In his journey moving from South – Africa to Romania where he wants to eventually relocate, guest writer Leon Schnell covers the topic of language and how learning the local language is seen from outside Romania.
At one point online I was spending a lot of time defending South Africa from the negative opinions of other South Africans, expressed on South African news forums. These days, I seem to be spending a lot of my time defending Romania against negative opinions expressed by English-speaking expatriates within the country on Romanian news forums.
Just for once, it’d be nice to agree with everybody how universally horrible everything in [country x] is, but I guess I’m the optimistic yin to everybody else’s realistic/pessimistic (you choose) yang. Psychologically it also reflects my changing priorities: I’m moving from defending the country I wanted to stay in, to defending the country to which I want to emigrate .
The one thing I can’t quite get beyond, however, is the language barrier. Admittedly, I’m speaking to many Romanians in Romania in English without a problem, but there are plenty of reminders that this isn’t their home language. One of these reminders came to me recently when I had to keep puzzling over a Romanian Facebook friend’s status updates in Romanian. Another when I realized that most of the feedback – not all, but most – I’m receiving to my English stories on Romania-Insider.com is coming from English-speaking emigrants in Romania or overseas.
It’s a bit disheartening, in a way, and I’m sure that most emigrants reach this same realization. You want to discover ‘Real Romanians’, for example, and yet they all stick to Romanian-speaking websites (presumably – I can’t check, because I can’t speak Romanian). Now don’t get me wrong: I don’t consider this a bad trend. Obviously all my Facebook statuses are in English, so apologies in advance to my Romanian friends for that!
What this really is, however, is me facing the reality of being an outsider – ironically I’m reaching this realization through Romania-Insider.com – for the first time in my life. I’m not counting the time I flew to the UK for a holiday with Emirates via Dubai, and spent a puzzled few hours trying to figure out just how much a McDonalds burger was costing me in ‘my’ money.
Ok, given my South African heritage that statement isn’t even entirely true. There are so many cultures in South Africa that it’s very easy to be an ‘outsider’ in your own country: whether that’s while in a Xhosa-speaking township as a white person, or ordering Chinese takeaway food from a friendly Chinese waiter clearly experiencing a language barrier of her own.
In South Africa, people counter this ‘otherness’ by just restricting their social circles. I grew up in the small town of George as an English-speaker, attending an English high school with English friends. Imagine my surprise when I found out while living in Johannesburg that there’s a common perception of George being predominantly Afrikaans-speaking (just out of curiosity, Afrikaans is a uniquely South African variation of Dutch).
So, as the aforementioned Romanian friend suggested to me, I just need to speak Romanian, right? Yup, and I am trying to learn … it’s just not that easy, not least because most of the Romanian courses for would-be emigrants are face-to-face courses in Bucharest. One other caution: when my Romanian wife overheard some of the online language courses I’d found she quickly advised me that I was listening to Hungarian Romanian, not ‘traditional’ Romanian. Hmm, this was going to be trickier than I thought. I have found a couple of online courses, and some innovative computer ‘games’ which include language components, but these seem more geared towards parrot-learning than actually understanding a language.
When the Internet can’t be trusted, we all revert to Ye Olde Bookshop, right? One thing I can’t understand is why Romania doesn’t enter the South African consciousness at all. I’ve looked on countless bookshelves in both small independent bookshops and national chains, and didn’t find anything on Romania. Never mind books relating to learning Romanian: even in the crowded ‘travel’ bookshelves all the collections seem to skip from ‘Portugal’ to ‘Rome’ with the only hint of Romania a couple of pages in a ‘Guide to Eastern Europe’. That’s right: you’ll find Lima, Yemen, even Timbuktu … but at least down here all of Eastern Europe is amalgamated into a single country, even if most large travel guide publishers do have guide books on Romania.
[Side-note: The best-known Romanian courses are those offered by the ICR - view 2013 courses here. Reliable sources inform me that the ICR regularly offers courses in the various countries where it has offices, but alas there's not one in South Africa yet. Romania-Insider.com again comes to the rescue with its very own Romanian lessons, complete with audio clips, archived here.]
There’s one other factor for me to consider: I don’t think I should try my best to ‘Romanian-ize’ myself before emigrating, because A: it will be a number of years before I manage to successfully pass myself off as a Romanian if at all, and B: the one thing which will make me unique is that I AM in fact a native-language English speaker in a predominantly Romanian community.
In summary, then:
- I do want to speak Romanian, but finding reliable free sources online is next to impossible [to anybody in the Romanian government: it might be a great idea to encourage skilled foreign emigrants to come to Romania by giving them free online language courses]
- I want to speak to ‘real’ Romanians, but it’s difficult finding these on English-language sites, or networking via conventional social networks like Facebook. If you are a ‘real’ Romanian, please consider inconveniencing yourself by speaking English to emigrants – it’s the only way they’re going to meet the real Romanian culture and break out of their emigrant circles. One day, that’ll reap dividends for the country as a whole, and in the short-term you’ll make an interesting friend.
- Speaking bad Romanian might be more detrimental than speaking great English in Romania as an emigrant … so I think I need to keep identifying English-language job opportunities in Romania. All suggestions welcome, but I realize this is the coal-front of opportunity in modern Romania.
On this latter point, I promise I’m not going to move to Romania and promptly bring out my own English guide to Romania! That particular market seems pretty saturated, unsurprisingly. As opposed to English speakers who provide services to other English immigrants in Romania, I want to find a way to build off the growing English fluency in Romania to create a product or service for the majority of the population instead of a small minority.
It not only makes business sense in terms of market size, but it’s also something I want to do personally so that I’m contributing to the country instead of just surviving at its periphery. Not easy, but then nothing worthwhile having is, right? Your mileage may vary, disclaimer, disclaimer.
By Leon Schnell, Guest Writer
Leon is a 27 year old South African print journalist, weighing up different means of moving to Romania with his Romanian-born wife. A career writer following in the footsteps of his grandfather (also an editor), he dabbles with blogging through www.reillusioned.blogspot.com and is networking with Romanians like crazy. E-mails are welcome – these can be directed to email@example.com.