Passing for a ‘native’ Romanian speaker

Dr Julien Danero Iglesias is a research associate in the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Glasgow.  He is working on Case Study 3 alongside Dr Robert Gibb 

I started learning Romanian a bit more than ten years ago, when I bought a famous self-study language learning method in order to prepare for the Erasmus year I was going to spend in Romania.  After my Erasmus year, I decided to stay in Romania for another year and enrolled in a Master’s course in Bucharest.  At the end of these two years in Romania, I was happy to be able to say that I could easily pass for a ‘native’ in certain situations, for example everyday exchanges in shops, administration and taxis.

"You can like Bucharest", advertisement for the events organised around the 555th anniversary of the city of Bucharest. January 2015.

“You can like Bucharest”, advertisement for the events organised around the 555th anniversary of the city of Bucharest. January 2015.

That was almost ten years ago.  And now I am back in Bucharest, as fieldwork for Case Study 3 of the Researching Multilingually at Borders project has started.  The first impression is of coming home: nothing has changed and I do not have to think about my way or to wonder if I have to buy tickets inside or outside the tramway.  This impression of coming home can also be felt in relation to language.  For example, I felt pleased when, in the bus from the airport to the city centre just after arrival, I was able to interact with people, for example when my bag was in the way, or when I was able to follow each word of the conversation my neighbour had on her telephone.

Nevertheless, saying today that I can still pass for a native Romanian speaker would be a lie.  I try my best, I put on my most beautiful local accent, and then here they come, the words that you cannot remember (“I knew how to say ‘dark circle’ in Romanian, yes, I knew”), the words that you actually have no clue about (“How do you explain to the hairdresser that you want your hair ‘layered’?”) or the words that you know but did not hear (“Yes, I know how to say a ‘towel’, I was just looking at something else”), or even those words with these letters that are suddenly so difficult to pronounce properly (“Why am not able to say ‘Pache Protopopescu’ properly?”).  Even my friends tell me so (“God, what happened to you, you spoke so much better the last time I saw you…” or “What are those stresses you’re putting in the wrong place?”) but mostly find it ‘cute’ (“No, it’s not an ‘earthly house’ (casa pământeană), it’s a bungalow, a ‘house on the ground’ (casa pe pământ)”) even when the word I use to say that my Romanian is ‘rusty’ (ruginită) sounds more like the name of a village (Ruginoasă).

Still, I can obtain whatever I want, whenever I want and I can understand everything.  But I am not anymore that ‘native speaker’.  And it is not only about words, it is also about behaviour: I don’t speak like a ‘native’ and I don’t behave like a ‘native’.  There is a new set of rules that I do not know anymore, like how and when I am supposed to give a tip, but I also may seem to act strangely when, to make sure that I do not pass for a ‘foreigner’, I seem to be an unfriendly silent person.  I just do not seem to belong here anymore.

But now, one of my aims is to be able again to ‘pass for a native’, both socially and linguistically.  But here comes the question: what does it mean to be a ‘native speaker’  What is this model I am aiming at?  The question is not new, and various definitions of the ‘native speaker’ can be found in the literature.  Now that I think of it, when I say ‘passing for a native’ speaker, I mean that the people that I interact with cannot ‘hear’ or ‘notice’ that I am not Romanian.  This definition is obviously completely unsatisfactory.  That I don’t want them to ‘hear’, firstly, means that I would not have an accent when I speak.  But Romanians, just like speakers of any language in the world (probably), have different accents.  The point here is that I don’t want my interlocutor to hear a ‘French’ or any other ‘foreign’ accent.  Ten years ago, some people would tell me that I had a Transylvanian accent, because I spoke slowly; that would still be fine with me, as long as it sounds ‘Romanian’.

That I don’t want them to ‘notice’, secondly, means that I want to be able to use all the right words in the right context and I that I don’t want to make any grammatical mistakes.  Again, native ‘Romanians’ do not always use the right words in the right context and, just like speakers of any language in the world (probably), they make grammatical mistakes.  But I want to make ‘Romanian’ mistakes.  And there lies the problem: I want to have a ‘Romanian’ accent and to make ‘Romanian’ mistakes.  Consequently, the problem is that my definition relies on a solely ‘ethnic’ definition of what it means to be Romanian.  Thousands of ‘Romanians’ have an accent which might not sound ‘Romanian’.  Indeed, ‘ethnic’ Romanians who lived abroad for a while or ‘ethnic’ Romanians who were born in Romania and then moved outside of Romania can have a different accent.  But you also can find ‘ethnic’ Romanians from Serbia, Ukraine or Moldova who do not ‘sound’ ‘Romanian’.  And, you also have ‘Romanians’ who are not ‘ethnic’ Romanians, like ‘ethnic’ Hungarian minorities who have lived on current Romanian territories for centuries and who are ‘Romanian’ citizens, or even immigrants to Romania, who are not considered ‘national minorities’ but who were granted Romanian citizenship.

Now that I have reached the conclusion that my working definition of a ‘Romanian native speaker’ is wrong (it seems nothing like this, but such a finding is the climax of almost ten years of my relationship with Romanian) the question is to try to figure why it developed like this.  Actually, I started learning Romanian because I needed it for my Master’s dissertation.  I first started doing research for my Master’s dissertation when I was still ‘less than fluent’ (Tremlett, 2009, 65) but the desire to speak ‘good’ Romanian and then Romanian like a ‘native’ developed during these two years in Romania.  I was influenced obviously by some sort of challenge, and started looking down at ‘tourism language’ (Phipps, 2007), but I was also influenced by the people I met and the people I (dis)agreed with.  For example, one of my ‘Romanian’ friends in Bucharest married a ‘non-Romanian’ whom she met when he was an Erasmus student in Bucharest two years before me.  Sharing the same kind of Erasmus ‘bubble’ experience as mine, he decided to ‘go native’ and avoided most contact with ‘non-Romanians’.  Hearing him talking in Romanian, I remember being impressed (and quite jealous).  Slowly, his ‘native-like’ Romanian became what I aimed for.  He became apparently even more Romanian than Romanians, insisting on having a ‘Romanian traditional wedding’ in the country while his future wife would have been happy with a ‘regular’ wedding in Bucharest.

This shows, as Davies puts it, that being a ‘native speaker’ is all about ‘membership’ (2003, 99).  Influenced by my friend’s husband, my desire to pass for a native can be explained as much in terms of membership as of ‘reaction’.  It was first a reaction against questions I would be sometimes asked in Romania ten years ago, like “Why are you here when you have the opportunity to be somewhere else (much nicer)?” or “Why do you bother learning a language like Romanian?” It was also a reaction against the fact that everyone (or many people) expect Romanians to speak French in Belgium while no one (or almost no one) expects me to speak Romanian in Romania.  It was also a reaction to the experiences of some people I met.  I was once told by someone in Bucharest right after Romania joined the European Union in 2007: “When I checked my passport at the ‘EU citizens’ line at the airport, I felt like a human being”.  I was also once told of a friend in the Republic of Moldova who cried when he obtained Romanian and EU citizenship, this ‘pass’ to the EU.  In other words, my desire to pass for a native speaker became little by little a sort of respect towards those people I met that had a different life to mine for reasons that I would not consider valid.

What first started as a mark of respect gradually became an ‘obsession’.  This need I created for myself to have an excellent command of Romanian has probably given me the opportunity to give more detailed accounts of what I was trying to analyse.  By my willingness to be a member of the community I was living in, studying at the same time some of its aspects, I had the opportunity to be a bit more ‘in the know’ (Tremlett, 2009, 64). It is only now, since I have been reflecting upon my relationship to languages in general and to Romanian in particular, in the framework of the Researching Multilingually at Borders project, that I look at it with some distance.  Our project gives us room for discussing those aspects.  Colleagues in the project have told me about the ‘myth of the native speaker’ and have seen in those reactions I was mentioning a kind of “language activism”.  I believe the project is all about language activism, not in the usual ‘nationalist’ way, but in an innovative and positive way.  When colleagues from different universities in different parts of the world discuss how to create a multilingual or a translingual event, ‘purposefully’ and without being ‘tokenistic’, this is also ‘language activism’.  In the meantime, back in Bucharest, while it was sometimes source of anxiety before, passing today for a ‘native’ looks more like a game.  Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose.

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