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speaking in tongues

There are too many languages in this country. Or — more accurately — we are surrounded by too many of them. We feel buffeted by foreign tongues.


At work, D uses both Russian and English, and has at times found himself switching between the two during the course of a single interview, starting a line of questioning in one language and ending it in an another. His Moldovan colleagues, who in addition to Russian and English also speak Romanian, tend to use the three languages interchangeably, though some of them are considered to be Romanian speakers and others Russian speakers. At times, D has caught himself speaking Russian to other Americans, in and out of the Embassy, and once he even started talking to S in rapid-fire Russian, only stopping when he saw the look of complete confusion on her face.

After taking three weeks of the Russian FAST course at FSI in July, S has restarted her language classes last week. No one has ever accused Russian of being an easy tongue to master, and it is a little frustrating for S to cover the same ground over and over without feeling like she is advancing in her studies. She took two distance-learning classes while we were in Kenya, calling in once a week to speak with a professor at FSI, but that was more than a year ago and definitely was not the best way to start learning this difficult language. The FAST course was little more than a refresher. Unlike Swahili, which was an easy language to start speaking, Russian is so complex that S has spent the last week just going over grammar without learning to say anything of practical value, leading her to conclude much to D’s amusement that Russian is not a language made for communication.

Meanwhile, D has started taking Romanian lessons. Theoretically, being a Romance language should make Romanian easier to learn since D speaks Spanish. Already, D has noticed that he understands a lot because so much of the vocabulary is similar to either Russian or Spanish words he knows. However, Romanian also has some complex grammatical twists that make it very difficult for beginners to speak the language correctly. D had been expecting irregular verb conjugations, gendered nouns, and adjective declensions, but Romanian also has some words that change gender, being masculine in their singular form and feminine in the plural. Their acceptance and common use may be very progressive from a rights perspective, but it also makes mastering the language incredibly difficult.

Oh, and we speak Spanish here too. There is a small, informal “Latino” club of people who are either from Spanish-speaking countries, are married to people who are, or just happen to know the language. There were no fewer than six languages flying around the house the last time the club had a gathering, as several people have Brazilian roots and some of the spouses and kids speak other languages as well. Among the people we met through this social circle are two Paraguayan brothers who operate one of the biggest pig farms in Moldova, which we visited several weekends ago. As incongruous as it felt to be sitting down to a family-style meal in the Moldovan countryside and only speaking Spanish, we’re glad to have the opportunity to keep speaking a language we both love and hope not to lose.

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