Program at Pitt tackles tough Baltic languages
A band provides entertainment for students and faculty of the Summer Language Institute during their afternoon picnic.
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When students taking Baltic languages at the University of Pittsburgh hosted Pitt's Slavic and East European Summer Language Institute's weekly picnic recently, the theme was "Think Pink," in reference to the creamy beet soup, similar to borscht, that the students had prepared.
"The students were looking as if they were eating Pepto-Bismol or something," said Christine Metil, associate director of the Summer Language Institute. "But it was really, really good."
Thirteen students are in Pittsburgh for the summer to take Estonian, Latvian or Lithuanian courses as part of the Baltic Studies Summer Institute, known as BALSSI.
BALSSI is a traveling language program that resides at an American university for three consecutive summers and then moves on to another school. This is the first summer of at least three that Pitt is administering BALSSI out of its normal summer language offerings.
Students have come from across the country to participate in six weeks of intensive language study, from June 4 through today. They are in class for five hours every weekday and do several hours of homework each night.
The small enrollment reflects the populations of the Baltic countries, some of which are smaller than the Pittsburgh metropolitan area.
Approximately 1.3 million people live in Estonia, 2.2 million in Latvia and 3.5 million in Lithuania, according to the CIA World Factbook. By comparison, the U.S. Census tallies the population of Pittsburgh's seven-county metropolitan area as about 2.4 million.
The drilling on grammar and vocabulary is complemented by cultural enrichment activities, from films and speakers to singing and field trips.
On Fridays, students are tested on new material, and after a week of language learning, they devote the afternoon to fun activities, including, for instance, an Estonian version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" In this version, there are questions such as "Kes on Barack Obama?" The answer: "Ameerika Ühendriikide president."
The students are studying these less commonly taught languages for diverse reasons, from personal heritage to graduate research. The majority hail from beyond Pennsylvania's borders.
Johann Van Niekerk is a graduate student in choral conducting at the University of Washington. Because he studies choral music from the Baltic region, he came to Pittsburgh to take beginning Latvian. Having grown up in apartheid South Africa, he is "interested in music that shows resistance to a structure, like a totalitarian regime," he said.
"The Baltic countries had the same experience, where there was a lot of music against ... the Soviet rule," he said, adding, "It's very interesting to see how people express themselves through music in good and bad times."
Catherine Cottrell, who grew up in Florida, was earning a master's in international relations at the University of Miami in 2005-06. The small Baltic country of Estonia, which joined the European Union in 2004, piqued her interest.
"There was this kind of feeling of, this little country that could," Ms. Cottrell said.
For her doctoral dissertation at the University of South Carolina, Ms. Cottrell is preparing to travel to Tallin, the capital of Estonia, to conduct research on ethnic Estonian and ethnic Russian youths this fall. Her research interests have led her to the beginning Estonian course, which has just two students.
Lili Grabbi, who teaches beginning Estonian, also believes the region's history motivates students to learn the language.
"I think this sparks people's imaginations and their interests ... countries that became free with very little violence," she said.
The other Estonian-language student, Cassandra Jacobs, came to Pittsburgh via her native Texas and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she is in graduate school to study cognitive psychology.
"I basically study how people learn words," she said. "This is kind of an exercise in that, I guess."
She had made some Estonian friends on the Internet, but, she said, "They were never very good teachers of Estonian. I always thought it was kind of neat, like, grammatically ... the language is structured in a really different way from a lot of the other languages."
For instance, in Estonian, several words can be combined to form one larger word. In class that day, Ms. Grabbi wrote a word, kõueööaimdus, on the board, which is a combination of several words, has seven vowels in a row and means, loosely, a sense of there being thunder in the night.
Since Baltic languages are rarely taught, particularly in the summer, BALSSI fills a gap for those who need to learn these difficult languages.
As a Finnic-Uralic language, Estonian is "said to be one of the hardest in the world to learn," Ms. Grabbi said. "You really do need a reason to want to learn it."
In addition to practical language instruction, students participate in cultural activities, exposing them to the countries whose languages they are studying and to Pittsburgh's own rich immigrant communities.
"It turns out that most of the languages have ethnic constituencies in Pittsburgh," said Oscar Swan, the founder and director of Pitt's Summer Language Institute and professor of Slavic languages and literatures.
Last month, the Baltic language students joined the Lithuanian Citizens Society of Western Pennsylvania to celebrate St. John's Day at the Lithuanian Country Club in Jefferson Hills.
When the students sang Lithuanian songs alongside the group's members, "every single one of them was singing along," Ms. Cottrell said.
"It was really wonderful for the people who were there, because they got to see young people studying their languages and cultures," Ms. Metil said.
BALSSI, which is sponsored by a consortium of American universities, receives support from several organizations, including the American Council of Learned Societies.
The council and Pitt provide a limited number of scholarships to graduate students taking summer language courses.
Founded by Mr. Swan in 1987, Pitt's Summer Language Institute offers other less-commonly taught languages, including Ukrainian, Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian and Turkish. Between 100 and 200 students participate each year.
While the Summer Language Institute will host BALSSI for at least two more summers, Ms. Metil hopes the Baltic language institute will choose to stay at Pitt longer.
"Some of the people that studied this year may come back for the intermediate level next year, because where else are they going to get it? This is basically their only opportunity," she said.
First Published July 13, 2012 12:00 am