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  • Ilinca Stroe

Why Learn Romanian?

Looking back, the Roman Empire was quite a slack manager of its linguistic effects. Or else you wouldn’t be reading in the non-Romance lingua franca that it did not bequeath to its north westernmost province, Britannia, about the Romance language it did generate in its (roughly) north easternmost province, Dacia. Generated, or rather dropped and then fled. For, just as this map of Latin-derived languages shows, (Daco-)Romanian, although pictured in pink, looks like a fight-or-flight case: the offspring begotten and left behind by a parent in a hurry. Between this far-flung sibling and its closest sister language, Italian, a grey landmass of hotchpotch tongues and the speechless blue of the Adriatic…

Romanian language

image: Distribution of Romance languages in Europe. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

That Romanian is a bit of an oddity, Romance but cut off from the rest of the Romance languages, is further supported by the fascinating mix of its core vocabulary: around 75% of Latin origin, but nearly 15% Slavic, 3% Germanic, 2% Greek, and a 5.5% cocktail of Turkish, Hungarian or simply fuzzy-origin words. Equally intriguing, the locations of its native speakers (nearly 24 million) include Romania (about 20 million) and the Republic of Moldova (3 million), fair enough, but then 1.8% of the population of Italy speaks Romanian, as does 2.8% of the population Israel, 1.7% of that of Spain, and 2.9% in Cyprus, with lesser percentages in Serbia, Hungary, Ukraine, Portugal, Germany, the USA and Canada.

So why would a non-native ever want to learn this odd language? While a couple of general reasons stick out easily, on the one hand, drawing on the specific experiences of about 100 learners of Romanian (either former students and workmates, or simply friends), quite a few more sensible reasons can be pinpointed, on the other hand, with their more or less orthodox personal motivations and/or benefits.

Here are the general reasons: firstly, Romanian is 77% lexically similar to Italian, 75% to French, 72% to Portuguese, and 71% to Spanish. As a speaker of Romanian you will access a pan-Latin vocabulary shared by a total of 920 million native and 300 million non-native speakers of Romance languages. In other words, Romanian is a gateway to intercomprehension and an intercultural tool wherever in the world any of the six main Romance languages is official, including South America. Not bad, is it? Secondly, does O-Zone’s “Dragostea din tei” (now also included in the dance video game Just Dance 2017) still ring a bell?

(Now, wouldn’t we natives, too, like to make sense of those lyrics?... :) )

As for the specific reasons of various individual learners of Romanian, let us start with American J. An excellent speaker of the odd Romance language, J. was also an experienced manager in charge of a team of about 50 natives working a lot with national and local authorities in the field of labour. Her staff adored her. She used English to communicate professional matters to them, but Romanian to socialise and chat. To the utter surprise of this author, she occasionally pretended (and here we’re getting to the less orthodox motivation) not to have a clue about Romanian with some less reliable business partners, while, however, she followed them closely as they were talking to the (useless) translator. To J., learning Romanian was a matter of becoming a good people manager, speaking it - a matter of being in control of her professional environment at the time.

Compared to managers, romantic partners of Romanians learn the language for less lucrative purposes, but with a tremendously positive effect on their relationship - plus the little (not-so-orthodox but fully enjoyable) personal benefit. For example, Italian L. has been married to Romanian C. for more than 15 years now and, even though she speaks perfect Italian, they run their Bucharest-based business in Romanian and they socialise in Romanian. And when L. does that, he also jumps at the (often neglected) chance allowed by the cultural framework of Romanian: cracking less politically correct jokes. To L., speaking Romanian means expanded freedom of speech, including slightly irreverent jokes. In the case of French A., a Romanian’s partner for the past 10 years, learning the language was a way of forging ties with her in-laws, while in the French town where the couple live she tends to resort to the odd Romance language to make little comments about the occasional nasty compatriot in a language unknown to that person. Gossip? Perhaps. Emotional and cultural intimacy with her Romanian partner? For sure.

Finally, speaking Romanian creates bonds. Bonds between non-natives and natives which are often more reliable, more rewarding and more long-lasting than local ones. It is the case of Spanish D. and T., who, with their still imperfect but fluent and wholehearted Romanian, have created in Romania youth social enterprises connected to regional networks of know-how, good practices and support for more than 10 years now. It was the case of French F., whose less than perfect Romanian but extraordinary intellectual commitment enabled her, during her two-year stay in Bucharest, to document and curate an art exhibition which provided quality cultural critique about Romanian tabloids. And it was the case of American S., a proficient Romanian user whose fluency, accuracy and remarkably fast acquisition of the language made her, within a year, a business consultant her Romanian partners really looked up to professionally, and treasured on a personal level. To the three of them, Romanian has been a way to reach that “deeper Romania”, attain full integration here.

Having recalled the experiences of colleagues and friends, let us, in the end, duly mention famous non-natives whom we Romanians, teachers or otherwise, see on TV or hear on the radio and feel highly impressed by: when the Ambassador of Japan gives a speech in perfect Romanian, when a non-native CEO makes a public statement convincingly in perfect Romanian, we know they respect us, they understand us, they value us, and we give nothing less in return. To them, as well as to us, whether in business or arts, Romanian is mutual trust.

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