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Growing up in post-communist Romania – thoughts on learning English (viorel.me)
87 points by kioleanu 53 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 29 comments



Am Romanian who also caught the last years of the Ceausescu regime, can confirm that I also learned English mostly by watching undubbed Cartoon Network shows in the early ‘90s, my favorite was Top Cat (at least that’s how I think it was called). I also learned Italian by watching Berlusconi’s channels (“Non e la Rai” and “Mai dire goal” were among my favorite TV shows), and my gf learned a pretty good Spanish by watching telenovelas while she was a teenager. Living in a “small” culture kind of forces you to have to learn new languages, otherwise you risk remaining stuck (both economically and “culturally”, so to speak).

I’m still a little upset with myself that I wasn’t motivated enough to also learn Russian when I was a kid (I had already learned how to read its alphabet) and maybe also German. Now that I’m approaching my 40s this is definitely on my to do list, I want to have the chance to read the works of people like Heine or Pushkin in their original language.


I was on vacation in Iceland. One evening we were having dinner in a tiny village in northern Iceland. Our server was a young man with absolutely perfect American English. I asked him if he had lived in America previously. He responded that he had never left his village in his entire life, but had learned all his English from watching American TV shows and movies. I was astounded.


In my village there was no cable TV at all for a long period of time after 89, of course we had no internet and when we finally afford a cheap 486 PC(at that time my friends had pentium 2s) me and my brother learn to use Windows95 in English with no instructions.

Other memory from that period is trying to get larger files from my friends by splitting them into smaller parts and put them on floppies , or when my mother bought me a Norton Commander book and I learned a lot about low level stuff and what does files in C:\ actually do.

About foreign languages similar as the author I learned English and I can understand Spanish too, but also I can understand French and Italian movies but maybe not as good, there were some good italian movies on national TV back then too.


Living in post-communist Poland, Cartoon Network via sattelite was exactly my first exposure to English, too. The second exposure was video games.

I wonder how do people learn English in countries like Germany or Spain, where all TV shows and games are fully localised.

Nowadays, in Poland these things are localised, too. I guess I will need to hide that fact from my kids.


Speaking for Germany, mostly from school. Germans are terrible at English compared to many other European countries (especially the smaller ones) as they're big enough to sustain their entertainment, Internet and business in their local language.

Despite them being forced to learn English in school, very few will try to consume American media in English, and still prefer consuming the locally dubbed versions. In my opinion, it's the easiest (and most fun) way to get better in English, without doing much at all, except for the initial year or two one would need to invest to be proficient enough to consume said media.

Source: Am a German citizen, who fortunately/unfortunately has English as a native language, spent my first 16 years in Asia, and presently another 13 years in Germany.


Hmm. I'm gonna disagree here and say that the majority of Germans I've met speak great English. I however will caveat this with the fact that I'm 22 and it may be a generational thing. I am aware that if I go out into the sticks in Germany, I will be 100% speaking German since it seems to me the more rural I go the less English is spoken.


People in rural areas, no matter which country, will almost always be worse off in speaking a foreign language than their urban counterparts.

I agree it is a generational thing, and I believe this does have a lot to do with the Internet and the "international culture" it promotes.

Have you compared some European countries in your age category? It's true that 22-year-old Germans speak English well, but a similarly aged person from Romania, Poland, Denmark or Albania will almost certainly still be better at English than the German.


I didn't really get much from spoken subtitled English, other than maybe an ear for it. Lion's share of actually learning came from text adventures alongside a bidirectional dictionary.


Developing an ear is an enormous advantage. It's taken me years to passively develop an ear for Polish and to go from hearing a mess of unpronounceable consonants, to being able to hear a new word, then accurately repeat it in one shot.


after a run in with americans on vacation the ice was broken for me and I started to torrent the simpsons, family guy, and other shows, mostly in English because those were easier to find and of course more exiting.


I think esperanto is interesting, for reasons i wrote here (a simple site): http://lukecall.net/e-9223372036854580627.html

(things like: the cheapest way for the world to talk to each other, fun, not replacing native languages, learn it in 1/4 the time of Spanish or 1/10 the time of English, and probably learn it plus a subsequent language in less total time spent, possible travel benefits with "pasporta servo" (free lodging).)


I've learnt basic english with computer games, pirated movies and TV shows (with english subtitles). But to master the language you have to move to a place where they use it. Otherwise, it is extremely hard hard.


> But to master the language you have to move to a place where they use it. Otherwise, it is extremely hard hard.

There are plenty of counterexamples to this. Consider Finland, where most of the population is comfortable with English and admirably grammatically correct (though they never really lose that distinctive Finnish accent), but they have never lived in an English-speaking country, and in fact Finns travel in general less than their Nordic neighbors. Learning English does not seem to strike the Finns as “hard”, and if you ask them about the process you often get the usual claim that English is an “easy language”.

Looking around European nations, the key to good English seems to be 1) English in school taught from an early age and with a serious approach, and 2) subtitles on television and films, never dubbing (or, as in the case of Romania in the early millennium, a very active torrent community downloading American releases).


Yeah and not loosing the accent isn't that strange since Finnish is one of the few non-indoeuropean languages in Europe and compared to English it's definitely not an easy language to learn.


I would argue that learning through games, TV shows, movies, and the internet is very much like living in an environment of that language. It might not teach you the ability to speak in the same manner, but it will teach you writing.


I had a guy in our local IKEA (mainland Europe) explain to us that using a certain combination of items for our closet doors would look "fugly", which led me to believe he mainly learned English at internet forums full of trolls.

It was not that the combination wasn't fugly, he was right about it. But I was somewhat surprised to hear that kind of language from a sales person.

Would there be 12yo kids somewhere out there in the world that can only express themselves in 4chan English?


Fugly isn't 4chan English, it's just slang. I grew up hearing people use it in real life.

I'd be unsurprised to hear it in TV programming aimed at teenagers, so perhaps he learned it from that


Fugly is short for fucking ugly, and was slang at least as early as the mid-90s. (Butt-head: "She's what you call... fugly. Huh huh huh. Huh huh.")

I can see someone learning English from YouTube. I already hear tales here on Hackernews of someone's 3-year-old using "don't forget to like and subscribe" as a goodbye.


Twenty years ago I had a friend from Russia who had learned English from her time in theatre. She spoke perfect Victorian English, and was surprised to discover that is not how English is spoken today. For her, _that_ was English.


I actually learned to speak english in a fraternity. Some bad words would inevitably slip up at my friends’ parents’ houses when i’d be invited, it was embarrassing ^^ thankfully, my english’s improved a lot since ;)


My father staunchly refused to buy a TV for the family, saying that there was nothing besides garbage to watch, for what I am very grateful now.

Back then, I had no understanding why he does so, as he himself and grandfather before him were making substantial money bringing TV sets from Japan.


We didn't have one until I bought an Atari 5200 and my grandpa took pity on us and gave us an old black and white tv (14 or 15 years old). I read so many books as a kid and ideas had hours and hours spent on them.


Where did he get the news from?


We barely had any, life was very slow and uneventful


For me it was mostly video games. I have vivid memories of teachers' being astounded by how much I already knew as far as elementary. Though it was funny that I knew what "sword" is but other more common words eluded me.


I made a mvp to practice a foreign language with subtitles. The spoken language is how we all learned our primary language from our parents, so it makes sense to start there as an adult.

You can check it out at caplearn.org, if you're interested.


I was born shortly before the Romanian revolution and I still learned English by watching Cartoon Network. I never had to really study English since.


Growing up in post-communist Russia, I learned a lot of English by playing videogames like Civilisation. All pirated, of course.


That's an interesting anecdote. Growing up in communist Romania, the only English I learned early on was at school. I had a great teacher in high school (he would not utter a single word of Romanian), and then took elective classes in college. When I came to the US the first time I could not really speak, but I could understand well. It took 6 months of TV and social interaction (but mostly TV...) to become fluent.




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