I’m Meeting My Lithuanian In-Laws For The First Time And I Don’t Speak Lithuanian!

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Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania

For the last week, I have been umming and ahing over what to write about. I have bounced around every idea; from recollecting a trip to Venice to writing about a Victorian port town on the peninsula of Washington state. But, every time I have sat down to write —  I have been mauled by distractions. Particularly, the fact that I’m going to Lithuania in six weeks to meet my in-laws — for the first time — and we do not speak the same language!

I understand that many many many people throughout the world have been in a similar situation and somehow have managed to stumble through. My predicament is also helped by the fact that my in-laws — in a very touching gesture — took a beginners English class a few months ago. In addition, I have been attempting to learn some basic Lithuanian. But, a big reason for my nervousness is the Lithuanian language itself.

Lithuanian is a very tough language to learn. Contrary to popular assumptions, it sounds nothing like Russian or any other Slavic language. This is because it isn’t Slavic, but one of the only two Baltic languages (Latvian is the other). Lithuanian is one of the oldest languages in the world and is definitely the oldest known Indo-European language. It actually shares many of the same features as Sanskrit. So, yes it is a very intimidating language to attempt. But, the history of the language and how it has been used to define Lithuania as a nation makes it seem all the more imperative to understand.

From 1795-1914, Lithuania was under the control of Imperial Russia and their language was banned from being spoken in public, their alphabet (Latin) prohibited from being taught. This was all in the effort of Russification. The Russians expected the language would become extinct, but their actions only created a cultural resistance from the whole society. Academics began to write poems and articles in Lithuanian, newspapers were published in Lithuanian and the upper classes began to speak only in Lithuanian (previously the poor had been the only group who exclusively spoke the language). This history is probably why many Lithuanians today culturally identify themselves by their language and why there are now laws in place to protect the Lithuanian language.

During the Soviet Union, Lithuanian was still considered the predominant language of Lithuania but Russian was commonly spoken alongside it. My partner was born in the Soviet Union and grew up in post-Soviet Lithuania. He had no interest in learning Russian in school and  while he understands it well enough, he doesn’t speak it. Neither do many of his generation. While he didn’t see the worse of what his country went through under communism and another wave of Russification, he grew up in the remnants of a post-Soviet state rather than what may have been a culturally rich Lithuania. For him, and I’m sure many other Lithuanians — this is a bitter pill to swallow. It is also what makes their language that more cherished. It defines them as who they are.

Knowing all of this has only added extra pressure to learning Lithuanian. There is no way I will be able to master even an intermediate level of Lithuanian before I meet my in-laws. But, I know it’s a language I will continue to encounter and learn in the coming years. Unfortunately, there are limited available resources to learn Lithuanian as it’s a language spoken exclusively by Lithuanians (Just over 3 million people). Rosetta Stone doesn’t even have a version of it. This leaves one option — my partner giving me pained looks as he listens to me butcher his native tongue while I attempt to learn the language. Sacrifices all around!

Does anyone have any stories or advice on learning a new language, particularly Lithuanian? Please share in the comment section below!

Photo credit: Vaidotas Piekus

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18 thoughts on “I’m Meeting My Lithuanian In-Laws For The First Time And I Don’t Speak Lithuanian!

  1. Among others, Kaunas VDU University organizes very good summer courses. An even better idea is to attend the course when your level is a little bit more than absolute beginner. (Classes for total beginner a more crowded and not always involving motivated people). Good luck/sekmes, Alessandro

  2. Vilnius University run a variety of “language and culture” short courses which are well worth investigating. I did a two week course in January 2011 in the depths of winter……..the snow was down and it looked wonderful especially the “white cathedral”………….and Vilnius University in ther “old town” is beautiful.

    1. The short courses would be especially helpful! Thank you for passing this on. My partner got his BA at Vilnius University and loves going back to Vilnius to visit old friends, so this course would be convenient geographically as well!

  3. Hi there,
    How did that go?
    I headed down exactly the same road 4 years ago and it went well.
    What is your native language? My guess is US English.
    I am a native Greek speaker

    1. Hello,

      Thank you for asking! It actually went incredibly well! My mother-in-law could understand most things I was saying if i spoke English slowly enough. Then my husband would usually translate everything for his father. Overall, we had a great time and his parents were extremely kind and welcoming. Yes, my native language is indeed US English. How was your experience?

      1. I had a similar experience. Maybe second time was a bit difficult because I wasn’t “the unknown/exotic ” anymore

  4. I found this article very interesting. I live in Tucson, Arizona (US). I met a Lithuanian girl while she was attending the university here in Tucson. She graduated, went back to Lithuania. I’ll be visiting her in July and meeting all her family and friends. I’m looking for any words or phrases that will help me when meeting her family (mainly mom and dad). Any help is greatly appreciated. Thank you so much.

  5. Thank you, Daniel! Most all young people in Lithuania speak English as it was required in school after the Soviet Union fell. So I’m sure you will be fine with most of her friends. Additionally, if you are in Vilnius (the capital) literally everyone I bumped into spoke fluent English and they were all extremely helpful.

    I did later find one language program that was very helpful. Pimsleur has a whole program on learning Lithuanian. I almost prefer Pimsleur to Rosetta Stone if you’re trying to learn a language fast because Pimsleur focuses on giving you more practical phrases that you are most likely to encounter when on a trip — whereas Rosetta Stone starts with the most innate things such as how to say the color green or pencil. Additionally, Pimsleur is audio only so you can simply plug it into your iPod and practice wherever you are. They also have native speakers teaching the Lithuanian.

    When I did have someone start speaking Lithuanian to me in the city (which happened quite a bit) or when I was meeting someone for the first time, I found these phrases helpful.

    Hello: Labas (lah – bus)
    Excuse me/Pardon me: Atsiprasau (ah-tsi-prah-sho)
    I don’t understand Lithuanian (if someone tries speaking to you in Lithuanian): Aš nesuprantu Lietuviskai (Ash no-su-prahn-too Lee-eh-tu-vish-kay)
    Thank you: Aciu (Ah-choo just like when you sneeze)
    Yes: Taip (Like scotch Tape)
    No: Ne (Neh)
    Beer: Alus (Al-oos)
    Coffee: Kava (Ka-vah)

    Hope this helps!!!!

    1. Yes, it will be my first time in Europe.
      First, I’ll be visiting Poland (Krákow and Auschwitz) for 3-4 days. From there it’s off to Lithuania. She lives with her family in Palanga, but we’ll be going up and down Lithuania, to all the touristy spots. I’m anxious to get this trip started.

      I’ve been doing a lot of research on Lithuania. I’ve became a bit alarmed over Nazi groups over there. Do you think that’s a problem?

      1. I have been there 6 times and I didnt have a problem. I am fair skinned, but clearly not Lithuanian(not so white I guess) btw.

  6. Hey Daniel, I never heard/saw anything regarding neo-Nazi groups when I was in Lithuania. I think you’ll be fine. The one thing I would be on the look out for is to just be mindful when you’re out in the city after dark. But, that’s advice you should take in any city you’re in. Since you will be with a native who probably knows their way around, I’m sure you will be fine.

    1. Thanks. I’ve been doing lots of research and with the replies it makes me feel mote assure of this trip. I don’t go until July but wish it was tomorrow- I’m so very anxious!

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