Just as my service here in Moldova has had its peaks and valleys, so has my language learning. During our twelve weeks of training, learning Romanian was almost effortless; I was bound to learn a whole lot since no one in my host family spoke English and I had to find some way of communicating. It’s been more of a challenge to continue to improve my Romanian since training ended simply because at the end of the day I have limited mental energy to devote to studying, but I’ve been consistently getting better at it since I moved out on my own because I am now forced to tackle any number of strange situations on a given day just to take care of everyday business.
Being an English teacher, I sort of got the short end of the stick since I’m not forced to use my language skills as much as volunteers who work with NGOs, mayor’s offices, or those who teach health; they all do their jobs in Romanian. In fact, I’m expected to speak as much English as possible at work, so I sometimes go whole days without speaking a word of Romanian, while volunteers in other programs go days without speaking English. Because of this disadvantage, the volunteers who are English teachers are generally the weakest Romanian and Russian speakers among the four programs, though there are exceptions.
I have three major gripes with the way we were taught Romanian: (1) our language instructors — native Romanian speakers themselves who speak good English — are told by Peace Corps not to use any English during the lessons; (2) the textbook we used was terrible; and (3) we were taught proper Romanian Romanian, not the Romanian that most Moldovans speak.
As for the first gripe, I understand the philosophy behind not using English in the classroom, but it’s my opinion that some points of grammar are so foreign to us as language learners that they will remain obfuscated until clarified in terms that we understand, while the immersive value of the Romanian-only-in-the-classroom rule is minimal when every waking moment of our day is an immersion experience. My complaint about the textbook is also about grammar instruction: the book presents the grammar piecemeal as mere examples to be memorized, not in a way that will allow you to see a reductive pattern that you can learn to apply to new constructions on the fly as a way of experimenting with what you’ve learned — in my opinion, how you can really learn a language.
As for my third complaint: while I enjoy the compliment I sometimes get from Moldovans that I speak Romanian like a Romanian, it makes life much more difficult when I don’t know the local word for something basic, especially when our Romanian-made dictionaries are no help. We were strongly discouraged from learning Russian words during training, even though sometimes the Russian word for something may be the only word a Moldovan knows for that thing. And apart from the Russian words that have crept into the Moldovan vernacular, the differences between Romanian Romanian and Moldovan Romanian are many. I won’t go into the minutiae here, but if someone asks for it I’d be happy to tell everyone all about it. Simply put, the difference between Romanian as spoken by Moldovans and Romanian as spoken by Romanians is like the difference between Appalachian English and the Queen’s English: there are many words that are just plain different or don’t exist in the other dialect — like holler (used as a noun describing a feature of geography) in Appalachian English or lorry in British English — as well as marked, regular changes in pronunciation. We weren’t even told to expect these differences by our teachers.
I’m a bit of a language nerd. I had four years of French in high school, tested out of two years of college French, took a year of Italian and a year and a half of German while in college, as well as three years of ancient Greek and two years of Latin. I also studied Greek and Latin for an additional year when I was in a PhD program (which I quit in order to go to law school), and I did some graduate-level coursework in linguistic typology and universal grammar. There was maybe a point in my life at which I spoke Italian and French as well as I spoke Romanian at the end of training, but that’s a big maybe; I can still read a bit of French, while all of my Italian and German has left me for want of an opportunity to put them to use. I have a good understanding of the way languages function in general, so understanding the nuts and bolts of a language’s grammar has never been a problem for me. Getting beyond that, though, has always been difficult, in part because I’m not very good at learning vocabulary.
I didn’t learn much Romanian before I left because I couldn’t find a good descriptive grammar book in English and because a lot of the pronunciation rules are difficult to understand until you actually get here and hear the language being spoken on the street. Romanian has a couple of vowel sounds that are difficult for English speakers to make, and there are some pronunciation rules that are almost impossible to get a grasp on from across the Atlantic. Frankly, I knew almost nothing when I arrived. Everyone else was pretty much in the same boat.
I am still learning new words and constructions every week just from talking to people, but most of my energy I devote to studying Russian on my own because it’s so widely spoken in my town. I taught myself the Cyrillic alphabet during the fall, and now I can count to sixty in Russian, describe colors, and name some items around the house. I can make very, very simple sentences, and I know some colorful cuss words as a result of playing basketball with Russian speakers. Hopefully, once school is out, I’ll have the opportunity to devote more time to it.
Finally, for those incoming volunteers who want to know which language you will be learning: no matter what you hear, there is no real rhyme or reason behind who gets assigned to what language. I had heard that people who had studied a non-Romance language or a language that was written in a different alphabet get put into Russian, but I know at least three people for whom that is not true, including myself. I actually asked to be put into Russian, but my request was ignored, despite my relatively broad (albeit shallow) experience with languages. Not that I’m bitter or anything.