Summer program offers intensive study of Baltic area languages

June 10, 2010

By Gwen Evans

The University of Wisconsin–Madison is an international leader in foreign languages, offering instruction in more than 80 modern and ancient languages, from Akan-Twi to Zulu. The campus also houses 11 area-studies centers, the National Council of Less Commonly Taught Languages and the National African Language Resource Center.

Students can put those language courses to the test with a study-abroad experience; they are available on every continent of the world except Antarctica.

This summer, students from across the United States will come to Madison for eight weeks of intensive study of the languages of the Baltic countries: Estonian, Latvian and Lithuanian. The program, the Baltic Studies Summer Institute (BALSSI), is sponsored by a consortium of 12 U.S. universities. Hosting duties rotate among the member universities. BALSSI was at UW–Madison last year, and the campus will host again in 2011. The program then moves to the University of Pittsburgh for a three-year stay.

The pace of the work and difficulty of the languages will challenge the 20 or so determined students coming this year, says Nancy Heingartner, outreach specialist at UW–Madison’s Center for Russia, East Europe and Central Asia (CREECA), and BALSSI program coordinator at UW–Madison. The students will cram in a year’s worth of work into the eight weeks.

“They tell me they are just spent by the end of the course,” says Heingartner. “Latvian and Lithuanian belong to a two-member language family, the Baltic family. They are ancient Indo-European languages that haven’t changed very much over time because the region where they are spoken has been so isolated. Estonian, which is a member of the Finno-Ugric language family, is related to Finnish and Hungarian. These languages are known for their remarkably complex grammatical systems.”

Some of the students have no experience in the languages, while others are heritage speakers — those who have heard the language growing up, but have never studied it formally. Some of the students are returning from last summer’s session in Madison, ready for the intermediate-level courses. “This is a unique program and the only opportunity for intensive summer study of these languages in the United States,” says Heingartner. “Even during the academic year, these languages are only offered at a few universities.”

The Baltic countries have transformed their economies, governments and foreign policies during the past few decades. These changes offer rich opportunities for students in history, politics and social sciences, as well as linguistics. Expertise in Baltic area studies and languages are also be useful for people working in governmental and nongovernmental agencies, and for companies doing business abroad.

Heingartner says the price of attending BALSSI is competitive with other language programs and that tuition reductions are available. Thanks to a generous grant from the American Council of Learned Societies, tuition is waived for beginning Estonian and intermediate Latvian for graduate students working in any field of East European studies.

Students report that they are amazed by how much they were able to learn in one summer. They can go from barely speaking or knowing anything about the language to feeling comfortable carrying on a low-level conversation with a native speaker.

But BALSSI is not all work and no play. Events, activities, field trips and a lecture series provide a complete cultural experience. The public is welcome to attend and most of these events are free. Each Tuesday evening at 7 p.m., there will be a lecture on some aspect of society, culture, history or politics of the region. The lecture topics include a discussion of Latvian environmental issues, a lecture/demonstration of Lithuanian felting techniques and a presentation on Russians in Estonia. Lectures will take place in room 1140 of Grainger Hall, 975 University Ave.

UW-Madison Cinematheque will present a festival of films from the region July 29-31. Cinematheque is located in 4070 Vilas Hall, 821 University Ave.

Madison and Vilnius (the capital of Lithuania) are sister cities and Heingartner credits the local organization Madison-Vilnius Sister Cities Inc. for helping to make last year’s experience for the students a success. The group held a welcome picnic, co-sponsored a farewell party and put on an energetic dance demonstration party, which is being planned for this year as well.