Bulgaria is becoming an increasingly popular tourist destination for Brits especially, with some even choosing to retire there because of the very cheap lifestyle. Bulgaria received over half a million tourists from the UK and US alone in 2018. But how widely spoken is English there? Can an English speaker expect to get by in Bulgaria without speaking the local language?
In general, English proficiency is quite low across Bulgaria as a whole, with around 25% of the population speaking it overall. However, English is quite widely spoken specifically in the central areas of the capital Sofia and certain areas of the Black Sea coast, due to the amount of tourists.
When you start to move away from built up areas to smaller towns and villages, you will find English much less spoken. In those places, you will need some basic Bulgarian phrases to get by.
A 2012 study found that around 25% of the Bulgarian population reported as having workable English, which is around average for the Eastern European countries. Russian was close behind at around 23% proficiency, with around 8% of Bulgarians speaking German.
However, despite this low overall average, the English speakers tend to be concentrated in the areas tourists are most likely to visit anyway, so for most short holidays you won’t have too much of a problem.
In the capital Sofia for example, you will find English widely spoken in hotels, restaurants and bars.The Black Sea coastal resort of Sunny Beach in Burgas is another place very popular with Brits especially, with English very widely spoken in hotels, shops and restaurants there.
Speaking English or another language is considered necessary nowadays in Bulgaria if you want a well paid job. If you really go off the beaten track to more remote areas then you will have to use basic Bulgarian and some typical tourist body language and miming to get by.
Spoken English in Different Cities Of Bulgaria
Bulgaria is quite a large country, so let’s break down the reported English proficiency by major towns and cities:
Sofia – As the capital, it’s probably got the highest level of English proficiency outside Sunny Beach. English will be very widely spoken in all central areas, including hotels, shops, restaurants, and expect almost all menus to have English options.
And then the popular Black Sea coastal resorts:
Sunny Beach – Gets a lot of British tourists and expats – the UK market is probably the biggest tourist market – so English is very widely spoken there, especially along the main “Market Street” strip. They will speak English at all the big hotels, restaurants, bars and many of the market stalls along the main strip. See the Sunny Beach Life YouTube channel for a great vlog dedicated to all things Sunny Beach that can get you acquainted with all the major spots – you’ll see watching the videos how widely English is spoken in Sunny Beach.
Nesebar – A smaller town located a few miles from Sunny Beach, but English is not so widely spoken there, except in holiday apartment complexes. You’ll find menus at larger restaurants in English, and some staff speak it, but in smaller shops, only expect a few basic words of English from the locals.
Ravda – An even smaller town a few miles further on from Nesebar. English is not widely spoken here, except in the really large restaurants like the Levant and big hotels like the Emerald Resort. In smaller shops and supermarkets, they don’t really speak much English, perhaps on a few basic words, so you’ll need to point and mime and have a few basic Bulgarian words to get by. See our full guide on getting by in Ravda for more details.
Burgas – Again, decent levels of English, but not as good as other European cities. Enough to get by though ordering food and is spoken in some shops
And then back inland:
Plovdiv – As a university town, you can find a lot of younger people who will speak English here. Also increasingly popular with digital nomads.
Varna – The largest Black Sea coast city in Bulgaria, English is quite widely spoken in the central parts, and signs are also in English as well as Bulgarian. Expect menus in restaurants in the center to also be in English, and you’ll find it spoken at large hotels as well. But Varna doesn’t attract the same number of British expats as Sunny Beach, so proficiency is not quite as high here.
There are some cultural and political reasons why English is not quite as prevalent in Bulgaria as it is in some other western European countries, though it is still widespread enough in places like Sofia for tourists to get by fine. The 25% proficiency rate still lags way behind the Scandinavian countries for example, who have English proficiency rates in the high 80% at least. What are the reasons for this?
Firstly, as with a lot of former eastern bloc countries, English has only been emphasized and taught as a second language post 1989, since the Soviet Union fell. Before then Russian was the language of choice, with little emphasis on English, and this can be seen in the fact Russian is still quite prevalent in Bulgaria today, especially among the older population. The younger population is much better at English and catching up for lost time in learning it compared to some other countries.
Secondly, there is not quite so much cultural influence from the UK and US as there is in some other Western European countries. The UK and Bulgaria are on opposite sides of Europe for example, and Bulgarians do not receive much English language TV and films, unlike other countries. Much of it is dubbed into Bulgarian so there is less chance to pick up English this way.
Bulgaria is also a very diverse country linguistically, with different people having different preferences as to the foreign languages they learn. Some people still consider Russian more important to learn culturally than English, or perhaps another European language like German or French, and do not place so much emphasis on learning English.
The Bulgarian and English languages are also very different, with totally different alphabets, words and pronunciations. This does make it more difficult to learn for Bulgarians compared to more closely related Slavic languages like Russian for example.
In this sense, it can be argued that it is quite impressive that Bulgaria has the English proficiency rates it does, where tourists can still get by in the bigger cities, despite all these cultural and linguistic impediments. The prevalence of English will continue to climb as well as the younger generations come through who have been learning English from school age onwards.
Some Basic Bulgarian Phrases
It will always come in handy to have some basic Bulgarian phrases, since locals will always appreciate you making a basic effort with some greetings, before happily switching to English if they speak it. See the video below for some of the more common Bulgarian phrases a tourist might need to get by. We have a table below that for people who prefer text form.
|English||Pronounced in Bulgarian||Bulgarian|
|Good morning||Dobro oo-tro||Добро утро
|Good day||Dobrr den||Добър ден|
|Good evening||Dobrr vetcher||Добър вечер|
|Do you speak English?||Govoriteh li angliiski?||говориш ли английски?|
|Excuse me||Izvineteh||Извинете ме|
|Excuse me, how much?||Izvineteh, kolko stroova?||Извинете ме, колко?
|The bill please||Smetkata molya||сметката Моля|
And here are some very important customs in Bulgaria that differ from many other countries and can come in helpful for tourists and newly settled expats there:
- In Bulgaria, the nodding and shaking of someone’s head has the opposite meaning to most countries – nodding your head up and down generally means “no” and shaking your head from side to side generally means “yes”! Always useful to know this beforehand, otherwise it can lead to some rather confusing interactions!
- When paying for a meal at a restaurant, if you say “thanks” to the waiter when they collect the cash, in Bulgaria that is generally taken to mean “thanks and keep the change”. If this isn’t your intention, it’s best to say nothing at all when first paying for the meal, and instead say thanks only once they bring you the change.
- Overall, having lived there, I can’t say that Bulgarians are the most friendly or helpful of people overall. Despite some exceptions, you will find some unhelpful and even rude people in some shops, especially where not much English is spoken. It’s definitely NOT the most helpful or customer-service focused culture in my experience.
Language & Travel Essentials For Bulgaria
- Essential stats on Bulgaria:
- Population: 6.5 million
- Time zone: EST +7 hours; GMT +2 hours.
- Currency: Bulgarian Lev (BGN) ($1 = 1.89 BGN; £1= 2.23 BGN at time of writing)
- International calling code: +359 (see here for getting a working local SIM card/number when abroad – Bulgarian couriers will almost never ring foreign SIMs- you’ll need a Bulgarian SIM when staying there longer)
- Drives on the right
- Luggage allowances – see here for an excellent guide on luggage allowances (checked and cabin) for all major airlines worldwide.
- See our Phrasebook page also for a link to a popular Bulgarian phrase book which will help you get by.
- Banking – Don’t use the blue and yellow ATMs on the street – they charge rip-off fees. For a good multi-currency card you can use in Bulgaria with zero purchase fees and zero ATM withdrawal fees up to EUR/GBP 200 per month, see our review of the TransferWise/Wise Cross-Border card (great option for Brits especially who go there a lot).