Each year I promise myself I’m going to learn to Lithuanian once and for all. Not that I haven’t picked up my fair share of the language over the years, but somehow I still haven’t managed to put anything more than a few simple sentences together, which makes it difficult to join the conversations at the office when Friday happy hour rolls around. My colleagues have given up on the idea I will ever learn the language, speaking to me in English on the side, although one of them shared a link to Bliu Bliu that offers a 30-day challenge.
It has long been a sore point with my wife, who can’t understand why I haven’t made more of an effort. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes two to learn a language, and she hasn’t exactly been very helpful in this regard. I never seem to get the pronunciation quite right and haven’t figured out the declensions, even with the lessons I have taken in the past. Each time some foreigner comes on television and converses freely in Lithuanian, my wife chides me for being such a slow learner.
The children haven’t been very helpful either. They look at me like a babbling idiot when I try to say something in Lithuanian. I had vowed with each child in turn that I would learn the language with them, but they very quickly exceeded me and to rub it in learned English so that there was no reason to continue my efforts. Even our dog gives me a quizzical look when I give her a command in Lithuanian.
I didn’t give up completely. I would take the menu in Lithuanian at restaurants and order my meal as fluently as I could, but the waitresses saw a foreigner as a way to brush up on their language skills and would more often than not respond in English. Even most of the builders I work with speak English fluently. Young people in the country have adopted English as their second language, as it gives them greater opportunities for travel and work.
I shouldn’t let this get me down. For years I struggled at the typewriter before taking a 14-day challenge my mother had cut out of a Readers Digest magazine, and I haven’t looked back since. I may not have a good ear for language but there is no reason I can’t recognize the words, especially on a printed page.
It’s not like I have to learn the Cyrillic alphabet. Lithuanian was transposed into Latin letters long ago. No one knows exactly how old the language is, but it is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world. For centuries it was considered a peasant language, languishing in villages and getting very little attention until Kristijonas Donelaitis chose to write his poems in Lithuanian. The language still doesn’t get the respect it deserves because so few persons speak it. Many just assume Lithuanians speak Russian, since the country lived under its shadow for so long.
The language survived however and became a battle cry for independence in the late 19th century. Jonas Basanavičius is the best known proponent of this national revival, establishing the first Lithuanian-speaking newspaper, Aušra, in 1883. The links are for your convenience not mine, as I have been much better at learning the history of the country, giving my wife a small measure of consolation.
Still, one can’t really know a country, and especially his wife, until he learns the language. With a little perseverance, this may finally be the year I learn Lithuanian.