There are few things more humbling than trying to learn a language while being surrounded by a whole country of people who speak 2, 3, or 4 languages. The Republic of Moldova used to be a part of Romania and therefore its primary language is Romanian. BUT – it was then under Russian rule during the Cold War so just about every person here speaks Russian as well. And in fact, some of the older generation speaks only Russian. (The language they call Moldovan is mostly Romanian with lots of Russian words thrown in). So those are the 2 languages that everyone speaks, along with a hybrid language that is mostly Romanian. BUT THEN, some people have family from Ukraine so they grew up with grandparents speaking that language and so can understand Ukrainian, though maybe don’t speak it very well. And let’s not forget the obsession with America and American culture. Many students learn English in school and then go on to become quite proficient through watching films and self study. Finally, many many people go abroad to work and then come back with a conversation level in yet another European language or may simply study additional foreign languages in school. One of our Moldovan friends, for example, speaks Russian, Romanian, English, and Italian. Oofta.
So here is where I enter the picture: a 31 year old mono-language speaker with a brain that is probably already starting to lose neurons rather than generating more. Wah wah. My first weeks in Moldova were spent like a toddler – reading signs in Romanian and reciting words that I knew as I saw those objects. A car passes: “Mașina!” A dog passes: “Căine!” We buy a coffee: “Cafea!” I’m surprised Daniel didn’t wither away from lack of stimulating conversation, that is, if I EVER provided stimulating conversation. Perhaps I just replaced hospital stories with Romanian words and Daniel finds both of those equally interesting.
In any case, here is where two linguistic lifelines got sent my way. The first are the students at the Student Resource Center where we volunteer. Get this: Among each other they speak Romanian so I can always sit in and listen and try to pick things up. Some of them speak nearly perfect English so they are my go-to when I need something explained. Some are learning English and don’t seem to mind when I say something in Romanian and they practice responding in English. And some speak little to no English and they are my “pushed into the deep end of the pool” friends. One such “deep end of the pool” girl is incredibly patient, like “should have a million kids” patient or “receive lifetime patience achievement award” patient. She willingly gets together with me outside of the center and speaks Romanian with me at a toddler level. She chastises others at the center to speak Romanian when I am around so I can learn. And she corrects me kindly and repeatedly when I get things wrong. She is wonderful. As an added bonus she corrects Daniel when he speaks Romanian incorrectly, which as it turns out, gives me immense satisfaction.
The second lifeline is my Romanian tutor/professor. He comes to my house for 90 minutes every Wednesday and Friday morning. He is an actual Romanian professor who works at a language learning center in the city. It was incredibly lucky how we found him. I had been trying to search lessons and classes online and was having a hard time finding anything (most everyone here is looking to learn English, not Romanian). A few weeks ago, we were on our way to the “International Charity Bazaar” where we would be volunteering in the morning. Waiting at a crosswalk, were we approached by an older woman who began to ask us for directions – to the Charity Bazaar! We told her to walk with us there. She seemed slightly suspicious at first, but we started chatting along the way. (Well, Daniel chatted and I desperately tried to chat). It turns out she was a retired Romanian teacher. She took down my contact information and within 8 hours I was contacted by my current teacher. He started come to my house 2 days later. Oh – and did I mention that he doesn’t speak English either? Hah, so in general I have lots of brain melting days…but I have high hopes that in a few months it means I will be conversational in this language.