Schoolchildren throughout Lithuania were looking smart and bearing the traditional gift of flowers for their teachers on 1 September, the first day of school. In Canada, the US, Thailand, and other nations, a slightly older group of Lithuanian students have returned from a summer at Vilnius University studying the language of their grandparents.
© DELFI / Tomas Vinickas

Lithuanian diaspora learners enrolled independently in the University’s month-long, intensive summer course to improve their Lithuanian grammar, pronunciation and literacy and to reconnect with their Lithuanian heritage.

Indre Altman, an 18 year-old Texas native, enrolled aware that she was speaking Lithuanian in a linguistic time warp. “I’ve been speaking 1940s Lithuanian my whole life,” said Altman.

Altman explained that she learned Lithuanian from her grandparents: “It’s funny, my grandparents and many of their friends left Lithuania as children, so the terms they use are sometimes outdated.”

Like Altman, diaspora learner Laura Puteris of Toronto, Canada, has been speaking Lithuanian since childhood. “My culture is Lithuanian. That is how I define a part of me. It makes me who I am. I appreciate, the language, the culture, the history and the person it made me. Culture and language, which can travel anywhere, is what is most important to me.”

While Puteris will be able to speak Lithuanian anywhere, the number of conversants she is likely to find outside of Lithuania is relatively small. In a letter to its current and potential students, Vilnius University’s Department of Lithuanian Studies writes: “You may be wondering what our language is like. It is a language spoken by about four million people and not included on the list of the 100 most spoken languages… It is the oldest surviving Indo-European language.”

Michael Shameklis, a 69-year-old diaspora learner who traveled to Vilnius from his home in Bangkok, Thailand, valued his language learning beyond its practical implications. Learning Lithuanian, said Shamekis, is “special because of the history of the Lithuanian language itself. It is also the language of my forbears. I wouldn't care if Lithuanian was spoken only by a few hundred people, Lithuanian is part of my heritage.”

The ability to speak Lithuanian was seen by several diaspora learners as a pinnacle of cultural identity. The language, which was banned in print from 1864 to1904 and later overshadowed by Russian during the Soviet era, has also become synonymous with national cultural identity and independence.

The small Baltic nation hosts approximately 3 million of the 4 million speakers of Lithuanian worldwide and carefully safeguards its language at home with the occasionally controversial Law on Language.

The Departments’ letter to learners continues, “Lithuanian is special because of that fact that it survived at all. It could have very well disappeared in the margins of history for all times from the language map of Europe, just like Lithuania itself from the geographic and political face of the earth. Often it was forced to make a decision to ‘be or not to be’.”

Vilnius University’s Department of Lithuanian Language Studies is one of only approximately 30 institutes around the world dedicated to the formal study or teaching of Lithuanian.

Egle Zalpys, front, second from left, with Lithuanian class
Egle Zalpys, front, second from left, with Lithuanian class

Lithuanian is not among the 24 self-study modules offered by the popular language learning software company, Rosetta Stone. Retailing giant Amazon.com offers only five textbooks to Lithuanian learners, primarily written for beginners and tourists. Most courses abroad, such as those offered by the University of Washington Baltic Studies program, limit study to a series of six or fewer Lithuanian language courses.

Despite being the institution of choice among several diaspora learners this year, Vilnius University does not specifically recruit or design courses for this unique student subset.

"Usually we have some students of Lithuanian heritage, but we don't have any special programs for diaspora. If they come, they join our one semester course or summer course and study with other students. It [course placement] depends on their Lithuanian language level, not their heritage," explained Eglė Vaisetaitė, an instructor at Vilnius University’s Department of Lithuanian Studies.

The intensive summer courses, and other courses offered throughout the year, are designed for foreigners, including Erasmus and other foreign exchange students, visiting professors, and newcomers to Lithuania interested in beginning or furthering their mastery of Lithuanian.

The experiences of four diaspora learners and their journey “home” to study Lithuanian this summer are below.

Michael Shameklis, Bangkok, Thailand

A mysterious letter brought 69-year-old Bangkok resident Michael Shamekis to the doorstep of his Lithuanian relatives, and later to a Vilnius University classroom this summer.

“After my father died in 2001, we found some old letters from Poland dated 1945 to 1947 from an Antanas Kolesinski of Romanuki, Suwalki, Poland. This left my brothers and I a bit confused because we knew we were Lithuanian on my father's side and we had never heard of the name Kolesinski. Why were the letters from Poland if we were Lithuanian? It turns that Romanuki ended up on the Polish side of the border after many border disputes between Lithuania and Poland.”

Shameklis discovered the letters, written in Lithuanian, were from his great-grandfather.

“So I wrote to the Romanuki address explaining who I was and who my grandparents were. I had no hopes of receiving a reply because of the age of the letters. Imagine my surprise when they answered. My grandmother's brother's two children were still alive, and with her nephew, were still living at the same address! They were so happy that I had found them because they knew that two sisters had emigrated to America and they had been hoping that perhaps one day someone would come back to Lithuania.”

In August 2013, Shameklis traveled to Romanuki and Šiauliai to meet his relatives. “It was a very emotional experience but also very frustrating because I had to depend on my cousin's husband or their youngest son to translate everything,” recalled Shameklis.

“This year I promised myself that I was going to try and learn Lithuanian, it didn't matter how much, in order to at least carry on basic conversation with the relatives who don't speak English. I studied Lithuanian for the one-month summer course and received my certificate on 25 July. The following day my cousin and her husband picked me up and took me to Romanuki. I was more than pleased to find that, when push came to shove, I could hold my own in very basic conversation,” said Shameklis.

Shameklis is now home in Bangkok but hopes to return to Lithuania. “I would like to keep studying Lithuanian on my own and, if possible, take the next level course at Vilnius University next summer. However, at this age, I seldom make plans for more than six months in the future.”

Eglė Zalpys, Washington, USA

Eglė Zalpys made her third trip to Lithuania this summer: “I visited Lithuania with my family [previously] and both times we mainly stayed in Šiauliai, so Vilnius was definitely a change. Overall, Vilnius was different for me compared to where I live in the US because of the winding roads and different alleys. Towards the end of the month, I started to recognize people around town, and even some dogs.”

“Even though I was not born in Lithuania, I would still consider myself really connected to it. My mother was born in Šiauliai. From my Dad’s side, my great-grandmother was born in Lithuania. While growing up, my parents spoke Lithuanian with my brothers and I. So that’s how we learned the language. We also follow Lithuanian traditions for all holidays and my mother cooks mainly Lithuanian foods,” said Zalpys.

Zalpys added that she celebrated her Lithuanian heritage outside of her family in a larger community, as well. “Before moving to Washington my parents lived in California for a while. We were involved with the Lithuanian community there. Then, when we moved to Washington, we joined the Lithuanian community in Portland, Oregon. My Dad actually became the president of the Lithuania community in Portland so my brothers and I were very involved with every Lithuanian event, whether we liked it or not. My parents then founded the Portland Lithuanians dance group called ‘Aitvaras.’ We dance annually at the Lithuanian Independence Day celebration that is held in Portland and sometimes at other events throughout the city.”

“There were a couple times at the store that I was asked by the cashier how am I able to speak English and Lithuanian so well. When I explain that I am from the US most at first would not believe it. I think that is due to all the tourists that are in senamiestis trying to speak Lithuanian. When I spoke, the cashiers probably thought that I was just speaking a different dialect.”

Zalpys said she met her goal of improving her Lithuanian literacy and grammar during her summer language study at Vilnius University.

Indre Altman and her brother Darius at the Presidential Palace in Vilnius
Indre Altman and her brother Darius at the Presidential Palace in Vilnius

Indre Altman, Houston, Texas

With a gap between high school graduation and her first year in university, Indre Altman and her brother, Darius, leapt on the opportunity to study in Vilnius this summer.

“I was looking for something to do the summer before attending Bowdoin College. I hoped to gain a greater understanding of my culture and a firmer grasp of the language. I had been before as a kid, but this was my first time visiting independently. The month was fantastic. I encountered many people from different cultures in the program. I found Vilnius a sparkling city with plenty to do. Since Vilnius is a small city, I would run into the same crowd of people fairly frequently,” said Altman.

Of her summer program, Altman remarked, “The teaching at Vilnius University was exceptional. Many in the program were like me, of Lithuanian heritage, and yet many were not. I met a Finnish man who wanted to learn his tenth language. I met a Japanese linguist interested in the language most closely related to Sanskrit. I met a Georgian woman who married her fiancé during the program, and learned Lithuanian for love. Vilnius is part of my home now. I have to go back, if not to learn more Lithuanian, then to visit my new friends.”

Altman’s maternal grandparents were born in Lithuania, and left during World War II. Altman and her American-born mother have both Lithuanian and American citizenship. They are active in the Lithuanian American community in their home in Houston, Texas.

Laura Puteris
Laura Puteris

Laura Puteris, Toronto, Canada

Laura Puteris, a registered nurse born and raised in Toronto, Canada, took advantage of a delay in her travel to Africa to spend a month in Vilnius learning Lithuanian.

Puteris had previously visited Lithuania to participate in the national song festival, Dainų šventė, in 2002. “I noticed that Vilnius had improved with restorations and cleanliness since my first visit. Most people I met were welcoming and appreciated when you tried to speak Lithuanian even when you made mistakes,” she said of her 2014 visit.

Puteris explained that her family left Lithuania as war refugees: “Both of my sets of grandparents were fleeing Lithuania during the war. They both have slightly different stories. They were fleeing for their lives. They lost family and friends. And they walked through most of Europe searching [for an] escape. They were in their early twenties.”

All four of Puteris’ grandparents found their way to England, “where one set of grandparents, before they met, were sent to Toronto. My diedukas had skill in sewing and factory work, which I heard helped him get a job. My mamaitė got separated from her sister, who went to the USA. The other set of grandparents stayed in England, where they got married and started their life. Then they moved to Toronto, as well, after my father was born.”

Puteris said she enrolled in an advanced course with the expectation to improve her grammar and spelling which, she remarked, “went downhill since I moved to university and was no longer living at home surrounded by the Lithuanian community and [had] no opportunities to communicate in Lithuanian.”

Of students in her class, Puteris said, “Only a couple were from Canada, many more were from the USA. Also many heritage speakers were younger, came with friends for Dainų Šokių šventė.”

Puteris hopes to visit again and possibly live in Lithuania “for a couple years.”

Laura Puteris in Trakai
Laura Puteris in Trakai

Christine Neijstrom is an unaffiliated independent contributor to the Lithuania Tribune.

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