How I Learned Romanian in 37 Easy Steps


Step 1 – Speak Italian and Spanish and then laugh and dismiss with a wave the Romanian language. After all they’re all Romance languages, no? Practically all the same.

Step 2 – Meet some Romanians in the United States, ask ‘em to tell you a bunch of words. Only remember one – opt – meaning the number eight. Really. The first day I showed up in Romania, that’s the only word I knew.

Step 3 – Go to Romania, meet 5,012 people who all speak English (naturally) and therefore teach you no Romanian at all.

Do not buy any Romanian-English dictionaries in Romania for some reason (LOL).

Step 4 – Go back to USA, look in every bookstore in your city, realize while there’s plenty of dictionaries and courses and verb lists for Portuguese and Russian, there’s nothing for Romanian. Nada, zip, zilch, zero.

Go onto Amazon dot com and find literally the only Romanian-English dictionary available, first printed in 1946 and never changed since then.

Step 5 – Every day at work, print out one article from an (online) Romanian newspaper. Haul out your antique dictionary and attempt to translate it word for word.

Note: This was especially enjoyable because the fun-loving Romanian powers that be decided to SWITCH UP the spelling of their language after 1989. Har har, my fine fellows!

Step 6 – Get half the words found and starting to be learned but be utterly confounded for hmm, I don’t know, a year or TWO about how in the world your dictionary (seemingly) doesn’t have half the words appearing in a mainstream newspaper.

Step 7 – Go to Romania a few more times, speak only English with everyone and therefore learn just a handful of words.

Step 8 – Finally find out that Pimsleur has a Romanian course. Yay! You park that puppy in your car stereo and learn Romanian on your way to work every day. Then you find out there’s only ONE lesson available and so you just learn how to say buna ziua (hello) with the right accent and then oh well, too bad so sad.

Step 9 – Move to Romania finally. No more visiting for me, baby!

Step 10 – Begin to go to the store by myself and always be extra super sure to maneuver myself so I can read the digits off the cash register because I can’t understand the so-called “numbers” the lady is telling me. Say buna ziua and if she tries to engage in small talk just nod, smile and mumble.

Step 11 – Finally realize that the “official” way Romanians say numbers is TOTALLY DIFFERENT than the way Romanians actually say numbers.

For example: pai-spre-zece is the OFFICIAL way to say 14. The “real” way Romanians say it is pai-shpay.

Step 11B – Be sure to never, ever order TWO of anything because it’s the one number that’s “masculine” for some things and “feminine” for others and I don’t know which is which. So even if I want two of something, I always have to ask for three.

Step 12 – Start talking to gypsies, mostly beggars who approach me first. They’re the only ones who are patient enough to sit around and speak to me in Romanian.

Step 13 – Take my first train ride with nobody helping me.

Step 14 – Get into colossal arguments with my landlord lady, who doesn’t really speak English and is damn sure unhappy about my apartment cleaning skills. At one time she orders me to clean the stove with a toothbrush LOL.

Step 15 – Finally figure out that before 9am I’m supposed to say buna dimineata and that it’s dee-mee-NATZA not dee-mee-NEH-ATZA. Likewise buna seara (for after 6pm) is SEH-RA not SE-AH-RA.

Step 16 – Move to a street with a name ending in “ului” so finally, FINALLY master how to say that after 5,812 times of riding in a taxi and having to give my address to the driver.

Step 17 – Continue meeting Romanians (including girlfriends) who speak English better than I do, thus corroding my already rusty brain and its ability to learn a new language.

Step 18 – Stare at my TV which has no cable or satellite and only receives one channel (PRO TV – television for PROS). 90% of the programming is American shows with subtitles, which helps a little.

Grit my teeth and force myself to watch Romanian “comedies” like Trasniti in NATO (roughly “NATO hijinks” about some Beetle Bailey type soldiers who clown around in the barracks) and La Bloc (the Apartment Building – about a crew of “wacky neighbors”).

Step 19 – Move to another city, get cable TV and a girlfriend who loves shows like Surprize, Surprize (don’t ask – it’s horrible) and finally Schimb de Mame (literally “Mother Exchange”) which is actually pretty good. I get to see the inside of everyone’s apartments (on the TV) and realize I’m not the only one who has icons all over the wall and lots of LACE needlepoint stuff draping the tables and other bits of furniture.

Step 20 – One day be at the store and the total is 6 lei and give the lady 11 lei and when she gives me a quizzical look, formulate my VERY FIRST ROMANIAN SENTENCE EVER which was “so the change will be a 5 lei note” and she smiles, understands and does indeed five me 5 lei back and I skip home walking on sunshine.

Note: Actually this was during the “good old days” when Romanian money all had a billion more zeroes on it. But you get the idea.

Step 21 – Meet the parents of my girlfriend, who I mistakenly think don’t speak English so be “forced” to drink liquor with her dad and exchange witticisms and banter and then find out when I’m pretty well sloshed that ALL ALONG (hee hee!!) the mom speaks English just fine. Luckily I kept the dirty sex talk to a minimum – I THINK.

Step 22 – Begin showing off my new mastery at Romanian, mostly by engaging in conversation with taxi drivers. They in turn universally think I’m Hungarian. It takes me about six months to learn that I speak Romanian just like Marko Bela and so therefore I must be Hungarian like he is.

Note: Later I get to do impressions of Marko Bela for the amusement of my friends and admirers – KA-CHING!

Step 23 – Make friends with a Romanian guy, who speaks English beautifully, and meet a friend girl of his, who doesn’t. Those two start to date (or almost start dating) and then he suddenly gets a job in another city and so “passes” her onto me.

Yay, so now I’ve got my very first friend who DOESN’T speak English!

Step 24 – Continue to meet with her, get to know her roommate, cousins, brother, uncle, mother, father and assorted other people and find out not a single one of ‘em speaks English at all. They’re all from Maramures where apparently it’s illegal to learn English or something. Oh well, their loss and my win!

Finally go to Maramures and go out in the town, meet a whole bunch of new Maramureseni people and find out THEY TOO do not speak English, not one lick of it. Speak Romanian until my tongue falls out of my head.

Step 25 – Keep talking to taxi drivers and cackle with evil delight as occasionally I find a driver who likes to rant and rage against either foreigners and/or Hungarians and all along he doesn’t know ME I’m not Romanian! Ha haa!

Note: The way to do this is LOTS OF MUMBLING. Lots of “da” and mumbling and nobody will ever find out *evil cackle*

Step 26 – Start buying children’s books in Romanian language like Capra Cu Trei Iezi, which was written by a Romanian guy and now I know why the hell it was never translated into English – it’s extremely gruesome and bloody and would scare the crap out of little American bambinos.

Step 27 – Pick up a copy of Romanian poems (Eminescu) sigh and realize I’ll never understand it in 10,000 years. Go to his special tree in Iasi though and take my picture in front of it and consider that a win.

Step 28 – Take a million trains to every part of the country from Craiova to Oradea to Botosani to Constanta and of course Bucharest. Engage in many conversations with the colorful cast of characters riding the rails and have many fine adventures, some of which I can never talk about, like the “incident” with the bisexual man. AHEM!

Step 29 – Finally get confident enough in Romanian to engage in the greatest sport played in this country, otherwise known as the Righteous Scolding.

In Romania, there’s a “correct” way of doing everything from putting on your socks to how to ride a bus and whenever anyone steps out of line, this is the time for a Righteous Scolding. You get to puff up your shoulders, use a very indignant tone of voice, perhaps some good finger waggling and lambaste the poor rule breaker with a good Righteous Scolding.

Step 30 – Speak Romanian even with Romanians who speak English and listen to them tell you over and over and over again that you don’t speak their language very well.

Meanwhile they are free to butcher English of course and argue with you that “am fost la mall” is “I went AT the mall” and just be smug as hell about how superior their knowledge of English grammar is to your own.

Step 31 – Continue speaking Romanian to anyone and everyone, including an old man who literally has no teeth (sweet guy though, I loved him), gypsies, beggars, country bumpkins (who say ah-CHEE for aici), people from Oltenia (who have their own special past tense for verbs), people in Bucharest, people from the Banat and of course, Moldovans – all of whom have their own special accents, slang, pronunciations and even totally different words for ordinary things.

Step 32 – Go to Bucharest and meet one of the actors who was in La Bloc and tell him how the show helped you learn Romanian and what a shitty show it was and he laughs and agrees 1000% and sits down and drinks a beer with you and tells you many awesome anecdotes.

His character’s name on the show, btw, was “The American” and you find this ironic and amusing NOW but extremely frustrating and bizarre back when you were watching it.

Step 33 – Start getting stopped on the street and asked for directions (especially to the CEC). Grin with supreme delight as not only do you know where the thing is but you can explain how to get there in Romanian! Yay.

Since Romanians are genetically the WORST direction givers on the planet, I consider myself a hero for my valiant service in this regard.

Step 34 – Start learning Russian and then a whole HOST of the weird parts of Romanian grammar and syntax start making total sense to you.

Step 35 – Begin helping your Hungarian friends and exchange students from other countries with Romanian.

Step 36 – Go to Bucharest and have someone think you are actually a native from Transylvania. Yay!!! You win! You finally speak Romanian so good people think you’re FROM here.

Step 37 – Tell everyone you know about how you officially speak Romanian now and have been crowned the new King of Romania and have absolutely nobody be impressed whatsoever LOL. But hey, I’m happy and that’s what matters.

See? There you go. Wasn’t so hard. Only took about 10 years :D

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Categorised in: A few of my all-time favorite posts that I've written, my personal life, Romanian language

259 Responses »

  1. What , in gods name, were you thinking ? Were you bored or something?

  2. Well, congrats to finally learn Romanian but I cannot agree with one thing. In Maramureș, you actually CAN find people who speak English. I don`t know the time when you came here, maybe it was some years ago when… well, we weren’t all that smart, but you have to come again and convince yourself. Besides, Maramureș is a nice place to visit. :)

  3. Sunt Maramuresean si vorbesc engleza foarte bine, la fel ca toti oamenii care frecventeaza mai mult de 8 clase in Romania. Asa ca nu-mi place ce ai scris si-ti urez un maramuresenesc “fute-te-as!”

  4. I was dying of laughter while reading this. I started learning romanian this year. All other polish freaks who learn it too agree that it is extremely difficult to force romanians to speak…romanian with you. But “in 10 years”…
    Cheers! Awesome text. I admire your experience.

  5. Io’s tare curios cum ai catadicsit tu sa inveti romaneste si mai ales de ce. Prezumtia de nevinovatie nu se aplica aici desi in cazul tau entuziasmul caracteristic tuturor celor care vor sa invete limba latina-mama este justificat doar de credulitatea si naivitatea specifica civilizatiilor vestice. Tre sa fii american de felul tau ca altfel nu se explica frazele laconice si afirmatiile prea usuratice la adresa celei mai complexe limbi din categoria latina. Ma anunti si pe mine cand intelegi ce-am spus! Succes!

  6. cum adica, dupa ce ai invatat rusa o mare parte din gramatica (mai ales sintaxa) romaneasca a inceput sa aiba sens… asta e o ciudatenie! gramatica rusa nu are mare treaba cu romana …. e altfel structurata, din punct de vedere.. cum sa zic.. “chomsky”-an… alte cadre mentale, alte “jocuri de limbaj” (de data asta dpdv “wittgenstein”-ian…). zau… nu inteleg… dar ma rog… cine stie ce asocieri in lant, deviante, pot fi facute pe tema asta in mintea unui vorbitor nativ al unei limbi germanice… pana la urma, orice minte apeleaza, “instinctiv”, la toate resursele existente cas a invete o limba straina…

  7. iar cand am zis “deviante”, nu a fost nicidecum un atac sau o “judecata de valoare”, ci am zis-o in sensul de “inexact” dpdv al rezultatului final.. so, take the “mild” sense of it…

  8. ba ce tare..am ras ‘ah-chee’ singur. Fucking hilarious

  9. Felicitari! Sotul meu e din Noua Zeelanda si e foarte frustrat pentru ca nu stie de unde sa inceapa si cu, ce pentru a invata romana! El mi-a trimis articolul tau. Cred ca s-a simtit foarte bine sa vada ca si altora le-a fost foarte greu sa invete limba! Sa nu citesti nici unul dintre comentariile rautacioase pentru ca nu merita! Esti de admirat!

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