Pushing in the coins

Pom, copac sau arbore?

Mondly’s indefatigable statistics module tells me I have learned 1,000 Romanian words, but how many do I really know? Forgetting is the curse of the language learner. Just today I was reacquainted with the words for knife, fork and spoon – cuțit, furculiță and lingură – which – despite the onomatopoeic appeal of cuțit (pronounced “cuts it”) and the curlicue suggestiveness of furculiță, remained stubbornly unfamiliar. I had to look them up again to write them here, a matter of hours after chanting them at the behest of a screen. If I retake a lesson I find the words rise faster to the surface, as if pre-warmed, but not without some forceful mental prodding. A variation on Beckett’s dictum seems to apply here: remember; forget; try again; forget better.

Lodging foreign words in the memory is like pushing coins into plasticine or arranging books on a shelf – they need to be secure, but easy to pluck out when required. All learners develop their own method for holding them in place. I tend to rely on visual cues; I still remember the skeleton dance and facial contortions my Latin schoolmaster deployed to press the meaning of nonne and num (loosely: ‘surely’ and ‘surely not’) into our soft receptive minds. Another classics teacher used the more oblique device of non sequiturs: ‘You will remember εθελω means “I am willing”,’ he intoned, ‘because Ethel is always willing to do the washing-up,’ and to this day I have been unable to forget either the word or Ethel’s precocious submission to domesticity. At university I found the German sogar (‘even’) so evasive that I sketched it with my finger over the panel of the bay window in my second-year flat, and if I close my eyes I can still see the imaginary letters running from windowsill to floor beneath a beam of pale Edinburgh sunshine.

Mondly is hampered by a lack of prompts and connections. Although individual words are reinforced by picture cues, these are more appropriate for some words (such as nouns) than others, and there is nothing to illustrate the short sentences. Some more short dialogues, films or games would give the lessons more variety. Another problem is incoherence. Sometimes two words are used for the same thing without explanation – like most languages, Romanian distinguishes between ‘living’ in the sense of being alive (trăi) and inhabiting a house or place (locui). More puzzling is to be given autoturism as the word for car, when maşină is used in all the examples. The different words for tree – copac, pom and arbore – seem to be interchangeable, though pom crops up in most examples and I can’t work out if this is a general rule of the language or just a Mondly quirk.

Positive bias

As I become more familiar with the app, a few idiosyncracies start to creep in round the edges. Whether in deference to the tyranny of positive thinking or out of a misplaced desire to be encouraging, the language used has a distinct upbeat slant. Of the 1,000 words I’ve encountered, I can’t recall one that means ‘difficult’ or ‘annoying’, unless you count ghinion, which refers to bad luck rather than anything as unsavoury as a character flaw or blemish. Urât (ugly) has been used to describe a spider (păianjen), which as an arachnophile I didn’t appreciate. A more irksome trend is gender stereotyping: the verb ‘wash’ is illustrated by the examples trebuie să spele masina (translated as: ‘he must wash the car’) and trebuie să spele hainele (‘she must wash the clothes’).

Luckily, many words are memorable for themselves, in the same way that you never forget a duck-billed platypus once you’ve seen one. Commonplace objects are transformed in my ear into exotic species of coral, such as prosop (towel), cearceaf (bedsheet) and cuptor (oven). And a recent favourite conjures up images in my mind of a giant winged dinosaur – plictisitor – but actually translates as ‘boring’, something the Romanian language can rarely be accused of being.

Continue: Sibilance and sensibility