Lithuanian émigrés meet to promote language and culture

  • 2000-08-24
  • Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - The World Lithuanian Community recently held its 10th international conference at the Lithuanian parliament in Vilnius from Aug. 15 to 20. WLC is an umbrella organization that coordinates the activities of émigré Lithuanians living in different parts of the world. The largest contingent of delegates was from the United States, but Europe, South America and Lithuanians living in former Soviet republics were also represented.

Conference delegates participated in a wide variety of discussions, but education and youth concerns seemed to predominate. As the older generation of Lithuanian émigrés passes on, one of WLC's main concerns is maintaining an interest in Lithuanian language and culture among the younger generation. This is a difficult challenge at times given the strength of western entertainment conglomerates and the obvious fact that most young émigrés work and live in countries where the official language is not Lithuanian.

Judita Cuplinskiene participated as one of Canada's delegates

"WLC is very important for me. Just look at how many of us there are and at the number of flags [in the conference room]. If there were no WLC, each country's community would be a small island," she said.

Cuplinskiene believes the major issues WLC needs to address are education, assimilation and the future of émigré children.

"I'm also very pleased to see so many Lithuanians from the former Soviet republics here. The more established émigré communities have to help them get on their feet. We've discussed the idea of twinning."

She said it's important to tell Lithuanians in those countries that they are important to all Lithuanians.

European Union and NATO issues are also important to émigrés. "Lithuanian issues also bind us [émigrés] as we want Lithuania to be a western country. It is also important for WLC to provide a balanced view on these topics," said Cuplinskiene.

She believes that the Lithuanian media often misinform Lithuanians and is particularly bad at publishing rebuttals and letters to the editor.

Language issues

One of the sessions on education involved reports by three delegates on educational activities in their countries and on the future of the Lithuanian language.

Algis Uzdila, a teacher from Punskas, Poland, has passionate views about the Lithuanian language.

"We must love the Lithuanian language. It is the basis for our ethnic identity. A language is not just a means of communication: it is a unique system for organizing thought. There are deep spiritual values embedded in language itself," he said.

Uzdila cited examples to support his argument.

The Lithuanian word for the Milky Way galaxy, for example, is Pauksciu Takas, which means Flight Path of the Birds.

"In almost every major European language it is The Milky Way but for Lithuanians it is different. This is because ancient Lithuanians viewed the world differently. They believed that human souls were reincarnated as birds and would fly off into the heavens, hence The Flight Path of the Birds," said Uzdila.

Other European languages were influenced by Greek and Roman myths and adopted The Milky Way from these sources, he said.

Another example is the Lithuanian pronoun kas, which means both who and what.

"French, English and German have different pronouns for asking questions about people and things. Lithuanians did not suffer this psychological split between the material and the physical. A stone was able to have a soul. So no difference was made in asking questions about things and living beings," said Uzdila.

He also voiced strong opinions about some of the émigré groups. "Lithuanians living in certain parts of Poland, Kaliningrad and Belarus are not émigrés and labeling them as such is wrong," he said.

Uzdila said they haven't actually emigrated as they are living in ancient Lithuanian lands.

Kaliningrad's Aldona Bursteikiene spoke about efforts to teach Lithuanian in her region. Lithuanians there are the third largest ethnic group after Ukrainians and Belarussians.

"We have three types of language learners: some speak Lithuanian at home, some can understand the language but can't speak it and others have no understanding at all," said Bursteikiene.

Lithuanian grammar is very difficult to teach as it is highly inflected so she and her colleagues teach by ear and use a lot of storytelling.

She also believes that Lithuanian children in her region need to travel to Lithuania more.

"Children need to hear Lithuanian in its homeland. They need to hear other kids speaking it in the street. This is difficult as Lithuania is an expensive place for us to travel to," she said.

Moscow is also home to a Lithuanian language school. Solveiga Karalaite, the school's director, briefed WLC delegates on Lithuanians in Moscow.

"Some of our children are from mixed marriages while others are children of people who have moved to Moscow for two or three years to work," she said.

For this latter group the school is particularly important as a child living in Moscow for a few years will have fallen far behind Lithuanian classmates upon his or her return to Lithuania, she said.

The school, Saltineles, or spring, has received official status from the Russian government. There are Jewish and Armenian schools in the city as well.

Russian is the primary language for studying math and science but Lithuanian language and history are taught as well.

"Moscow State University has begun offering courses in Lithuanian which is a good omen for us. Hopefully some of our students will be able to go on to university to study Lithuanian and then find work as translators in their native tongue," said Karalaite.