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Exchange students come to study in Vilnius

  • 2000-09-28
  • Geoffrey Vasiliauskas
Although Lithuanian educators haven't determined a clear Lithuanian-language equivalent for expressing the idea of a student exchange program, foreign students have been coming to study at Vilnius University from all over the world since independence in 1990.

Probably the most popular classes among foreign students are Vilnius University's Department of Lithuanian Studies' Lithuanian language courses. The department offers three levels - beginner, intermediate and advanced Lithuanian, as well as short introductory courses on Lithuanian culture, literature and history.

Besides the one-year program, short winter and summer courses also run, with Lithuanian linguistics being offered to summer students, but no advanced language course available during the winter holidays.

Excursions are organized for students during the school year and summer to sites of literary, historical or cultural significance. Students who successfully fulfill course-work requirements are issued graduation certificates. Vilnius University offers accommodation at its student dormitories at reasonable prices, and will place students in host families, according to the department's brochure.

Lina Blauzdaviciute, head of the department, said that this year's crop of students arrived from all corners of the globe. Students from China, Norway, Mexico, Sweden, Argentina, to name a few, will all study together, trying to wrap their tongues around Lithuania's complicated inflectional system and archaic lexicon. The Lithuanian phonetic system (diphthongs, including combinations of vowels with so-called liquids) inherited from Indo-European, the language most European languages derive from, lack of aspirates and the tricky Lithuanian trilled r) and its stress-tone-pitch intonation present special problems for beginners, and are mostly left to intermediate and advanced groups to chew on, although the topics are touched upon.

Beginners are taught the rudiments of Lithuanian - common phrases, basic inflectional endings, numbers, vocabulary - that give a firm foundation for continued learning.

Angela Prokopiak, chief writer-editor at the English language division of the Canadian Radio, Television and Telecommunications Commission in Ottawa, Canada, said she enjoyed the summer course, except that classes started too early. "The course was fantastic. I thought it was well put together - I had wonderful teachers, the administration was wonderful. My only complaint is that the course began at 8:30 a.m. every day! For someone who's not a morning person and was taking the course on her vacation time that was painful. And learning a language like Lithuanian is not so easy in the morning," Prokopiak said.

Prokopiak has Lithuanian roots (Ukrainian and Polish too, she hastens to add). Asked whether most students do, the department staff gave an emphatic no. Most students claim no Lithuanian blood at all. Most of the students are interested in living or doing business in Lithuania, have a Lithuanian spouse or are working on linguistic problems. The staff couldn't say whether the number of Lithuanian descendants coming back to learn the tongue of their grandparents or great-grandparents had dropped off since independence, but said such people are rather rare.

Maria Frick of Helsinki also spoke highly of the summer course. She should know: She teaches foreigners arriving in Finland Finnish under a government program there. Besides speaking Finnish, Estonian, Indonesian and English, Frick decided she wanted to delve deeper into Indo-European origins.

"If I were younger, I would come and study a bit more than just the summer course. I say I would, except for the tuition. Vilnius is a nice town, very beautiful Old Town, especially the campus. I love the frescoes. The course was very good, the teachers knew their job," Frick said.

Four weeks of summer study cost 2,000 litas ($500), while two weeks cost 1,300 litas. Study during the school year is 4,000 litas per semester. A registration fee of 100 litas is required to enter any of the study programs the department offers.

Among the priests, business people and other students of all ages and nationalities, one occasionally meets people from distinguished Lithuanian families. Last winter, Erin McClain of Washington, D.C. came to study for two weeks in order to satisfy a foreign language requirement at her home university. In 1997, she also attended the summer course. She is the great-granddaughter of Jonas Vailokaitis, signatory to the 1918 Lithuanian Act of Independence, founder of the original Lietuvos Zemes Ukio Bankas (Lithuanian Agriculture Bank) and pre-WW II businessman and financier.

Besides being a patriarch of the nation, in the 1930s he helped the Lithuanian government to finance a campaign to re-incorporate then German-speaking Klaipeda and surrounding regions in the newly independent Lithuanian state. During the war, he was forced to flee his native land and died in Germany. His daughter Birute managed to get to the United States in 1939, where she still lives.

Appropriately enough, McClain is now an expert in refugee problems, forced migration and human rights with a master's degree in International Politics from American University in Washington. She currently works for the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe. "The courses are definitely the best way for foreigners to learn Lithuanian. Instead of using rote memorization, the courses are very participatory and interactive, if intense," McClain said. "Both of my experiences in Lithuania were different but wonderful. The summer course has a cultural program that takes the students after class to places of interest in Vilnius and on the weekends to other cities in Lithuania. The summer course is a great way to learn about Lithuanian culture and history - especially for first-timers. The winter course is a bit more intense like all of Lithuania in the summer, the summer course is more laid back but a good experience as well. After finishing the advanced-beginner/intermediate course in January, I really felt comfortable with conversational Lithuanian," McClain said.

She added that she didn't grow up in the Lithuanian-American community in the United States, and said that perhaps because of that she really felt at home in modern Lithuania. "I could finally merge the stories my grandmother told me of her childhood and adolescence with my own experience," McClain asserted.

Vilnius University's International Business School also maintains a regular system of exchanges with universities in Finland. Finnish students are given the opportunity to study European Union law, international business and other subjects in English. Conversely, Lithuanian students travel to Finland and study business there. In addition to studies, a fair number of Finnish students arrive in the summer months in order to fulfill internship requirements at their home universities.

Besides these and other exchange programs, Vilnius University hosts a number of international academic conferences annually. Information is available on the web at www.vu.lt.