When I first learned I would complete my Peace Corps service in Moldova, I started looking for information about the country – I’d never heard of it before. One of the biggest questions I had, was what was the spoken language, or what language was I about to try to learn? Most of the sites I found listed Romanian and Russian as the primarily spoken languages in Moldova. Since there were more resources at the library to learn Russian, I started studying that, but as it turns out I was assigned by Peace Corps to study Romanian.
Now, after over a year in Moldova, speaking a passable amount of Romanian, but living in a rather Russian area of the country, I believe I have some insight into the language situation here. To be honest, there are no simple answers, to whether Moldova speaks Romanian or Russia. The cultural history of Moldova is indeed complex. If you’re familiar with Moldova (or not) I would love to read your comments on my analysis of this issue below.
What is the official language in Moldova?
The language of Moldova is Romanian. Many people, quoting the constitution, call it Moldovaneste – this is a hybrid, slightly different version of Romanian. A good comparison here is between American English and British English – same language, understandable by either, but with a few word, grammar and stylistic variants. The supreme court Moldova recently ruled that the Moldovan language would be refered to as Romanian. While linguistically this might be correct, in that the root of Moldovaneste and Romanian are closely related, a lot of Moldovans and PCVs here might argue with this ruling.
Why do some call the language Romanian, while others call it Moldovan?
Some who refer to the language as Moldovan or Moldovaneste are making a point about the cultural, ethnic or political differences between Moldova and Romania. Sometimes, this language differentiation is made to highlight a cultural or political message.
Others believe that both languages ought to be called Moldovaneste, since Moldova was an independent state long before Romania.
While still others, believe that Moldovaneste can not be lumped with Romanian because Moldovaneste is not actually an offical language, in that it means something different to different people in different parts of Moldova. For example in Moldovaneste, one might hear the word, ‘gine’ instead of ‘bine’ for good, or ‘hirashow’ the Russian for good.
Those who refer to the language as Romanian are sometimes highlighting the simple fact that linguistically, the language is very similar. In some occasions they may also be taking a political, ideological stance about ethnicity and cultural proximity to Romania, however this is not always the case.
What language should I speak in Moldova?
Whatever language you know, of course! Now if you happen to of the select few who happen to speak both Romanian and Russian with equal fluency or easy, it depends where you are.
Certain regions, such as Balti, Birceni, Gagauzia or Cahul, have large populations that do not speak Romanian well. Whereas in other regions, such as Chisinau, you may run into the opposite problem, where many people do not speak Russian well. Regardless of where you are in Moldova, you are going to be able to get by in either Romanian or Russian. (May take a few tries to get by in one or the other depending on where you are.) If you are in one of the regions with most non-ethnic Moldovans (see the “Ethnic map of Moldova“, based on 2004 census data), then you should probably use Russian.
Currently, at least in Balti, studying Russian and Romanian is obligatory in all schools, as the first second language studied. After this students are given an option of their third language, usually between English, French and German. However, I have found at least in Balti, that while the Romanian students almost all speak and understand Russian with a high fluency, there is a good number of Russian students who do not understand or speak Romanian with a high enough fluency to communicate.
Is Moldova a bilingual country?
Short answer: I would say yes since the vast majority, of the Moldovans I know have at least a conversational level in both Romanian and Russian. Of course there are pockets in Balti, and other places where one language is so dominant that there are many people who have a VERY low level of either Russian or Romanian.
This question is interesting to ask Moldovans and Peace Corps Volunteers living here, because depending on where they live, you are apt to hear wildly different answers.
I have heard the comparison of Moldova to Belgium, a country with two languages, Romanian and Russian. And of Moldova to Sweden – a country with one official language, but also a high number of citizens coming from other ethnic groups and a very good level of knowledge of an international language (in Sweden it would be English, in Moldova it is Russian). Which means that you can get by without speaking the local language.
How widely spoken are English and other European languages?
English is spoken widely in Chisinau, in shops and restaurants, especially by young people. As to other cities and their suburbs and the generally wealthier areas of the country, there is a decent amount of english spoken. In the more rural areas, this percentage goes down significantly.
In Balti, where I live, I have found a lot of people here with some level of english, from conversational to native level fluency. I would say about 20% of the population here, speaks enough english to communicate basic things. However, generally older or non-specialised workers from more rural areas, don’t speak any English. Italian, French or German can can be of some help almost everywhere here, since many people have worked abroad for long periods in one of these places or have studied one of these languages in school.
Can I get good language training in Moldova?
Of Course! There are many language schools in Chisinau, such as Casa Limbii Romane on Strada Kogalniceaunu (specialised on Romanian) and the International Language Training Center on Strada Petru Rares. Many other schools offer Russian, English, Italian, French and German language courses. Alliance Francaise is very active with French language courses and cultural activities.
There are also language tutors available in every major city and raion center. Prices vary, but you can get a Romanian or Russian private language lesson from as little as 40 MDL per hour, up to 400 MDL per hour.
Disclaimer: This post was inspired by a post on the blog Chisinau, Seriously? about the same topic. This post can not be taken as fact about the linguistic situation in Moldova, it is based mainly on my observations and interactions in Balti and with other Peace Corps Volunteers in other parts of the country – I have not researched this topic in Moldova.