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Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Lithuania Redux 7: The Kids Don't Speak Russian.

The Castle in Kaunas.  

I traveled to Lithuania in June of 2010 for a one week trip. At the time I had just completed six months of study in a Spanish University. It was my second trip to Lithuania and when I got back to the USA I began composing long blog entries combining my recollections of my last trip to Lithuania with emails I wrote home to family and friends from when I studied Yiddish there for a month in 2008. This is the seventh of nine entries. (Entry one is here), (entry two is here)(entry three is here), (entry four is here) , (entry five is here), (entry six is here). I had hoped to post a new entry every week.  So far I've failed at that goal, sometimes by a matter of half a year.  

(I almost forgot about this series of posts on Lithuania that I never finished until a friend asked me about it.  I went to write another post and discovered that I wrote this one in September of 2011 and apparently it got completely lost in the shuffle.  Originally I had refrained from posting it as I had aimed to put up the posts in chronological order but now I think it's better to just post it than delay this series any longer).

As I mentioned earlier, Russia still looms very large to the East of Lithuania.  But culturally and linguistically Lithuanians are doing everything possible to distance themselves from decades of Soviet rule.  In the Soviet era and the immediate period after independence nearly every student learned Russian to fluency and if conversations, friendships, or romances were to happen with foreigners they would have happened in Russian.  For that reason if you visit Lithuania, speak some Russian and need to talk to someone older than 30 odds are good that you’ll be able to communicate with them in it.  Although certainly not every fifty-year old in Lithuania speaks Russian, most do, and far more do so than speak English by a margin approaching 6 to 1 according to statistics I once saw floating around.  (I should also note that many people in the Vilnius area are ethnic Poles and speak Polish so if you’re Polish and travelling there that’s always worth a shot too).  In general, outside of storekeepers in tourist areas and people who went back to university after the Soviet era, there are few people over 35 who speak any English beyond pleasantries. 

Once you get to people who came of age in the post-Soviet period, however, the linguistic situation changes drastically.  Many Lithuanians now in their mid to late 20s learned some Russian in school but speak English better while people in their early 20s and younger usually know no Russian whatsoever but often speak English.  This pattern I had discovered was confirmed while wandering around Kaunas with a friend we had made along the way, a Canadian in his early 30s who was riding his motorcycle to nearly every country in Europe.  Like most Jews born in the 1960s-1980s in the Soviet Union, his mother tongue was not Yiddish or the national language of any Soviet republic in the former Jewish heartland (Polish, Lithuanian, Ukrainian, etc) but rather Russian, the language the youngest generation of Yiddish speaking Holocaust survivors adopted for its utility in the post-WW2 Soviet landscape and the language they chose to speak with their children.  In the case of my new motorcycle riding friend, he had grown up in the USSR, moved to Israel as a teenager and moved to Canada in his early 20s so I had no trouble communicating with him in English. But as he explained to me in a bar as we watched in shock as the Brazilian soccer team imploded for the second time during the world cup, he was speaking to people on the street in Russian when he travelled throughout the FSU in part in order to gauge how useful Russian still was in various countries.  He had only been in Lithuania for a few days and was surprised by my description of the correspondence between age and second language ability. 

But sure enough, when we left the bar my “Lithuanian age/second language correspondence theorem” was proven correct.  We were supposed to meet my friend from Kaunas and our Israeli fellow traveller at a castle but we had only a vague sense of where it was.  So we wandered down the main street for a while and found that strangely enough nobody was around.  Finally after turning a couple of corners and picking a random direction we ran into two young girls of about ten.  My motorcycle voyaging companion tried Russian but they just looked at us completely confused and the shorter of the two girls said “ar kalbate angliškai?” (do you speak English?) or something similar from which I caught on that she spoke some English.  So we asked for the castle and although she didn’t know the word “castle” I had no problem making myself understood and getting perfect directions in good English (“walk straight, make a right” etc etc).  The moral of the story is that kids in Lithuania are far more likely to understand English than Russian these days and tourists should vary which language they try in accordance with their interlocutor’s age.    

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