I speak only Lithuanian

Prague, the Old Town Square. Photograph www.prague.cz

I often wonder whether life is harder for people who know five languages and have nothing to say in any of them, than for those who have knowledge and interesting thoughts to share with others but they speak only one language and they cannot do so. I think that both groups – not very intelligent polyglots and the “dumb” – must feel very lonely. However, an “adventure”, I have recently experienced together with a citizen of the Republic of Lithuania, brings me to the conclusion that the “dumb” are more harmed. They are almost “disabled”.

I have lived in a charming capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, with my family for a few months now. We had some problems concerning the removal. One of them was to find a good school for our child. Due to the fact that a small Polish educational center in Prague carries curriculum only in afternoons five days a month, we faced a dilemma of whether to send our child to a Czech or an international school. We chose a British school and it was a good choice. The kids in that school come from many different countries. I am not sure how many nations have their representatives in the school but I think at least several dozen. Apart from British students, there is also a group of Russian, Indian, Japanese, Pakistan and Polish children. Recently, a little blond Lithuanian girl has joined our international school community.

Maybe I would not even notice that girl, if it was not by a lucky coincidence. My child as well as our new friend from Lithuania finishes lessons at the same hour. So her mother and I usually take the same bus to pick our children up from school. One afternoon, I asked the girl’s mother where they live in Lithuania. I asked that in English. She didn’t answer. She didn’t understand. Undaunted, I turned to Russian. Again, the woman didn’t understand the language of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky either. Then I asked if she speaks Polish. She firmly answered “No”. I was quite shocked by her answers but I continued asking. The next language I chose was Lithuanian. I must admit that the language of Jonas Basanavičius is not my strong point. The dark clouds upon her forehead dispersed and she smiled. “I come from Vilnius”, she said proudly. I was speechless. A person like her – about 30 years old, who lives in a city where about 20% of the population is a Polish community and even more people say they speak Russian as their mother tongue – says she knows only Lithuanian. I was really surprised.

Our dialogue proceeded in a nice, even courteous atmosphere. The woman praised my Lithuanian. Although in my case that was an exaggeration (I have learned Lithuanian only for a couple of months in Warsaw and I practiced during my stays in the Vilnius region). Since I could not return the favour with praise for the knowledge of Polish, we talked about Vilnius. My interlocutor said that she was born in a town upon Neris and she lived in the Justiniškės district. So we managed to communicate in the “state language”.

A couple of days later, I was watching that Lithuanian girl playing with her peers in the school yard and she did really well with basic phrases in English. Unfortunately, her mother was sitting alone. Some of other parents were standing nearby and passionately talking about their kids and the school, while she was sitting there sad and “dumb”. I was wondering how she would deal with a parents’ evening. It turned out that she will need her husband who speaks English. I saw him once in a school corridor. He was translating to his wife what the teacher had said a moment before.

I wonder what the situation will be in the future, in the next months and years. I do not know yet. Maybe that mother, embarrassed by her daughter’s progress in English, will start learning herself. At the beginning, Russian will be enough. Many parents from our school know Russian and English and they could help her in contacts with teachers. Russian is also useful when it comes to doing your business in Prague. There are a lot of Russian people who live there and have their own shops and services. In most restaurants the menu is in Czech and Russian. There are even Russian newspapers and bookstores.

I tell you this sad story because of two reflections that came to me. The first one is optimistic. That little Lithuanian girl will be able to write and read not only in Lithuanian thanks to the fact that her family moved to Prague. The second one concerns the Lithuanian authorities responsible for education. They should care more about the level of teaching languages other than Lithuanian. Maybe it would be beneficial for every Lithuanian citizen if a Pole has become the future Minister of Education in the new government coalition.

Source:  http://www.wilnoteka.lt/pl/artykul/mowie-tylko-po-litewsku  

Tłumaczenie Marta Dubiel w ramach praktyk w Europejskiej Fundacji Praw Człowieka, www.efhr.eu. Translated by Marta Dubiel the framework of a traineeship programme of the European Foundation of Human Rights, www.efhr.eu.

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