When I first learnt I would move to Moldova, I started looking for information about the spoken language, but I did not find simple answers to my questions. Now, after several months in Moldova and a good amount of research, I am ready to share what I learnt. To be honest, there are no simple answers, because the cultural history of this place is indeed complex. I will be happy to see your comments if you don’t agree with my synthesis (and also if you do).
What is the official language in Moldova?
The language of Moldova is Romanian. Many people, quoting the constitution, call it Moldovan – but they would promptly admit that ‘Moldovan language’ is just another way to say Romanian. There are no different grammar rules or different words (apart from popular, local dialectal words like in any place), nor a Moldovan language academy, and the grammar and vocabulary learnt in schools are the Romanian ones.
Why do some call the language Romanian, while others call it Moldovan?
Those who call the language Moldovan are making a point about the cultural (or ethnic, or political) difference between Moldova and Romania*. They do not want to make the step from language unity to ethnic, cultural or political unity with Romania.
Those who call the language Romanian (including the declaration of independence, and recently the Constitutional Court) are highlighting the simple fact that linguistically, the language is one. 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?
Unless you are in some specific regions (such as Balti, Gagauzia, or Transnistria), normally you should speak Romanian. But if you can’t speak Romanian, you will get by perfectly with Russian. In fact, there are many Moldovans who don’t speak Romanian – mostly those who grew up in a Russian or Ukrainian household and went to one of the many Russian-language schools. Being Moldova an ethnically mixed country, Russian serves as the common language for all ethnic groups. At the moment, studying Russian is obligatory in all schools, even if there are discussions to give students the option to replace it with English.
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, because that’s the language used by everybody to communicate and because Romanian would not be of much use there.
Is Moldova a bilingual country?
I was confused for a long time because I thought of Moldova as Belgium, a country with two languages, Romanian and Russian. Instead, now I think more of Moldova as 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. [Of course the background and history of the two countries is not comparable. Forgive me here the simplification].
How widely spoken are English and other European languages?
English is spoken widely in Chisinau, in shops and restaurants, especially by young people. I am not sure about other cities. However, older or non-specialised workers won’t typically speak English, and hardly anybody will in the countryside. Italian is of help almost everywhere, since many people have been in Italy for long periods and have learnt the language.
Can I get good language training in Moldova?
You can. 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 (though I have heard that the best Russian training is in Odessa…). Alliance Francaise is very active with French language courses and cultural activities. Prices vary, but you can get a Romanian private language teacher from as little as 70 MDL per hour, up to 400 MDL per hour.
*What about Romanian Moldova?
This is not directly related to languages, but since I mentioned the debate about linguistic-cultural-ethnic links between Romania and Moldova, I need to add that Moldova is also a region of Romania with capital in Iasi (in English it is actually called Moldavia, but in Romanian both share the same name, Moldova). So in Moldova they will occasionally say RM, Republica Moldova, to talk about themselves, and “Moldova de peste Prut” (the Moldova on the other side of the river Prut) to talk about Romanian Moldavia – and apparently the expression is also used in the other direction (thanks to MihaiP for helping out on this point). Sometimes the word Bessarabia is used, especially by Romanians, to talk about the country Moldova. The cultural links between the Romanian region Moldova and the Republic of Moldova are not disputed.
I hope this helps anybody who is planning to move to this beautiful place.
For a more extended analysis of the issue, see also this 2013 working paper from the European Center for Minority Issues.
Please add your views in the comments, or contact me if you have other questions about language in Moldova which I did not cover.
Update 2 Oct 2014: this post was used as a basis for a post on PeaceCorps volunteer blog ‘I Think About That Every Day‘. Check out how she sees it too.