When you learn a foreign language in your junior high or high school in your home country surrounded by your native language, it is very hard to grasp the culture behind the words and grammar. When you are learning a foreign language as an adult not in school but in country, it is altogether different. On the one hand, you have no textbooks, no instruction of a formal kind—though plenty of the informal, offhand kind that friends and strangers offer you intentionally and unintentionally—there is no lingua franca roadmap.
On the other hand, you hear the word да as you see the head move from side to side, and you hear it said not one but twice or thrice, as in да, да or even да бе да. You hear somone derided as луд and see the speaker’s hand raised parallel to the head, palm facing you and wagging side-to-side. You go to someone’s house and take off your shoes just inside the door. You learn not just how to set the table with seasonal appetizers, but oh how very long the appetizer part of the meal can go on before the main course is served. One could argue, and I do, that you might never learn all your tenses properly as you would in a high school language course, but you will learn the language intrinsically because each word absorbed has a context and an experience tied to it. Immerse yourself long enough and you find that the language eventually is no longer at all foreign. Instead it has nestled itself into you in an organic and irrevocable way.
Learning culture along with language means that you can appreciate a good joke and laugh at it even when you can’t tell the joke yourself. That’s why understanding humor in another language is such a marker not merely of linguistic ability but of real cultural comprehension. Within one year of beginning my journey of Bulgarian language learning, I began to joke with friends and family that I had discovered all of Bulgarian culture could be condensed to the advice I heard continuously from all and sundry. It goes like this:
Стъпка по стъпка, малко по малко, лека полека, ще стане, ще стане, има време.
Step by step, little by little, lightly more lightly, it will happen, it will happen, there’s time.