VILNIUS - In a bid to increase second-language fluency among Lithuanians, a young parliamentarian is telling television networks that it's time to start using subtitles instead of voice-overs in the programs they import from Europe and the United States.
Algirdas Paleckis, a 34-year-old social democrat, says Lithuania's longstanding voice-over tradition 's a cheap form of TV dubbing that uses a single voice, usually male, for all roles regardless of gender, and that makes no effort to synchronize text with lip movement 's is hurting the country's integration into Europe.
"I'm trying to get Lithuania to be more European," he says, adding that Lithuanians talk proudly about their 2004 accession to the 25-nation bloc, but must still strive to improve their foreign language skills.
Studies released earlier this year show that only one in 10 Lithuanians demonstrate a high degree of fluency in English, French or German, which is far off the EU's goal of two second languages for each European, and a figure that has many local government experts worried.
Paleckis said he's frustrated because so many young people are emigrating, taking the second-language skills they learned at school with them when they leave. Meanwhile, those who choose to stay have few opportunities, such as watching foreign television shows in their original languages, to keep up what they've learned.
"Fluency in English, in our day, is as important as being able to read and use a computer," he says, adding that French and German were tied for a not-distant second place.
Nearly all Lithuanians, especially adults, are still at ease in the language of the country's former overlord 's Russian.
Despite a healthy mix of locally produced state-run and commercial Lithuanian language broadcasts, programs beamed in from Russia 's which, in a paradoxical twist, are often subtitled in Lithuanian 's are still widely watched.
"The vast majority of Lithuanians understand this language [Russian]," says Paulius Virbickas, a producer with LNK, Lithuania's biggest private broadcaster.
He adds that LNK uses subtitles for Russian-language shows, but reverts to voice-overs for those in any other foreign language. While Lithuanian commercial networks mostly show benign Russian-language entertainment programs, it's the Russian news channels that cause unease for some.
"We know who rules the flow of information in Russia," says Paleckis, referring to Russian president Vladimir Putin's claw-back of media freedoms in recent years, which, critics say, was a deliberate strategy by the Kremlin to remove a pesky burr in its saddle.
Months before acrimonious diplomatic rows between Moscow and the three Baltic capitals culminated earlier this month over the implications of the end of World War II, a Russian channel foreshadowed the Kremlin's official view that Baltic states were "liberated" by Soviet troops, not occupied, in a documentary that drew outrage from Lithuania and scorn from its fellow Baltic states.
But in Lithuania, even the "Discovery Channel" and "National Geographic TV" are shown in Russian.
"It's ironic that American television reaches us through Russia," said Egidijus Aleksandravicius, a Kaunas-based history professor and social critic who is one of a growing number of educators joining Paleckis' chorus.
Government education experts who did not wish to be named said that they weren't overly worried about the high dose of Russian television on Lithuanian airwaves, but they do say subtitled Western programs would go far in boosting second language proficiency.
TV execs disagree
Paleckis doesn't intend to use the legislature to push through his hobby-horse, but he is applying pressure on the country's government-owned broadcaster, Lithuanian Television, in the hope that it will lead the way in a gradual replacement of monotonous, staccato voice-overs with less intrusive subtitles.
"I think our public broadcaster will break the ice," he says, adding that private stations told him voice-overs were deeply ingrained in local television culture and they feared losing viewers. "The private broadcasters are looking to Lithuanian Television to pave the way."
But the head of Lithuanian TV, Kestutis Petrauskis, doesn't see a bright future for subtitles.
"It's a habit that's taken shape over several decades; people are used to the voice-overs. It's something that's easy for politicians to talk about, but much harder to put into practice."
Petrauskis says studies have shown that linguistic subtleties cause translated subtitles to be too long, and that Lithuanians grow tired quickly when reading them.
LNK's Virbickas agrees: "We listen to television here as much as we watch it. Subtitles mean you can't step away from the TV set, you always have to follow the small running lines of text."
Teresa Ziboliene, an independent film and television producer, says that eye strain is known as a drawback of subtitles, but also a proven and very effective way to acquire second-language skills, adding: "in the case of quality films, subtitles preserve the artistic integrity of the production."
According to Petrauskis, Lithuanian TV will test the waters by broadcasting some subtitled films on its second station, which is reserved for re-runs as well as high-brow cultural programming.
When asked if using subtitles would lead to a drop in viewers, LNK's Virbickas says yes. "It would be almost cruel to all the housewives here if we forced them to watch Mexican soap operas in their original language," he explains.
Yet Virbickas himself, who is fluent in English, admits he prefers watching English-language films in their original language.
Virbickas says legal obstacles prevented LNK from dubbing Stanley Kubrick's "Eyes Wide Shut" and Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ," which were both shown with subtitles, and that both films drew high ratings. However, he adds, the controversial nature of the films was the likely reason behind their popularity.
Latvian Television experimented last year with subtitles by showing the same film on two channels simultaneously 's one dubbed, the other subtitled. In the end, dubbing won and subtitles were ditched. But Latvia goes one step further than Lithuania by matching the sex of the reader to that of the actor, though it doesn't synchronize text with lip movement.
Estonia, on the other hand, emulates Finland and Scandinavia by using only subtitles for foreign shows, and is the example lawmaker Paleckis says Lithuania should follow: "People in these countries have developed very good second-language skills, with no erosion of fluency in their mother tongue."
When asked about the practices of France, Germany and Italy, where television is usually dubbed, he said: "These are big countries that are comfortable in their major language space. It's the small and medium sized countries such as the Netherlands and the Nordics that Lithuania needs to look to."