Did you struggle in high school or college to learn Spanish, French or some other foreign language? Great! This question is for you:
I learned Nepali when I was a Peace Corps volunteer four decades ago and am now learning Romanian as a volunteer in Moldova. Which language do you think is harder?
Keep in mind: Romanian is related to many other European languages and to our own. It shares many words with English. Its syntax is similar. Nepali, on the other hand, is a Sanskrit language. Its alphabet, Devanagari, is completely different, as is its syntax. In Nepali, the sentence “What is your name?” literally translates as, “Your name what is?”
Maybe you’re thinking this is a trick. Maybe I’m encouraging you to say Nepali is harder but I actually think Romanian is harder.
Well, I do think Romanian is harder. But the problem is that I’m not sure it really is harder. Perhaps I’m just not as good at learning languages as I used to be.
To be sure, Nepali was harder for me at the outset. Its sentence structures seemed so bizarre that I walked out of my first language class, ready to quit in despair. Within a few days, though, I got the hang of it. By the end of our training, I was able to have a simple conversation. Today I still speak it easily, if imperfectly.
When I first encountered Romanian, it reminded me of French, which I studied in high school. I was relieved so many words looked familiar. For instance, here are some Romanian verbs whose meaning you can probably guess: discuta, studia, dansa, telefona and permite. I am a voluntar who is activ, sociabil, inteligent and optimist. Right now it’s August. Next month is Septembrie.
See what I mean? How hard could it be to learn Romanian, right?
Well, it’s been plenty hard. Accent marks change the pronunciation and meaning of s, t, a and i. Adjectives and verbs must be conjugated as masculine or feminine. Verbs fall into multiple categories, each with their own conjugation. There are endless exceptions.
During our language training, which wrapped up last week, we blasted through lessons on how to describe our families, order food, ask for directions or describe our work as Peace Corps volunteers. We learned how to use present tense, past tense, future tense, reflexive verbs and things like “genitive case” whose meaning I’d long forgotten in English, much less Romanian. We memorized lists of foods, clothing, furniture and more.
I’ve found it much harder to cram all of this into my brain than when I learned French or Nepali. I mutter “Damn you, neural plasticity!” to myself while I study before and after our four-hour classes, make word lists, then make new lists of words I still can’t remember.
Fortunately, I had an incredible teacher, Diana, who was skillful and tireless in helping my classmates and me learn everything. That’s her in the flower dress with us. With Diana’s help, I ended up with a good score on the exam they administered before we swore in as volunteers last week. She kept telling me I was doing fine, and I guess she was right.
In any case, this is just the first lap. I recently moved in with Champa while her group finishes its training, and I’ve been using the time to keep studying. Whenever I need more motivation, I remind myself I’m moving soon to a post where my partner doesn’t speak much English.
There’s a Romanian word for what this has been like for someone 63 years old. You can probably guess its meaning: dificil. However, I am doing my best to stay focused on another Romanian word: succes. Regardless of how your own language class turned out, please wish me luck.