Thursday, September 10, 2009
Lithuanian is often said to be one of the most difficult languages to learn, due to its conservative and complex case/declensional system. If you want to affix the word good to a noun, for example, you have to know all of the following to do it properly:
|geras = good|
Quite a bit to know just to say the word good. However, Lithuanian's difficulty is still rather overstated. Here are a few things to keep in mind if you are considering learning the language.
First of all, the best way to explain it to a prospective student would be to say that it demands much the same skill required in learning Latin, so if you've taken Latin before you have some idea of what to expect.
|altus, –a, –um |
high, long, tall
Just like Latin, most of the action takes place at the end of the word. Also just like Latin, there is a ton to memorize in the beginning, but declension will often happen in the same or similar ways throughout the language so it gets easier with time. As an example, in the table above the genitive of geras is gero, and this is the same with nouns of its type too: the word Kaunas (the city) turns to Kauno in the genitive. Same thing with gera to geros - the word motina (mother) has motinos as the genitive.
Latin has a much larger influence on English which makes it easier to understand in the beginning, as the student comes across a fairly large number of cognates with English. Lithuanian has an advantage over Latin though in being a language spoken by millions of native speakers, making it very easy to read and hear the language whenever you want. Latin, used mostly as an L2, is very often taught by those with an incomplete knowledge of the language. That's not their fault of course, but it does make it harder to learn sometimes when you're not absolutely sure that what you're reading in the language is correct.
Lithuanian verb conjugation isn't that hard either. There are three things to remember when learning a verb: the infinitive, the 3rd person present, and the 3rd person past tense. After that verbs are regular (except for the verb to be, būti).
Grammatical gender: this is also similar to Latin, and I find it easier to work with than a language like German. German has three genders, but the problem is that words almost never give an indication as to what gender they are so this is always something that needs to be learned along with each noun. In Lithuanian (along with languages like Latin, Bulgarian, Spanish, etc.) the ending of the noun itself almost always indicates how it is to be used. If you see a noun ending in -ė, you know that the vocative is -e, that the plural is -ės, and so on, so most of the time it isn't really about memorizing gender so much as keeping track of endings. The trickiest part would seem to be words that end in -is, because they can be either of the first or third declension.
Charm: Lithuanian and Latin are quite similar here. With Latin you are learning the language of Caesar and Cicero, with Lithuanian you are learning the language apparently closest to Proto-Indo-European of all the modern languages. Charm is important when learning a language not spoken by a huge number of people. You can also see a fair number of Latin cognates in Lithuanian too, like ugnis (fire), which is ignis in Latin. Augti (to grow) is cognate with Latin augeō.
Lithuanian for non-English speakers: also similar to Latin in that it is easier for many students that don't know English. Languages like Korean, Japanese, Mongolian and Turkish (to name a few) have a lot in common with Lithuanian: no articles, and most of the action takes place at the end of a word. Let's take this for example:
That means "the/a man's house". To learn this in English the student needs to understand the difference between a and the. With Korean, Japanese and Turkish though you can just give the equivalent:
Lithuanian: Vyro namas
Korean: 남자의 집
Turkish: Erkeğin evi
Same thing with cases:
Lithuanian: Jis yra Amerikoje (he is in America)
Korean: 그 남자는/있다/미국에서
You have to change the word order a bit, but it still doesn't necessitate learning anything completely new such as the difference between the definite and indefinite article.
Pronunciation is also easier than English, which is the hardest European language to read.
Conclusion: Lithuanian is a challenge, but not impossible, and if you've learned Latin before then you have some idea of what learning it would entail. And as with any language spoken by a relatively few number of people, there's no way you can pick it up without actively searching for places to use it.
So if you are considering learning the language, take a look at some first-person accounts of those learning Latin, then remove the bits about words imported into English, and having no fluent speakers to practice with. If that suits your learning style then you might want to consider taking it up.
One final note for those considering learning the language: some languages like Norwegian and Dutch with a high number of cognates and not too complex grammar mean that you can spend a great deal of time simply going over word after word, figuring out the meaning of a sentence for yourself and getting acquainted with grammar at your own pace, a little bit at a time. With these languages you can acquire quite a bit of passive understanding without learning almost any grammar at all, and you will often find people that can read and understand them to a certain extent without being able to write them themselves, because their familiarity gives one a sense of fluency. Eventually a student of these languages will have to bone up on grammar, but it can certainly be put off for quite a while.
Lithuanian and Latin (and others) are the opposite though, because without working on grammar first you will find yourself encountering what seem to be new words all the time which are really just ones you already know, but inflected. Simply knowing the word pati for wife will not prepare the student for when it is seen as pačiomis (the instrumental plural), and neither does kačių (genetive plural) look much like katė (a female cat) without knowing declension. This leads to the opposite case, where a student will find himself recognizing the endings of words and thus knowing what role they are playing in the sentence, but perhaps without knowing exactly what they mean.
Good links to bookmark if you want to learn Lithuanian: here, here, here, and here. The last one is a newspaper so it's not specifically for students, but there are a lot of videos to watch on just about everything.