There is a realistic chance that I will be working in Sofia for a year or more soon. I care quite a lot about being able to communicate with local people wherever I am travelling, so I would like to know in advance what the possible language barriers are.

I speak French, Dutch and English. Guessing that French and Dutch are not quite relevant in Bulgaria, will I be able to get around with just English? If not, what language would be most useful for me to learn? I am willing to have a go at Bulgarian, but more keen to learn a language that will help me in other countries as well.

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    learn to read the script. Many of the words I laboriously sounded out were then obviously English words or French words (eg HIBO on a mall map, sound it out and it's clearly Niveau or level.) All the Bulgarians I met (including store employees, taxi drivers, airport security staff etc) spoke English, at least enough for me to conduct my business with them. But the signs will be utterly opaque to you until you learn the alphabet. – Kate Gregory Oct 15 '14 at 8:49
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    Generally, you should be ok with English, although you may struggle at farmer's markets and such. If you plan to spend a lot of time in that area, Russian can be quite useful. It's quite similar to Bulgarian, uses the same script and most people in their 40th would have had Russian as mandatory subject in school (I believe this practice stopped around mid-90's). The up side of Russian is that Russia is just over the border and can be a nice holiday destination. – Aleks G Oct 15 '14 at 9:13
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    @AleksG From Bulgaria, Russia is quite a way across the Black Sea. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Oct 15 '14 at 21:05
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    @Gilles Bulgaria is quite popular travel destination among russians. – VMAtm Oct 15 '14 at 23:14
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    @pnuts: It is. This question is not about immigration; it is about something that everybody will encounter when travelling to Bulgaria. My specific context does not make the question off topic. – Lee White Oct 16 '14 at 11:30

Wikitravel has a section on this.

Essentially you'll want to learn the script - even if you can't speak it. It at least helps you say words, or if someone says to try the cheese and tells you the word is 'Kashkaval', at least when you see the script saying 'Кашкавал' you'll be able to figure it out, even if slowly. It's immensely useful for street signs and being able to order off a menu - or even to learn what the name for something is on a menu if it has pictures (I'm speaking especially from experience with the Cyrillic script in Russia etc).

Often you will understand it anyway, as it sounds like the English or French word.

In terms of being understood, however, in the cities it should be easier. As Wikitravel says:

...as Bulgarian education emphasizes foreign language studies, especially English language, it wouldn't be a problem to talk and find information in English in bigger cities. It's best to turn to the young population for a direction or an advice.

As it's related to Serbian, Russian and other Eastern European languages, if you don't want to learn Bulgarian, perhaps you could consider one of those. I'd suggest Russian, as it would help you in several other countries in the area.

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    Bulgarian is way way easier than Russian, it would make a useful stepping stone toward learning Russian later. The other way around and you're likely to get put off language learning entirely by all the scary inflected case endings only to find you don't need them at all for Bulgarian. – hippietrail Oct 21 '14 at 1:20

For what it's worth, I am from Canada and have lived/worked in Sofia for 2-3 years. English was useful and most people kind of understand it, but your mileage may vary outside tourist/business areas. You might find older people who speak French. It helped me a few random times in train stations or in some remote villages. Met really nice people this way.

Although I ended up learning the Bulgarian language and it was well worth it. It's pretty easy compared to Russian (no declinations), but it makes it possible to have some understanding of Serbian, Russian and to some extent Czech. Bulgarian is spoken as it is written, which really helps to learn the language. If you manage to at least learn enough to have some sense of the conversation, you can join a hiking club for example, and visit awesome places in the mountains :)

You might have difficulties finding books to learn Bulgarian. In French there was a pretty good one from the "Assimil" collection to start with. Then if you go to one of the bigger bookstores (or online bookstores such as Helikon), you can find more advanced books only in Bulgarian, but targeted at foreigners.

Like this one for example.

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It's possible to get around just with English, it depends a lot from your destination. In Sofia, Varna or some other big cities it shouldn't be a problem, in the most towns on the Black Sea shoudn't be a problem too. But there are also some urban areas where the local people don't even speak Bulgarian fluently and don't know a single word of English.

As @MarkMayo already said, the young population is likely to speak English. The "older" population has had Russian or French as a subject in school, but it would be hard to find someone speaking French in Bulgaria.

Serbian and Macedonian are very simular to Bulgarian, Russian could also be helpful, at least for the Cyrillic script. But note that there are also some words that have different meanings in Bulgarian and Russian. For example "направо" (napravo) means "turn right" in Russian but in Bulgarian it means "straight on".

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  • reminds me of the French "toute a droit" meaning "go straight" not "turn right" – Kate Gregory Oct 16 '14 at 8:24
  • Macedonian is basically a very close Bulgarian dialect, but with a different Cyrillic orthography for reasons of national pride. Bulgarian and Macedonian are by far the easiest Slavic languages. Serbian/Croatian is more complex but not so much as Polish or Russian. Knowledge of any Slavic language gives you a huge head start in any other. False friends are not a barrier to learning - we have enough false friends just between the various Englishes ... – hippietrail Oct 21 '14 at 1:17

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