More than 25 years ago, I had a nightmare, and I still remember it because it was so frightening. I couldn’t speak any language at all, even English. I couldn’t communicate with anyone. What would bring on such a terrible nightmare? I studied French in elementary school and had a French pen pal in high school, and could speak a little French. I studied Spanish in high school and became quite proficient in Spanish. Everyone used me as a translator when I went to Mexico. I studied Japanese when I was in the university, and had learned to carry on conversations in Japanese. I had studied a little Hausa too when I was in Nigeria and could deal at the market in Hausa. Now, I was being asked to learn yet another language, and even though I didn’t confide in anyone, it scared me to death.
The Romanian revolution had taken place, and they had asked me to go as an English professor and a missionary to Romania, but there were no books and no teachers to teach me Romanian. Could I do it again? I not only learned to speak Romanian, but became everyone’t translator and now I also speak Korean, but not as well as Romanian. The questions people may ask is “How do you learn so many languages? How do you learn a language when there are no books and no teachers of that language?” This is how I overcame that nightmare and learned to speak Romanian.
First, when we got to Romania, I found a Romanian English teacher. He had never taught Romanian and didn’t know where to begin. He asked me what to do. Thankfully, I was an English professor. I figured out that I needed about 800 words, the past, present, and future of the verbs, and basic sentence patterns. I had some children’s books called the Lady Bird Reading series that present the most used words first to speed the children on to reading fluency faster. I asked him to teach me the words from those books.
800 words sounds like a lot of words, but that was just to get me started. I knew that everything is hard before it gets easy. I knew I was going to have to give a big push to learn 800 words, but I was willing to do it. Choosing the children’s reading books that presented the most used words first was exactly what I needed to do. There are only 12 words that make up 1/4 of the words we use. Most people have about a 2,000 word vocabulary, and if you learn 800 words, you learn almost half of the average person’s vocabulary. 100 words make up half of the words we use, and only 300 words make up 3/4 of all the words we use. The other words we use are on special topics and not used all the time, but still useful.
If we want to put a sentence together, we must know what the word order is. Often times, meaning is found in word order. It was good for me because I learned the Romanian word order was identical to Spanish word order, which is not that far from English word order. I also learned that Romanian and Spanish pronunciation rules are very similar.
As for the verbs, if you have studied French or Spanish in school, you are going to know that their verbs are more complicated than English. In English, if you have a verb in the simple present tense, it isn’t complicated. You use the same verb after I, you, he, she, it, we, and they, and after he, she, and it, you just add an “s.” However, in Spanish, French, and then I was learning in Romanian also, you need a different form of the verb for every pronoun. I had to study all the different forms of the verbs, and it drove me crazy. The last language I had done really well with, Japanese, my Japanese teacher had made charts out to help me understand how the verbs were conjugated, and it made it even easier because I figured out that the simple present tense and the future tense of the verbs were the same in Japanese. However, now, I was back to a language with complicated verbs like Spanish, and it was driving me crazy. I wished to go back to Japan, but I stuck it out and studied those crazy verbs.
The next thing that helped me was listening to the people speak. I was surrounded by Romanian speakers, and I was astounded because sometimes, they sounded like they were speaking Spanish. On Sunday morning at church soon after I got there, I listened to the translator, and he said “speranta” (with a comma under the “t” that means it is a “ts” sound). In Spanish, “esperanza” means “hope,” so I understood “speranta.” I was picking out similar words between Spanish and Romanian. The Spanish “pared” for “wall” became “perete” in Romanian. “Verde” meaning green in Spanish was also “verde” in Romanian. “Mesa” in Spanish (in English, “table) meant “masa” in Romanian. “Masa” happens to be “dough” in Spanish. I was picking out all the similar words, and that made my vocabulary really jump!
After we finished with the Lady Bird Reading Series, my Romanian teacher started me reading children’s books in Romanian, and it was fun. I was learning about Romania at the same time as I was learning the language. There were Reading lessons about when a village finally got electricity. Yes, under Communism, not all the villages had electricty. There was a Reading lesson about a little boy being “smekerie” (tricky) and tricking his way out of doing homework. I was yet to learn that the Romanian culture has an admiration for people who were “smekerie” (tricky).
After the children’s, books, I began reading the Bible in Romanian. I began learning songs in Romanian. I started reading Romanian history books for adults. I was having a blast learning the language at the same time I was learning about Romania and learning Bible.
I continued listening. I heard idiomatic expression and figured out what they meant and incorporated them into my vocabulary. I watched TV both in Romanian and in English with Romanian subtitles. The other Americans asked me to watch the news in Romanian and tell them what was happening in the world. If you want your listening abilities in a language to get good, just watch a news program. News broadcasters speak faster than anyone else. When a Romanian handed me a Romanian/Romanian dictionary and told me they could tell I didn’t need the English/Romanian dictionary, but should be using the Romanian/Romanian dictionary, I was extremely happy and complimented.
In six months time, I was speaking Romanian. Before I left Romania 8 years later, I was translating for all the private Bible lessons and was head translator for the free medical clinic. Here in Korea, I visited the Romanian embassy, and I was having a hard time convincing them I wasn’t Romanian even though I showed them my American passport. They thought I had married an American to get that passport. It has been several years since I have been in Romania, but Romanian had become part of me. The people at the embassy even pinpointed my accent and were insisting I was from Sibiu which is where I lived when I was in Romania. Romanian was no longer a nightmare! It is a pleasure for me to speak Romanian now.
When I came to Korea 13 years ago, I was tired of studying language, and I wasn’t sure I would learn to speak Korean. However, I thought it was only polite to go ahead and study. There are lots of books in the stores to learn Korean, but I didn’t have the time to go to a class. I studied anyway, and I now speak Korean too. I taught myself to speak Korean without a teacher. Maybe in another blog, I will explain how I learned to speak Korean. I didn’t put so much pressure on myself to learn Korean as Romanian, and there were no nightmares when I came here.