I still sing that song sometimes – if you ever hear me sing it, you really wished you hadn’t, trust me! I just can’t sing. But in a foreign language, even bad singing sounds bearable. Or so I tell myself. Mi-a zis mama că mi-o da, văleleu, văleleu, zestre când m-oi mărita, văleu, văleu, văleu, Două-zeci de perne moi văleleu, văleleu, toate pline de strigoi, văleu, văleu, văleu…
My daughter arrived like most kids do, with a big bang, and then everything changed. I always intended to speak Romanian to her, that was not ever going to change, and I always intended for her to know that half of her DNA carried eastern smells and explosive emotions.
The other half was British. A calm, collected, patient doll of freckles. Born on Kiwi soil, she would be a delicious blend of garlic, dill, and thick-cut chips, my child was going to speak Romanian and English and who knows, maybe even te reo Māori if we played our cards right. Well, that was the plan anyway.
But like the best laid parental non-negotiable plans, after about 15 months or so, my bright-eyed, curly-haired bundle of joy decided that actually, English would suffice, and Romanian could just be relegated to counting, naming colours, playing in the bath, and singing.
Days spent at daycare have taken a toll. It is ironic that being a linguist, I feel even more ashamed and frustrated at my inability to pass on my native tongue to my child, and precisely being such a dedicated and busy linguist is what partly contributed to her spending so much time away from Romanian in the first place. Ugh! How did this even happen?
When my daughter turned four, I attended a conference about multilingualism. And like a guilty fraudster, I crept along the corridors, listening in, browsing the books outlining the benefits of being bilingual (as if I didn’t know them already), and the guides of raising a bilingual child even if you yourself do not speak that language (does this even happen “for real life” as my daughter would say? I could feel cold shivers down my spine).
With sudden and renewed enthusiasm, I finally decided to go home and start speaking Romanian again, as though no English had ever passed my lips. I would be a born-again legitimate advocate of bilingualism, living and enacting the true reality that my own profession endorses so highly. I’d literally breathe Romanian words into my child’s mouth from this day forth.
But by this time, there were two children in our house and the task at hand had doubled because the second child got even fewer words of Romanian than the first. Between making lunches, setting bedtime routines and calibrating work schedules, the time for Romanian-language got squeezed further and further out of our lives. Like an unnecessary commodity, we left it outside the door, without even quite realising it.
Even DVDs of “Frozen” in Romanian could no longer save the day (“Mummy, can you play that in normal speak?” my son would ask).
But then, one happy moment in a rushed German airport, mum’s passport got recognized: “Sunteți româncă?” (You are Romanian?) the voice of the check-in desk attendant rings out. “Da” (Yes) I hear myself saying with palpable excitement. My children look up in wonder to hear mummy talking the made-up language, realising the unreal, the non-existent. Romanian lives, long live Romanian!
Once again, there is hope. And then English invades again, we need to get our boarding passes and fill drink bottles for the plane and change nappies. Romanian is squeezed out yet again. But one day, it will appear again, it will be validated by another question, another unplanned encounter perhaps, or maybe by a visit to Romania itself.
And until then, there’s always singing and hope, the hope of never giving up! Mi-a zis mama că mi-o da, văleleu, văleleu, zestre când m-oi mărita, văleu, văleu, văleu, ….