, are conformity, apathy and fear. When asked to write sentences or produce anything creative, it’s not uncommon for every single student in a class to write exactly the same thing. 9A’s insatiable spirit inspires me even as it turns my hair white. They ask surprising questions, not just about me but about the English language, and some of the more advanced students go out of their way to write something unique and delightful.
Example: A few weeks ago, in response to the question “What do you like to eat?” little Denis wrote, “I like to eat sausage and intestines and the horse. I like to nibble the ears of the pig.”
Several factors contributed to my decision to give 9A a free day today. My counterpart (and friend) and I were both suffering after a late-night “planning session” that included way too much домашно wine. I’d been teaching since 7:30am. Another teacher hadn’t showed up for work, which meant her students were wreaking havoc in the halls all day and making it nearly impossible for the rest of us to teach. Finally, someone pulled the bell 25 minutes early during 4th period, which sent dozens of gangly screaming teenagers into a state of total unmanageability. Today was also auspicious, because 9A’s worst-behaved student was among one of the many absences. His attendance is perversely impeccable, so today was a rare opportunity to engage the rest of class without him monopolizing all the attention. I also knew that his friends would tell him we had a totally awesome free day without him, and I couldn’t help but hope that would really annoy him.
So go ahead, kids. Ask me whatever you want.
“Does that piercing hurt?”
“What do they eat in the United States?”
“Do they eat crocodile?”
“Have you ever eaten crocodile, Госпожа?”
“What’s a smurf? Is it like a dwarf?” Smurfs, I explained, were blue and had their own TV show. “Dwarf” is a much broader term. The plural of “dwarf” is “dwarves,” and it occurred to me that the plural of “smurf” really ought to be “smurves.” But it isn’t, it’s “smurfs.”
Sultana is a thin girl with a strong nose and two feet of frizzy black hair. She prefers to be called Suzy. At least once a day, Suzy interrupts class to yell, “I love you Miss!”
A tireless romantic, Suzy asked me, “Miss, do you have a boyfriend?”
“Do you have one in the States?”
“No, I have no boyfriend anywhere. Who here has a boyfriend?” I asked the class, “Raise your hand!” Four girls proudly shot up their hands.
“And who has a girlfriend?” Only Viktor, broad-shouldered and over six feet tall, raised his hand. “And what does your girlfriend think about your eye?” I referred to Viktor’s recent football injury, which had burst a blood vessel and turned half of his right eyeball bright red. “Госпожа, but it looks much better than it did last week!” He protested in Bulgarian. I agreed that it did.
But they would not be so easily distracted from their teacher’s relationship status. Viktoria, who I’ve secretly nicknamed Posh Spice, rested on her elbows and turned her palms out to me entreatingly, “And why don’t you have a boyfriend? Don’t you want one?” This is another question I’ve already prepared an answer for. “I’m waiting to find a boyfriend who likes to cook and clean.”
”You’re not going to find that in Bulgaria,” said Hristomir, the only student who understands nearly every word I say in English.
“Hristomir says I won’t find a guy who cooks and cleans in Bulgaria. Who agrees with him?” Several hands went up. “Boys, do you cook? Do you clean? Do you help your parents around the house?” The response was inconclusive.
“Girls, what about you? Do you help your mothers?” In the boys’ defense, the girls were equally unlikely to say they helped around the house.
“Viktor? Do you help your mother? Do you cook and clean?”
“Yes, Госпожа! I’ll cook, I’ll clean, I’ll feed your cats!”
“You already have a girlfriend, remember? What about you Denis [of the intestines and sausage and the ears of the pig]?” Denis sucked his teeth and nodded to say ‘no.’
I asked every student in the room, “Nasko, do you help around the house? Hristomir? Stilian?”
“Stilian doesn’t help his mother Госпожа! He lives by himself!”
”Stilian’s mother is in Greece!”
I looked at him and asked him in Bulgarian, “Stilian, is this true?”
“Where is your father?”
“Don’t ask about his father!” Hristomir wagged a finger at me.
“How old are you?” I asked.
“And you live alone? No brothers or sisters or grandparents?”
“My brother is visiting for New Year’s. Then he has to go back to Greece.”
Stilian’s clothes are clean. His hair is trimmed, he’s well-fed and he shows up to class most of the time. “So, you know about cooking and cleaning?”
The kids hopped over desks and jostled each other as they said goodbye to me. As always at the end of 9A, I held my head in my hands for a moment and gave out a great sigh, stunned at the relative quiet. I turned around and looked at the board. What had we accomplished today? Each kid might have said three words in English. On the board were some new words: “smurf,” “crab (“I looovvve crab,” simpered Posh Spice in Bulgarian).” A picture of a turtle, labeled “turtle.” The phrasal verb “to clean up after (oneself).”
Sweet, quiet Maria was the only one left in the room.
“Miss? Thank you for a wonderful class.”


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purvi u4eben den
Teenagers are thoughtless, and when they’re better at something than an adult they can be mercenary. They’ve been studying English for years and most of them can barely manage “Hello,” yet they fail to appreciate my labored and hastily acquired Bulgarian. They stare, they laugh. Some of them correct my mistakes or pretend they don’t understand me.

Nataliya teaches English alongside me and she assures me my Bulgarian is excellent. She says the students are only cruel because they never respect young teachers and they sense fear. This is hardly comforting, since I can always study Bulgarian but there’s nothing I can do about being young and scared. But the truth is my Bulgarian is not that good. It could be much better, and it really should be considering how much I use it. On Tuesday Nataliya tried to tell me that Bulgarian was one of the hardest languages to learn and I snapped at her. No, it isn’t. I know because I’ve studied Russian, for one. Bulgarian is like Intro to Slavic Languages and that morning I was mangling it.

I was sitting in the English classroom between third and fourth period, when Sukriye walked in. I met her the week before in the hallway, where she took my arm as if we were intimate friends in a Jane Austen novel.
“Where are you from? Are you going to be my teacher?” She asked breathlessly, without introducing herself. She wore the ubiquitous acid-washed jeans and black hoody. She was tall and voluptuous and her hair hung thick and blue-black to her waist.
“Are you taking the Professional English class?” I asked. Sukriye was crestfallen for a moment, but her black-rimmed eyes lit up afresh when I told her I would help out in Nataliya’s classes, and that we would see each other there.

On Tuesday morning, there I was, and she was just as happy to see me again.
“Госпожа! Hello! Do you speak Turkish?”
Her question was a bitter reminder that not only was my Bulgarian failing me, but that there are hundreds of languages on this planet that I do not, and likely will never speak, and that Turkish is still one of them.
“No. I have enough problems with Bulgarian,” I didn’t look up.
“Добре!” Her hand made a happy little flourish, “I will teach you Turkish!” Her big bright eyes were blind to my dejection, and sparkled with insufferable enthusiasm for teaching me Turkish. I use a similar tactic with my uncooperative English students. I smiled and looked up.
“Добре. Как е ‘здравейте’ на турски?”
“Merhaba,” She pronounced the word for me a few times. Behind her, a few other students had filed in. They were talking and playing with their cell phones.

I repeated Sukriye, loud enough for the other students to hear, “Merhaba.” Sukriye’s smile broke wide open, and the students all looked at me with wonder. The new American English teacher had just said “hello” in Turkish. I said it again to be sure of myself and the whole class erupted in cheers.


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Last Friday my internet died.  It dies intermittently, and I usually take it as a sign that I should go to bed or go outside and meet some Bulgarians.  When I come back it’s either revived or it isn’t, whatever.  But on Friday I needed to look at train schedules, and some other important things, and my browser kept asking me in Bulgarian for a “username” and “password,” neither of which I had, since it had never asked me before.

If I had problems, the page said, I could call a number for help any time, day or night.  There are many things in Bulgaria that I, as a Peace Corps volunteer, did not expect to have access to.  24-hour customer service is one of them.

Uh-oh, but the number only works from phone lines provided by the same company as the internet, and my cell phone is on a different carrier.  How would I ever find out my username and password?  That’s when I remembered I have a “landline telephone.”  It’s like a cell phone, but much bigger and plugged into the wall.

A few minutes later I was on the phone, listening to a recording offer me a dizzying array of options, in Bulgarian, at the touch of a button.  But I couldn’t touch any buttons because I have a rotary phone.  Somehow I was able to convey this to the machine, and I was transferred to an operator.  I explained my problem and she asked me for my telephone number.

“Shit [that part was in English]. I don’t know my telephone number.  I mean, uh, I wrote it down somewhere.  But I don’t know it.  I will find it and call back.”

A few minutes later, armed with my telephone number, I was back on the phone with a new operator, named Galina, and explained my problem all over again.

“Do you want my telephone number?” I asked proudly.  Yes, but then she also wanted my address.  Hmn.   I know where I live, mind you.  I can find my apartment from any corner of my town and I can even draw a map from my apartment to the town’s major landmarks.  But, I don’t receive mail at my apartment, the street signs aren’t very visible around here, and, uh, I’m sure my building has a number but it’s not written on the building, I don’t think…so…no.  I don’t know my address.

Then the whole sad story comes out.  I just moved here, another American lived here before I did, maybe the account is still under her name, or—

Galina stops me and asks me if I live in a certain part of town, across the street from such-and-such building, on a particular floor.  Galina knows exactly where I live.  She knows who I am and she knows I just moved here.

“Okay, your modem was reset.  I’ll give you a new username and password now.”  They are random strings of numbers and both capitol and lower-case Latin letters.  Galina pronounces the letters as if they are Bulgarian letters, which makes them very difficult for me to understand.  So she uses cities in Bulgaria as references, “R” like “Ruse,” “N” like “Nikopol,” identifying each as either malyk (small) or golyam (big).  Then, because I really don’t want to have to call them again, I repeat both strings of characters back to her, checking for mistakes.

When you can’t read your situation, which is all the time in a new country or language, the temptation is to judge, or to romanticize (which I guess is also a form of judgment) what’s going on around you.  Your brain just doesn’t have space for all the ambiguity, so it tries to fool you into thinking you understand what’s going on.  Either everything sucks, you could do it way better, or isn’t it all just wonderful and precious?  At first, calling a customer-service hotline felt surreally American.  But then, Galina didn’t answer the call by rattling off three sentences that she’s required to say to every customer.  In the United States, the person on the other end is generally helpful and wants to do their job, but they are usually answering your call from another state or even another country.  And often each call they take is timed and closely monitored.  Not to mention that if a clueless foreigner called the phone company asking for a username and a password, but couldn’t produce her own address, she would get nothing but suspicion from the person on the other line.  But, whether or not Galina lives in my town, she is familiar enough with it to know a new American lives there, and exactly where, and that it’s understandable I might not know my address yet.  And, whether or not the call was being monitored, she had the time to slowly give me the information I needed, twice.  Was she being extra nice to me because she was thinking critically about my predicament, had some background information about me, and concluded that I was trustworthy? Or would she give out my account information to anybody who asked for it, or just anybody who spoke Bulgarian with an accent?

There’s good and bad to both the American and the Bulgarian versions of “customer service,”  but this time, the Bulgarian version really worked in my favor.


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Emil’s House

I spend a lot of time with another Peace Corps trainee, Alexa, and her host family. Her “parents,” Emil and Ani, have a worldly sophistication and a love of long, slow evenings around the table that reminds me of home.
Emil loves to speak English with us, and Ani seems to understand every word he says. She sits with her arms crossed, adding sardonic Bulgarian bon motes to Emil’s labored discussions on politics, the economy and the cost of utilities in the US vs. Bulgaria. Ani’s delivery is unfailingly dry, and, as my Bulgarian improves, she gets funnier every time I talk to her.
Emil spent time working in England. His voice is deep and deliberate, except when his English fails him, and he vents frustration with a thickly accented “fookin’ ‘ell!”
One lively evening, Emil explained why older Bulgarians, like his father, were happy with communism and resentful of its demise:
“It is like, imagine if you only drink this one kind of beer your whole life.” He pointed to his glass of beer. We were drinking Ariana out of a two-liter plastic bottle. “You think is really good beer. You don’t want anything more.” I agreed emphatically. This analogy had very special resonance for me. “But,” he continued, “I leave, I saw what is life like in Germany, in France, in UK, and I think, there is much better.”
His father, Bocho, took my arm and said, in Bulgarian, “In communism the bribes were under the table. Now they are out in the open!” He laughed and raised his glass with cheer.
A bit later the men took us to meet the animals before they went in the barn.
Emil, Dyado Bocho, Alexa and I form a line through the vegetable beds, up a rickety little ladder, to another patch of the property with a little barn. Three sheep are already inside, they are small and dark and healthy. The cow is munching ever closer to his slaughter weight. He looks at us with his big eyes and his soft little ears on the side of his head.
“What is the cow’s name?” asks Alexa.
“Uh, Johnny.” Emil replies.
“Did you just make that up right this second?”
“Uh, yes.”
The animal I most want to meet is the horse. Even though we’re speaking mostly English, we call him the Bulgarian word for horse, kon. The kon is tired and skinny and annoyed by the two giggly American girls. Dyado Bocho holds the kon’s rope while we stroke his nose. He looks away from us and his ears go back a little bit. I say what I always say when horses are unfriendly to me, except this time in Bulgarian,
“He’s mad because we don’t have any carrots,”
“Markovi? Zashto?” asks Emil, and I reply to feed him, of course. Emil crumples with laughter. At first I think I’m exceptionally clever.
“Markovi??” he asks, breathless and incredulous, “Carrots!”
“Yeah!” Lexi and I are in unison, since it goes without saying that koni love carrots. “No! The kon doesn’t eat carrots!” Emil is still laughing, and he explains to his father in Bulgarian and they both laugh as if we suggested teaching the kon to crochet instead of feeding him carrots.
Now Lexi and I are incredulous, “The kon doesn’t eat carrots? Why not?”
“No no no no,” says Bocho in Bulgarian, “the horse eats corn.” But not carrots? Emil and his father list foods that the kon likes to eat, including cucumbers and cheeseburgers. “Cheeseburgers? Really?” I ask Bocho in Bulgarian and he answers, “Yes, without the meat.” They suggest we give the horse some cheesecake, maybe he will like that. Lexi and I insist that American koni love carrots, and we have a feeling this one would too, and the men laugh even harder at such an outlandish suggestion.
In Bulgarian I ask Emil, “Why don’t you want the horse to eat carrots?”
“Well, because maybe he will turn orange.”
We get back to the table and Emil says to Ani, “Lexi and Huelo want to give carrots to the horse. I told them no, the horse might turn orange.”
“Carrots?” she replies, giggling.


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Izvinete, kak da stigna do mahalata?

My future hometown is in a long, narrow valley flanked by cliffs on either side.  It’s very dramatic.  On the east ridge is the ruins of a fortress that shows evidence of Turkish, Bulgarian, Soviet and modern traffic.  Krasi, my supervisor and very gracious tour guide, hiked up there with me yesterday.  We identified our school, the other schools, my apartment, my hotel, the stadium and the hospital from above.  The hospital is on the other edge of town as it climbs up the west ridge, in the mahala.  Krasi speaks very little English, but likes to practice her impressively random vocabulary (and perhaps assumed I don’t know the word “mahala”) so when she pointed it out from the east ridge, she said in English “ghetto.”  This is where the gypsies live.

Peace Corps and everything published in the last two years calls these people “Roma,” but I hear “gypsy” much more often.  Our dictionary includes “gypsy” but not “Roma.” They were nomads who came to Europe from India like a thousand years ago, and have received no end of grief about it.  They are concentrated in Eastern Europe but can be found all the way to England and the USA.  I am not sure what they call themselves since I still have not had a conversation in which anyone identifies herself as such.  Iskar, my training site, has a large but indeterminate Roma population, and is “integrated,” meaning they are not all in the same neighborhood.  A Bulgarian visitor, employed by the Peace Corps, remarked that Iskar seemed to be “majority Roma,” and on the little information card about my host family, they were identified as Roma.  On the question of mahala, Iskarvites tell me everything from “there is no mahala” to “we live in the mahala (from my host mom’s sister who lives down the street from us).”  Some parts of town show more signs of dereliction but it doesn’t seem to have any relationship to the color of the residents.

And so back to my host family.  Many integrated Roma do not identify as such.  I have no idea if they are really Roma or if the Bulgarian who wrote their little profile card just assumed they were.  They proudly proclaim to be Turkish and they have the old names to back it up.  In 1984, the soviet government ordered all the Turks in Bulgaria to change their names (Roma, particularly Muslim Roma, had to change their names too but you don’t hear about that much).  Nora was Nurei, her father Ruslan was Ramadan, etc.  They are remarkably upbeat when they talk about this.  Usually, late in the after-dinner conversation, they call each other by their old names.  There is a whole lot going on that I can’t begin to understand at this point.  In Iskar almost everyone is Roma, and at the same time no one is Roma.  Everyone’s name is Bulgarian.

Back on the ridge, I ask Krasi about the mahala.  It is dangerous, she says, but we have a few students from the mahala, and she assures me they are good kids.  “Everyone is equal at my school.”  From the ridge, I can see tiny people walking across the train tracks.

Later, I would walk up to the hospital with Cassie, the town’s current PCV.  The lower end of the mahala is uncannily beautiful.  Narrow staircases are carved into the ridge, with chaotic but well-kept houses on either side.  Most people have gardens and prayer flags of laundry.  There are horses and cats and chickens.  In an American town, this hillside would be the most coveted real estate.

Coming down the hill from the hospital, Cassie and I are enjoying the American sounds of each other’s voices.  Behind me I hear “Zdrasti El-A!,” Ela being the newest incarnation of my name.  But I don’t know anyone here, I think and spin around to the voice, and suddenly I am transported back to Iskar.  A handsome tenth grader with rakish facial hair gives me a big bright smile.  He is sitting at a table with some older men.  We met yesterday at school, he will be one of my students come September.

“Wow, see, you’re integrated already,” Cassie jokes.

High up the ridge, behind the hospital, there are more houses, more laundry, more glassless window frames.


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