To travel to the region of East and East Central Europe, you need not speak the official language of the destination country of your choice. Many people in large cities and tourist areas speak English. However, the languages of these countries are beautiful, fascinating, and important to national identity. And yes, knowing these languages will be an asset if you plan to work, travel, or live there. What do you need to know about the languages of Eastern and East Central Europe?
The Slavic language group is the largest group of languages in the region and is spoken by the majority of people. This group includes the Russian language, Bulgarian, Ukrainian, Czech and Slovak, Polish, Macedonian, and the Serbo-Croatian languages. The Slavic languages belong to the Indo-European category of languages.
The good thing about learning one of these languages is that you will be able to understand some of the other Slavic languages spoken. Though the languages are not always mutually intelligible, words for everyday objects often exhibit similarities or share the same root. Additionally, once you know one of these languages, learning a second becomes much easier!
Some Slavic languages, however, use the Cyrillic alphabet, which takes some getting used to. If you are traveling to a country that uses a version of the Cyrillic alphabet, it helps to be able to read the letters of the alphabet to sound out words, even if you can’t understand them. Why? Well, even if you can’t write or read Cyrillic, you will still be able to match up place names with points on a map. This skill is extremely useful when you are trying to find your way around a city on your own.
The Baltic languages are Indo-European languages that are distinct from the Slavic languages. Lithuanian and Latvian are two living Baltic languages and though they share some similarities, they are not mutually intelligible. Lithuanian language is one of the oldest living Indo-European languages and preserves some elements of the Proto-Indo-European languages. Lithuanian and Latvian both use the Latin alphabet with diacritics.
Lithuanian and Latvian are often considered difficult for English speakers to learn, but even avid students may find a scarcity of good resources for language learning as compared to many of the Slavic languages. The Baltic Studies Summer Institute (BALSSI) is a summer language program dedicated to Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian (which is geographical, if not linguistically, Baltic) languages.
The languages of Estonia (Estonian) and Hungary (Hungarian) are a part of the Finno-Ugric branch of the language tree. However, they hardly resemble each other in a comparison. Estonian is related to the Finnish language, while Hungarian is more closely related to languages of western Siberia. These languages are famously difficult for English speakers to learn, though the fact that they use a Latin alphabet is one fewer obstacle English-speaking students have to hurdle in their attempts to master these languages.
Romanian and its extremely close relative, Moldovan, are romance languages that use a Latin alphabet. Some dispute over the differences between Romanian and Moldovan continues to divide scholars, though Moldovans maintain that their language is distinct from Romanian and list Moldovan as their official language.
Language for Travelers
In large cities, English will be enough to navigate for a traveler’s purposes. However, the farther away from tourist centers and cities that you get, the more the local language will come in handy. If you plan to travel to or work in rural areas of the countries of East or East Central Europe, knowing basic words and phrases will go a long way to helping you enjoy yourself and may even endear you to the locals.
To learn correct pronunciation, use online resources to listen to common words such as “hello” and “thank you.” You may also want to know how to say “How much?” to ask for the price of something or “Where is...?” if you are lost and need to ask for directions (keep a map handy if that is the extent of your language skills so you can be directed visually).