Double Tongued


I know it’s rather egotistical but I like to think of myself as rather well-traveled. I’ve certainly visited a few countries, and lived in a few as well, and I am at least minimally aware that different people around the world live in different ways. It’s what makes this world so fascinating.

But I’ve never seen anything like the bilingualism here in Moldova.


Mind you, I’ve lived in bilingual countries before. Up until last summer, I was living in Unicorn City (known by some as Cluj-Napoca), which has been a bilingual city for about a thousand years. Prior to 1920, it was Romanians living under Hungarian rule, and now the situation is flipped. While the mayor (RO: primar) is inevitably Romanian, the “vice” mayor is often Hungarian. In Cluj today you can find minority language schools, churches, newspapers, radio stations and TV channels.

I also used to live in Israel, which I’ve written about a bit before. The official language there is Hebrew, but millions of its citizens (and a few million more Palestinians who are just occupied subjects without rights) speak Arabic. There are certainly minority language schools, houses of worship, radio stations and TV channels there too.

Lots of other places in Europe are bilingual (or multilingual) too. Finland’s most famous writer crafted her masterpieces in Swedish. There is a Romanian political party in Spain and children in France are required to learn German. And we all know (now) that millions of Ukrainians speak Russian (as do some native Romanians).

Belgium takes it to the next level and is officially bilingual, much like Canada. But there’s still something different about the bilingualism in Moldova, where just about everybody speaks a minimum of two languages here (usually Romanian and Russian).

In Moldova, none of the bilingualism is actually official. The Constitution, laws, the money and most government regulations are entirely in Romanian. Street signs, bus schedules and food labels are all in Romanian. And yet Russian is taught in schools here, is used every day on the streets, and all commercial AND government websites are in two (sometimes three) languages.

What’s even weirder is that, in most bilingual (or multilingual) countries, language is a clearly demarcated line for ethnicity and culture. Sure, millions of people in Helsinki speak Swedish, and hundreds of thousands in Birmingham (England) speak Bengali, but it’s always a case of you only speak it if that’s “your” language or culture. Belgians tend to speak French or Dutch (Flemish) and rarely both. Same for Canadians, Luxembourg residents and citizens of Singapore, who all primarily speak their identifying language and then only tidbits or snippets of the other language.

If you buy a newspaper in French, you can be pretty sure that it’s going to be entirely in French (or Spanish, Urdu or Finnish). I never got the hang of the Hungarian language more than a few phrases, but I’ve spent enough time with Hungarians (including at their awesome street festival in U-City) and watched their TV and listened to their radio stations (Paprika FM in Cluj is freaking awesome) and it’s always monolingual. Evenimentul Zilei is in Romanian and Sazabadsag is in Hungarian and Hermannstädter Zeitung (in Sibiu) is in German, and that’s all there is to say about it.

Not so in Moldova. I listen to a lot of radio and it never fails to surprise me to hear a Russian-speaking DJ introduce a Romanian-language song. Or a Romanian station will play Romanian music but then run a couple of advertisements in Russian. During some news broadcasts, one person will be talking in Romanian and then a person will interject in Russian and it’s never translated, it’s just “totally normal” for around here.

Romania has, by far, the most the most progressive laws on minorities in all of Europe. That’s why you’ll see street signs in Hungarian (and Ukrainian or Russian in Tulcea County) and why government TV (TVR) broadcasts programs in Hungarian. But those are always subtitled, or written in both languages. Here in Moldova, they switch back and forth between Russian and Romanian on TV like it’s absolutely nothing.

Even the parliament is bilingual. Unlike the Romanian parliament, which has an awkward and weird interface that makes it almost impossible to see video clips of parliamentary sessions, the Moldovan parliament live streams everything. And you can see it there for yourself how one deputy will say something in Romanian and then get a response in Russian from a second deputy. Far out stuff.

What makes all of this even weirder is that it isn’t like there’s a huge (ethnic) Russian minority here. Over 75% of people who live here say that Romanian is their native language. Yet there’s code-switching and language flipping all the time here. Depending on the person, and the circumstance, I end up speaking fragments of Russian with Romanian speakers all the time. I hear parents mixing Romanian and Russian when talking to their children. A couple of weeks ago I sat in utter fascination and listened to four people casually flip between and mix Russian and Romanian in an astounding feat of bilingualism that nobody (but me) even thinks is remarkable.

Moldova, of course, was in the Soviet Union, where Russian was the language of government and officialdom. But unlike in countries such as Ukraine, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, there’s no leftover resentment post-Communism towards Russian and Russian speakers. Nobody curses or mutters when they hear Russian, or sees a sign written in Russian, or avoid businesses that operate in Russian. If you’re Russian, okay, and if you’re Romanian, okay too. That seems to be the size of it. Speaking Russian, or liking Russian TV programs or Russian songs means nothing here, and doesn’t culturally signify that now you’re “Russian”, the way speaking Spanish does for Anglos in America.

But by far the worst part is just how prejudiced most of the world is against this bilingualism. If Moldovans all spoke French, I am sure they’d be hailed as amazing and brilliant people, adapting and straddling two rich cultures of literature, poetry and song. But no, it’s just dirty old Russian, the unpleasant language spoken by Vladimir Putin and some 250 million people across the globe, an official language in five countries and one of the United Nations Official Six tongues.

The benefits of bilingualism are thoroughly documented, and the fact that Moldovans mix two alphabets (including the hideously difficult Cyrillic) makes it all the more amazing. Alas, though, not only are most Moldovans shunned by their fellow Romanian speakers, but rarely do Moldovans even celebrate or take pride in their own multilingual accomplishments.

Sad, really. But for me, I have no prejudices. As far as I’m concerned, Moldova is fucking awesome. Having everything “subtitled” in Russian makes learning the language all the much easier for me, and I consider the whole thing an intellectual workout akin to lifting (mental) weights at the gym. I even love discovering the Slavic roots of Romanian words and expressions, to say nothing of my total delight in chasing down ancient Greek and Latin words that pop up in Russian.

But then again, we all know I’m weird ;) Or, as we say in Moldova, странный (stranie) – (RO: strain, ENGLISH: strange).

10 thoughts on “Double Tongued

  1. Străin means foreign. Weird in Romanian is ‘straniu’ or ‘ ciudat’.
    As regards this type of bilingvism, it happens on a lower scale here with ethnic minorities adopting neologisms from the dominant language. In the case of R. Moldova, I understand that under comunism, they could speak their language only at home, so many words in use at work they knew in Russian. It is a sad case of not being able to properly speak neither language.


  2. I converted to Orthodoxy in 1985, in the Russian Church. I had known the Cyrillic alphabet for years, but never really learned Russian. I can read some things, speak a few words, but have trouble understanding when it is spoken. I became fascinated with Romania around 2010. We’ve always heard here (US) that Romanian is a “Romance,” or “Latin” language. Even that “Romanian speakers can easily understand French, Italian, Spanish.” I found that I could decipher some Ronanian through my limited knowledge of Russian. The grammar seems somewhat similar. Interesting article! As are all the articles on your blog, which I just discovered! My dream is an extended visit to Romania! Thanks for your work!


  3. It’s officially trilingual, that Belgium. Every official document has to be in German as well. A bit like Switzerland. The ‘other’ language is still a compulsary second language in schools here, but federalisation has seperated both cultures – there used to be French-speaking Flemings, and Flemish speaking Walloons and a Brussels dialect that was fele apa, fele viz.


  4. It would be awesome if speaking more than one language was mainstream here in the States. One big thing I noticed as I learned a couple more languages was that if you only speak one language, you take for granted the communication patterns in your language – the sentence structure, the way concepts are arranged into words and phrases, that sort of thing. But as you learn another language, you broaden your mind to other communication patterns that you had no idea existed before. But when it gets REALLY fun is when you realize that certain things you want to say flow better in your second language than in your first language.


  5. In Ro we also have the word “straniu” which is the equivalent of “ciudat” ; i don’t find you weird but totally genuine.


  6. I’m studying Romanian, Russian and Latin these days, so this post really speaks to me. It’s a blast seeing which words among the three turn up where. You’re definitely not alone. People are strange!


  7. Hi Sam. Actually, in Romania, there is exactly the same work as the Moldavians use: “straniu”. However, it’s synonym “ciudat”, tends to be used more often. “Străin” is always used with the meaning of “foreign”, but not “strange”.


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