How Bulgaria (Sort of) Became a French-Speaking Country

In 2023, Bulgaria will celebrate three decades of belonging to the global Francophonie family without ever speaking French as an official language. What happened?

Young attractive woman with bright umbrella. Amazing sunrise on trocadero place and eiffel tower in Paris
The tradition of learning French in Bulgaria goes back to the first years after Bulgaria gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. Photo: iStock.com / DKart

In 1993, Dr. Zhelyu Zhelev, Bulgaria’s first democratically elected president, was instrumental in assuring Bulgaria’s place among the francophone countries of the world. Bulgaria applied to join the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie along with Romania. The lack of any command of French among most Bulgarians, for the majority of whom Bulgarian, a Slavic language, as a mother tongue, didn’t represent an obstacle.

Bulgaria applied to join the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie. The lack of any command of French among most Bulgarians didn’t represent an obstacle

Bulgarian francophonie

The organization brings together countries where French is a lingua franca or customary language or has a notable affiliation with French culture. Both Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to join the Francophonie family, which today comprises 54 countries around the world.

And yet, why was Bulgaria approved? The tradition of learning French in Bulgaria goes back to the first years after Bulgaria gained its independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1878. At a time, especially among the elite, French was perceived as a modern language, with an interest in French history and culture too.

In 1871, shortly before Bulgaria’s liberation, Dobri Voynikov, a playwright, teacher, and journalist of the Bulgarian Revival, penned the play “The Misunderstood Civilization.” Published in Bucharest, a hub for Bulgarian immigrants at the time, the play is poking fun at the way foreign cultures might be overinterpreted and seen as the only sign of progress, overshadowing local cultures and traditions.

The clash, as presented in the play, is between Bulgarian culture and the misunderstood version of French culture, preferred by some only because it’s being perceived as inferior without attempting to truly understand it. Some 150 years after it was published, the play is still being staged in theaters across Bulgaria.

Pardon my (Bulgarian) French

But hopefully, as Bulgaria and France maintain close ties, Bulgarians now have a much better understanding of France, its culture, and language than 150 years ago, when Voynikov ridiculed them for misunderstanding all things French. “Francophonie in Bulgaria is Francophonie of the heart,” says in an interview with Bulgarian National Radio Pierre Colliot, the new director of the French Institute in Sofia. “Nobody obliges young people to learn French. They just love the language; it’s interesting to them because their parents often speak French too.”

Today, there are 18 high schools actively teaching French in Bulgaria. “We maintain a level that has been maintained over the years. And this worries us a little. There are about 6,000 students studying French in specialized high schools,” shares with 3Seas Europe Maria Konakchieva, head of press and public relations at the French Institute. “The love for French in Bulgaria is indeed great. Parents always want their children to learn this language. But I would say French always goes in combination with English or German. Bulgarians now want to speak two Western languages.”

French-speaking Bulgaria

The first language school with full boarding in French was opened in Varna in northeastern Bulgaria in 1958. To this day, the Frédéric Joliot-Curie French High School belongs to a tight group of some of the most elite schools in Bulgaria. Veselina Toteva, principal of the school, believes that students looking to learn French language and culture have few choices other than enrolling in one of the few schools like hers in the country. “We commend the desire of students to learn a language different than English, and that’s often one of their main motives for coming to us. But this can’t be done in a language school.”

Many of the school’s graduates have continued their education in France, today serving as a natural bridge between Bulgaria and France. Says Toteva, “Often these are students whose parents studied at our school too. And so, for 65 years now, the love for France and its language has been passed down from one generation to another.”

Galina Ganeva

a journalist with experience working for some of the most influential Bulgarian publications. She mostly writes about the intersection of society and culture

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