Lithuania: Linguistic enlightenment on your bus ride

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Mar 30 14:08:19 UTC 2007

Forwarded from edling-list:

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Linguistic enlightenment on your bus ride

Mar 28, 2007
By William Powell

VILNIUS - Anyone who takes public transportation in the Baltics knows the
score. Its inevitable that at some point you'll find yourself crammed into
a trolleybus, tediously staring into space as it lurches its way through
city traffic. But what if you could do something with these wasted
minutes? What if you could, say, study a foreign language? In fact, thats
exactly what some commuters in Vilnius are doing. While they're riding on
certain trolleybuses, they're actually being taught English, Polish and
Lithuanian. This innovation is a language project called Learning by
Moving.  Coordinated by the Soros International House, its an effort thats
currently enlightening Vilnius residents, as well as foreign visitors, by
providing free lessons along with their ride. As they travel on
trolleybuses 2 and 19, passengers hear a two-minute compilation of useful
phrases in these three languages, and can simultaneously read the text
that goes with the recording, thanks to signs posted in the vehicles. It
is always nice to have the possibility to say a few words in another
language because it shows respect to the people and the nation that you
are staying in, and it makes you feel more comfortable in your
surroundings, explained Daiva Malinauskiene, director of Soros
International House, who runs the project.

This is certainly true for the foreigners staying in Lithuania. Naturally
it makes the journey much more pleasant if you're able to simply ask the
person standing between you and the door if they are planning to get off
at the next stop, rather than gesticulating nonsense in front of an
audience of commuters.  The main goal of this campaign is to help people
realize the importance of language by using public transport as the medium
to reach the general public, more specifically targeting students,
pensioners and tourists.  In the six months since it began, the initiative
has caught the imagination of Vilnius citizens. Regular commuters are
already used to being interjected with common phrases like Excuse me, how
can I get to the market? and I'm sorry, I don't understand.

Once passengers step onto the trolleybus, theres no escape from the
language lesson. Although being trapped in a confined space and forced to
learn strange phrases might sound like a form of torture, in fact its a
novel and fun way to learn a few common phrases in another language. And
its already become something of a ritual for some frequent public
transport users. [Its] a nice and funny way of learning, commented Aiste
Zegunaite, a civil servant and regular pubic transport user. Its nice to
have a bit of company when you are traveling late at night coming back
from a party, she added. Those traveling on one of the participating
trolleybuses will see people picking up the corresponding leaflets
available on board and mouthing back the words as they listen to the
recorded lessons.

This is particularly entertaining for the people that provided the
cheerful voices for the recording the teachers of Soros International
House as they maneuver their way through the city on Vilnius's
trolleybuses on their way to teach class.  As one of these teachers
myself, I have been privy to many wry smiles between fellow travelers as
the recording starts, as well as to the odd mild curse from the poor bus
drivers, who have to hear the same recording 50 times a day. Though I'm
sure they don't mind too much many have reported that they're now almost
fluent in three languages!  The project, which has equivalents in Germany,
Romania, Italy, Poland and Malta, was created in accordance with the EU
linguistic strategy that every European should speak two other languages
other than their own native tongue. For this version, English was an
obvious choice as the international language, and Polish was included
because of its close proximity to Vilnius, and because Poles make up the
largest minority group living in the city (6.7%).

Malinauskiene observed that if the project was to take place in Siauliai
or Panevezys, then Latvian would be chosen for the same reasons. So the
main force behind this project is to promote cross cultural linguistic
learning between neighboring European countries, as well the promotion of
less widely used European languages LWUEL in Euro-speak. And you never
know, Learning by Moving could be coming to a city near you.  The European
Commission recently approved the idea that all European state languages
have the same status, and that it is a priority for the European Union to
promote less widely used European languages like Lithuanian, Latvian and

If the project has a big impact we could be seeing public transport
systems in Tallinn and Riga giving language lessons in a similar way. And
there's also the possibility to expand the idea further by putting this
project on international bus journeys between the three capitals of the
Baltic States. As Malinauskiene emphasizes, Partnerships between
neighboring countries is the priority. Nelson Mandela said, If you talk to
a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to
him in his language, that goes to his heart. So here in the ethnically
homogeneous city of Vilnius people are learning a few nice words to say to
each other in their own languages.

The project is set to run three years, and so far the reaction of the
Vilnius public transport users seems to show that they are positive
towards it. Learning by Moving could be a sign of things to come, and
Malinaukskiene believes that one day we could see the project all across
Europe. But in Vilnius people seem to be happy to have some company on the
way home, smile, and repeat phrases to themselves like Excuse me, which
bus should I take to the hospital?


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