How I Taught Myself to Read Bulgarian Cyrillic Script In a Few Hours

I’m a visual learner and it’s easier to memorise lists of words than sounds when I’m learning a language. So I knew I had to learn Bulgarian Cyrillic script before I could even attempt to learn the language. I’d already successfully learned to read Japanese hiragana characters, so I knew I could learn Bulgarian Cyrillic.

Bulgarian Cyrillic wound up being much, much easier because I could understand so many of the words I could now read since they are similar to the equivalent word in French, English, or Spanish. There are a lot of French loan words in Bulgarian, which definitely gives me an edge. Also, Bulgarian is a phonetic language, so there is one way to pronounce sounds, with only a few exceptions. So once you know what sound goes with which letter, you can read anything.

I started to learn to read Bulgarian Cyrillic with the name of the town I would be living close to, Ябланица, Yablanitsa. That gave me 8 of the 32 letters suddenly representing sounds rather than just being squiggles on a page. This became my key word on which I built my knowledge, but I still had three quarters of the alphabet left to learn.

I started with the letters that look like Latin/Roman characters and sound the way an English speaker would expect them to sound: А, Е, К, М, Т, О. Remember these with the phrase, “O, make tea!”

The consonants K, M, and T are pronounced like in English. English vowels have different pronunciations, but that’s not the case in Bulgarian:

А is like the a in palm.
Е is like the e in best.
О is like the o in order.

Next, I learned the letters that look like Latin/Roman characters, but are pronounced differently, В, Н, Р, С, У, and Х.

В was easy for me because I speak Spanish, which pronounces the letter very closely to the English sound V. In Bulgarian, В is pronounced like the V in vet.

I used a mnemonic device to remember Н and Р, a three-letter English word that starts with what the letter looks like and ends with what it sounds like.

HEN reminded me that Н is pronounced like the N in normal.

РAR reminded me that Р is pronounced like the R in rabbit.

С wasn’t difficult. An English C can sound like an S or a K. Since Bulgarian already has a K sound, C has to be the S sound. So С in Bulgarian is pronounced like the S in sound.

У sounds like the “oo” in tool. So I used yoohoo to remember it.

X sounds like the Scottish ch as found in “loch,” a guttural sound that is difficult for English speakers. It is used in Bulgarian Cyrillic to represent the English H as in hell sound as that’s the closest to the Scottish ch we have in English. So when I think of the Bulgarian X, I think of hell!

Next come letters that kind of look like Latin/Roman characters if you squint, б, Г, З, И, Й, Л, П, Ц, Ч, Ш, Щ, Ъ, Ь, Я, and Ф.

Notice that Bulgarian has several letters that look like the Latin/Roman letter B? Yes, it is very confusing. No, I have not mastered telling them apart just yet!

б is the Bulgarian B, like baby. It looks enough like a B to be easily rememberable to me.

Ъ is a vowel that sounds like the U in turn.

Ь is a “soft sign” that I haven’t wrapped my brain around yet. It’s not always pronounced, but if it is, it’s like the Spanish ñ, or the yn in canyon.

I am learning to differentiate Ъ and Ь by the way the word sounds and also because the U-sounding one has a tail. T for tail leads me to T for turn and its U sound.

Г is a hard G sound, like great. I remember RAG.

З kind of looks like a Z if you squint (it helps that I put a line through my zeds). So it sounds like the Z in zoo.

И is another vowel, I like in machine. I remember IN. That’s backwards from my other mnemonic devices, but that’s the point. Backwards N sounds like EE and backwards IN gives me a word that sounds like “Nee.”

Й looks a bit like the Spanish Ñ and that’s all I need to remember it sounds like the Y in yoyo.

Л and П look similar, but I didn’t have any trouble with them because my association for Л is so strong.

Л Looks like my bottom half with my crooked leg. That’s all I need to remember that Л is L as in leg.

П sounds like the P in papa. It looks like an N, so I remember NAP.

Ц might look like a U, but it’s actually pronounced TS like in fits. I remember this one simply because it’s in Yablanitsa.

Ч still trips me up as it looks so much like У. It is the CH sound like in chip, which rhymes with yip.

Ш sounds like the sh sound in shod. I remember WISH.

Щ sounds like the sht sound in schtick or the end of the verb fished. Since it’s Ш with something more, I remember WISHED.

Я sounds like the ya in yarn. I remember it because it’s the first letter in Yablanitsa.

Ф might look like an O, but it’s F as in food. I remember OFF.

That leaves us with only three letters that look rather alien, Д, Ж, and Ю.

Д looks a bit like a shaky A, but is the D sound. So I remember AD.

Ж is a zh sound. The closest in English is the S in treasure. It is also used to make a soft G sound, like in gel. I don’t have a mnemonic device for this one.

And that leaves us with Ю, which is like the U in menu. I don’t have a mnemonic device for this one either.

Once you memorise the sounds, you will be surprised by how much you can understand.

супермаркет is s-oo-p-e-r-m-a-r-k-e-t — supermarket.

хотел is h-o-t-e-l — hotel.

ресторант is r-e-s-t-o-r-a-n-t — restaurant.

такси is t-a-k-s-ee — taxi.

бира is b-ee-r-a — beer.

натурален is n-a-t-oo-r-a-l-e-n — natural.

If you speak French, the number of words you will recognise will be even larger:

жилетка is zh-i-l-e-t-k-a — gilet (vest).

магазин is m-a-g-a-z-i-n — magasin (store).

екипаж is e-k-ee-p-a-zh — équipage (crew).

багаж is b-a-g-a-zh — bagages (baggage).

кафе is k-a-f-eh — café (coffee).

котлет is k-o-t-l-e-t — côtelette (chop (eg. pork)).

Once I learned the Cyrillic alphabet, I forced myself to use it. I do language exercises on my phone and insist on using Cyrillic rather than having the app transliterate for me. It is still very painstaking work, but it is getting easier and there are words that I now immediately recognise and don’t have to sound out. There are a few sounds that don’t seem to be as common, so when I get comfortable with a word that has one of those sounds, I use it as a key. I also force myself to read everything around me that I can, even if I don’t understand most of it!

Being able to read Cyrillic helps immensely, but, of course, I’m limited in what I understand. Also, like with Latin/Roman script, there are an infinite number of fonts and handwriting looks very different. For example, street signage in the area uses a peak, like of like an upside down V, for Л. But since the other letters look familiar, I was able to adjust to that.

I haven’t yet learned to write Cyrillic. The above script is what’s used in print. Handwritten Cyrillic is very different.

As a bonus, there are many languages that  look and sound very similar to Bulgarian. Don’t make the mistake of thinking they are interchangeable (ie. that you can learn Russian and you’ll be able to read Bulgarian or vice-versa fluently), but they are close enough that there is a measure of mutual intelligibility. You have no idea how excited I got the day I discovered I could read and understand some Russian! I’m planning to go to Serbia next and while its alphabet has a few differences from Bulgarian, the two are close enough that I’ll have an edge when I start looking at that language.

Learning Cyrillic was easy for me once I was motivated to do so. It really took only a couple of hours to learn the bulk of the letters and then I spent dozens of hours applying my knowledge. I carry a cheat sheet with me at all times and if I forget what a sound is, I look it up rather than skipping over it. I think anyone coming to countries that use Cyrillic would find it to their advantage to learn how to read it.

8 thoughts on “How I Taught Myself to Read Bulgarian Cyrillic Script In a Few Hours

  1. Obviously you have a gift with languages. I speak Dutch and English fluently and a bit of Spanish, but when it comes to laguages that use a different alphabet I get stumped. Shelagh and I holidayed for two weeks in Greece in 2006, and I must admit that after a few days the language started to make sence to me… Maybe I am gifted too…

    • You are definitely gifted too!

      My neighbour Caroline told me something about Greek that made me go DUH. We are exposed to the Greek alphabet in our math and science courses. So you might have been remembering what some of those strange squiggles are meant to sound like just from being exposed to them that way.

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