Linguistic enlightenment on your bus ride

  • 2007-03-28
  • By William Powell

ROLLING CLASSROOM: For the price of a trolleybus ticket, Vilnius residents are getting mini-lessons in English, Lithuanian and Polish. Similar projects may one day be launched in other Baltic cities.

VILNIUS - Anyone who takes public transportation in the Baltics knows the score. It's 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, that's 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, it's an effort that's 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, there's 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 it's a novel and fun way to learn a few common phrases in another language. And it's already become something of a ritual for some frequent public transport users.
"[It's] a nice and funny way of learning," commented Aiste Zegunaite, a civil servant and regular pubic transport user. "It's 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 's the teachers of Soros International House 's 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 's 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 's "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 Estonian.

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?"