What language do they speak in Moldova?

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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.

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14 thoughts on “What language do they speak in Moldova?

  1. That’s a fair description of the situation.
    One small correction. When referring to the part of Moldova/Moldavia that is in Romania, Moldovans would say: “Moldova de peste Prut” (literal translation: “Moldova across the Prut”) . Romanians would use the same expression when referring to RM.

    For both citizens of Romania and RM, Moldova is the historic principality called Moldavia in English and Moldova in Romanian. I think this escapes most people not familiar with the region.

    All the capitals of historic Moldavia are in Romania, and almost all the graves of the former Moldavian rulers are in the part of Moldavia that is in Romania. People from R. Moldova know this as well as Romanians. So from one point of view the distinction between the two halves of the historic principality does not look to Moldovans/Romanians as stark as the political borders and recent history (soviet + post-soviet) would suggest.

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  2. Very accurate description of the language “issue” in Moldova. I’d just like to add one aspect. When I spent some weeks in Chisinau, it often seemed to me that on the streets more people were speaking Russian than Romanian, making Russian a kind of business language. Nonetheless, most newspapers are in Romanian and I think there is only one major Russian TV channel.
    Surprisingly, when people (correctly) thought I was not from Moldova, they started talking to me in Russian, not in English.

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  3. Pingback: What language does Moldova speak | I think about that every day

  4. It’s purely political and anti-scientific to call the Moldovan dialect of the Romanian language by its own separate name “Moldovan,” unless referring to it as in comparing it with Romanian from Romania. That would be akin to calling the language of the United States “American” instead of “English.” It can be referred to as American if a comparison is being made between the U.S.A. and the United Kingdom.

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  5. Hi Sandra,

    I think it’s quite interesting that you would move to Moldova. I was born there and moved away when I was ten. It is currently the poorest country in the EU, and the quality of life is rather low. What attracted you to the country as a permanent place of residence? I realise your work with the UN probably has something to do with it, but I’m quite curious about any other reasons for the move you might be willing to share?

    I am also interested how you find learning the language? Are you learning Romanian or Moldovan? And are you learning any Russian? If I did not speak either and was choosing one to learn, I would likely choose Russian, due to it being decidedly more flexible in virtually all business and social situations, most Russian speakers will not speak Romanian even the ones that can, most Romanian speakers will.

    Thank you for you time, I find your blog quite interesting.

    Nick

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    • Hi Nick!

      I moved abroad from Moldova too, temporarily though – but I find that Moldova is not that bad as everyone in the world is trying to “educate” us, especially the European media. I find that the country is always compared to the “cream of the world”, or otherwise the most advanced countries in the world, which happen to be Moldova’s regional neighbours.

      Personally, after having travelled abroad for a while, I find Moldova quite rich in many aspects, also comparing to many other countries. I was honestly shocked of the stark contrast of reality compared to the one constantly portrayed by media.

      My only issues with the country is people’s ignorance to their past and mutated identity.

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  6. There is a small difference in Romanian taught in Moldovan school and Romanian schools. There are two letters pronounced the same that makes all the difference, ‘â’ and ‘î’. Normally, pupils in Moldova are taught that ‘â’ letter is used only in words that have the root Român (translated Romanian), while in Romania,this letter is widely used and there are a set of different rules in how to use it.

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  7. That â rule no longer stands, we’ve – at least on paper – agreed to write the î and â letters in accordance with Romanian norms…whether and how long it will take for people to apply it, that remains to be seen. Romanian as spoken by Moldovans usually bears anything from a slight to a moderate or even a heavy influence from Russian case grammar which is forcedly translated into Romanian using prepositions for those cases that don’t exist in Romanian. The younger generations that may not speak any Russian seem to be unwittingly carrying on a tradition of “prepositioning” nouns that would survive just fine in a world with no such artificial add-ons. For example, you get to hear a lot of things that sound like the Russian instrumental case only in a preposition+noun format which is used to convey the same idea a Russian would express by using the instrumental case. What floors me though are things said in Romanian lookalike – established expressions that are nothing like Romanian you hear in Romania, and nothing like a verbatim translation of Russian into Romanian. Amazing what 200 years of Russian influence, 50 years of having Romanian literally experimented on while in the Soviet Union, and 25 years of doing the European bussing milk run has achieved. Romanians from Romania proper should come over to teach us our own language, though considering the wage gap between the two countries, that won’t happen in any foreseeable future :’

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  8. I have always thought that Moldova should ultimately join together with Rumania, at least in a Federation if not in a single Republic. Is that possibility on the horizon, even a distant one?
    After all, Rumanian is very much a minority language within the European Union, and that would provide it with a greater cultural “footprint.”
    I live in a country (Spain) with several languages, all (except Basque) based upon variations of Late Latin, and not dissimilar. For some regionalists, this is sufficient to break Spain up into several smaller “nations.”
    In a country such as Germany, there are many often mutually unintelligible dialects still being used, and everyday German is a source of unity. Since in your two countries you already have a common language, why not use it as a source of unity?
    Finally, is Moldova as a country really FEASIBLE? Wouldn’t bringing it into Rumania help it to escape its present poverty? Thanks. Charles in Galicia, Spain.

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