Language as a Ticket to a Better Future

Author Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

Especially in the cold season, the colour grey dominates in many parts of the Moldovan capital, Chișinău. Facades and sky create a uniform picture. Even more striking seem the colourful flags that are omnipresent in the street scene – be it in front of the many exchange offices, where the flags flash in bright neon colours representing the foreign currencies, or the blue-yellow EU flags, which hang symbolically in front of all the state buildings, although the small country probably has no realistic prospect of accession at the moment. Then there are the flags of European countries, like Germany, Great Britain and Spain, printed in shop windows or on advertising displays. They are intended to attract the attention of those who have decided to learn a foreign language. There are innumerable language schools in Chișinău – on their signs is written in colourful letters: Welcome, Bienvenue, Willkommen, Benvenuto.

One of these private language schools is located in a small side-street not far from the triumphal arch in the centre of the capital. It is shortly before six o'clock. At short intervals, the students hurry into the inconspicuous two-storey building. The school has specialised in the German language – the logo already makes this clear: three black-red-golden tails coming from the eastern end in a grey outline of Germany.

©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

Learning from a Native Speaker

The classroom is on the upper-floor. The tables are pushed together in such a way that the small group sits together in a circle. The seven participants and their motivation could not be more different: The youngest in the group is just twelve years old and attends the evening course in addition to German lessons at school. For most participants, their own school days are long gone.

A slim man in a heavy-metal T-shirt enters the room and greets the students, in German. The teacher's name is Gerhard and he was born in Hamburg. He says of himself that he speaks 21 languages, most of which he has taught himself. Today, he is teaching German in Romanian, level A2. Learning from a native speaker is a real rarity in Moldova. Gerhard has a master's degree in psychology and works as a university lecturer.

The teacher hardly writes any words on the blackboard – there is no such thing as a real blackboard. The students should speak in German right at the beginning of the lesson, then the words that were missing in the free conversation are asked. Gerhard translates the different terms from Romanian: ceață means fog, insuportable means unbearable.

©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

Romanian Documents are in Great Demand

Everyone in the room already speaks two or even more languages: A large percentage of the Moldovan population speaks both Romanian and Russian. As the language barrier is eliminated, and Moldovan citizens do not need a visa to enter Russia, many Moldovans work in the Russian Federation.

However, especially in recent years, migration to other European countries has continued to increase. Moldovan citizens are able to obtain a Romanian passport if they can prove that they are descended from Romanian citizens. Romanian documents are in great demand, particularly because of the free movement of workers, which applies to Romania, a member of the EU. The waiting times are correspondingly long, unless you help things along with a generous bribe. Migration with Romanian documents remains invisible to the Moldovan authorities; the estimates of the number of Moldovan citizens abroad vary accordingly. Most sources assume that there are about one million Moldovans living abroad temporarily or permanently. This is an impressive figure in terms of a population of 3.5 million.

Course Fees as an Investment

Many participants of Gerhard’s German course also have a clear goal in mind. The participation fee of 3,400 leu for a twelve-week course is, measured against the Moldovan average wage, an extremely large sum – and for many of them probably above all an investment in the future. A future in which they do not see themselves in the Republic of Moldova.

©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

The educator, Natalija, is learning German to prepare for the future in Kassel. She wants to move there with her husband and her two sons. She says: “There is no future for my children in Moldova”. She and her husband made the decision to leave their country a year ago. As a kindergarten teacher, she hopes to find a permanent job in Germany, but she must have a good knowledge of German. A friendly couple has been living in Kassel for three years and will support them in their new home. Germany is attractive for Natalija not just because of the higher wages and the stable political situation; she also imagines her future working day in kindergarten to be more relaxed than before. Natalija describes her job as stressful: “Here we have 30 children in a group, how can one find time for each individual? During her last visit to Kassel, Natalija visited a kindergarten in Germany. There are more educators and the groups are much smaller. If her diploma is recognised and she finds a job, she would like to stay in her profession.

Parents Prepare their Children for a Future Abroad

Many other emigrants are willing to accept job offers that are far below their actual qualification. There are currently about 20,000 Moldovans living in Germany, a large proportion of whom are employed in traditionally underpaid sectors where the shortage of skilled workers is particularly noticeable. In the meat industry, gastronomy or construction. However, the so-called brain-drain, which means the emigration of highly-qualified people, is particularly painful for the country of origin. Since wages in the Eastern European country have been stagnating for years, many already speak of a tradition of emigration. Many parents prepare their children for a future abroad at an early age and try to create the conditions for a future far away from home through the right education.

©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

Johann has also been cramming vocabulary for months in Gerhard’s German course. He is only seventeen years old, but knows exactly what he wants – a job in Germany and preferably right after school. He made the decision to leave Moldova at an early age, and his parents are supporting him. Johann has never been to Germany before, he only knows it from stories and films. For him, the country represents above all stability and a strong economy. Johann is attracted to the financial world. “My dream is to become a stock-trader one day”, he says confidently. He already speaks Romanian, Russian and English. He takes the lessons seriously, so that he is able to speak German after only a few months without any problems.

Hoping for a Better Livelihood and a Permanent Job

Livio sits one row in front of him, he is wearing a blue polo shirt and he takes notes with full concentration during the whole lesson. He is one of the older participants of the course, his hair is flecked with grey and he wears a golden wedding ring on his finger. Livio also dreams of working in Germany soon. He has been working as a truck-driver for many years and has already travelled all over Europe. Livio is 47 years old, but he looks forward to his new surroundings without fear. Together with his wife and the twins, Lavinia and Arsenie, he wants to move to Aachen at Christmas. He hopes for a better livelihood and a permanent job there. Livio’s German is sometimes not as fluent as that of the other participants, but Gerhard is obviously trying to ensure that everyone is included. The lessons are lively, the pupils speak a lot and record small audio-files independently. Due to the small size of the group, everyone has their say.

©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

After 90 minutes, Gerhard officially ends his lessons and his students set off home. They will meet again in a few days. This goes on until the end of the course, then the students either take a higher language level course or quit their studies. This happens also because some of the participants will turn their backs on Moldova to seek happiness elsewhere.

Fleeing from a ‘Captured State’

The unstable political situation has probably played its part in this. Following the official start of EU accession negotiations in 2010, there have been many changes of government and course. In the meantime, the term ‘captured state’ has established itself to describe the political situation. The Democratic Party, the PDM, exclusively represents the interests of the influential oligarch, Vladimir Plahotniuc. He left the Republic of Moldova after the lost parliamentary elections in June 2019 and resigned as chairman of the Democratic Party. However, the powerful businessman also tried to influence the country's fortunes from abroad. Only recently, did the government alliance under Prime Minister, Maia Sandu, fail due to a vote of no confidence. Emigration has always been regarded as a constant companion and, at the same time, a brake on further development. This has gone so far that Moldova has become dependent on emigration. Remittances currently account for around 20% of the annual GDP.

©Robert Putzbach
©Robert Putzbach

From Rich Switzerland to Poor Moldova

In front of the building stands another teacher who hastily lights a cigarette during the break. He has been teaching German at this school for three years and, like Gerhard, is a native speaker. Domenic is one of a total of 34 Swiss citizens currently living in the Republic of Moldova. He has seen the exact number on statistics from the Swiss embassy. He assumes that there are probably many more Moldovans living in Switzerland now.

Domenic estimates that 95% of his pupils have the goal of emigrating one day. "Not all of them would admit it, but they all want to leave!” His way to Chișinău is unusual, but for him a step he has not regretted to this day. As he cannot gain much from his old homeland, he feels more comfortable in Moldova.  “Switzerland seems like a museum to me,” says Domenic.

His wife comes from Moldova, he met her by chance. Together with her, he took the exact opposite path: from rich Switzerland to poor Moldova. In the beginning, the couple lived together in Zurich. They then tried to gain a foothold in Romania as a kind of middle ground. However, neither of them were happy there, so they finally went to her home country.

A Migrant helps with Emigration

Domenic often thinks about emigrating from Moldova. He makes it clear that he can understand the individual well, but he remarks: “Unfortunately, it's always the people with backbone who go; those who really have what it takes”. He gives the example of a doctor he taught some time ago. She completed several years of training and then worked as a diabetologist. In Moldova, she earned only €140 per month. Without charging patients additional fees, it is impossible to feed a family. This is exactly where Domenic sees the origin of the problem. In Moldova, a solution is found for everything. This practice entails uncertainty. “What I love about Moldova is what they hate,” he says with a smile. While he talks, students hurry to the language school, and nod at him hastily as they pass by.

Domenic feels comfortable in Moldova, he appreciates the relaxed atmosphere. It is not difficult for him to meet people here: he cannot imagine a return to Switzerland now, especially because he enjoys teaching. However, he also has a critical view of his own work at the language school.  “I know that I am harming Moldova with what I am doing”, he says, but at the same time, he is happy for the individual, for whom the language helps to go his or her own way. Domenic throws away his cigarette and hastily looks at the clock. The next lesson has already begun, he does not want to keep his students waiting and hurries back into the building.

About the author

Robert Putzbach

Germany

Other publications

©Robert Putzbach

Language as a Ticket to a Better Future

There are a large number of private foreign language schools in Chișinău. This has to do with a major problem in Moldovan society. Many students drum vocabulary for a certain reason.