Trolleys decode EU's 27 tongues

The 'Learning by Moving' project helps EU citizens learn the languages of their neighbors.

On a visit to southern Spain five years ago, Lithuanian Daiva Malinauskiene encountered a typical traveler's problem: no one could give her directions in a language she understood. [Editor's note: The original version misstated when Ms. Malinauskiene visited Spain.]

But rather than pass it off as an inevitable annoyance of travel within the European Union (EU), which has 23 official languages and 60 indigenous ones, she devised an unusual solution when she returned to Lithuania: the Learning by Moving project.

Today, on commuter-packed trolleys in the capital, Vilnius, the PA systems crackle with impromptu language lessons. "Is the post office far from here?" a voice asks cheerily, first in Lithuanian, then in English and Polish.

Passenger Ana Zagun spies the saddle slung over a plexiglass partition, pulls a brochure from its pocket, and follow along. "We're in Europe now, so we must learn English," says Ms. Zagun, who speaks Lithuanian, Polish, and Russian.

Launched last fall in this ex-Soviet republic, the project has since expanded to five other EU countries: Germany, Italy, Poland, Romania, and Malta. It's one prong of a broader policy to promote multilingualism, as the 27-member Union struggles to cultivate a sense of "Europeanness" while respecting unique identities.

Such tolerance was enshrined in 2000 in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. And many embraced the proverb of another marginal language, Slovak: Kol'ko jazykov vies, tol'kokrat si clovekom – The more languages you know, the more of a person you are.

With that, the Union advances a policy of "mother tongue plus two" – preferably the lingua franca, English, plus the language of a key minority or neighbor.

Slovak Jan Figel, the European Commissioner for Education, Training, Culture, and Multilingualism, said last year that institutional multilingualism also enhances "democratic legitimacy and the transparency" of EU decisions.

"Its cost, so frequently discussed in the papers, amounts to a few euros per year per European citizen," Mr. Figel said. "I cannot imagine what the social and cultural costs could be if ever the Union were to abandon its promotion of linguistic diversity."

Still, despite the resources poured into preserving linguistic diversity – up to €118,000 are spent per day on translation alone – some express particular concern about the "LWUEL" – Less Widely Used European Languages. Not surprisingly, then, the trolley project was hatched in Lithuania, proud owner of one of the EU's more impenetrable tongues.

"If we want everyone to feel at home and a citizen of this 'country,' you need to feel your culture is also accepted," says Ms. Malinauskiene. "We all live together, so we have to find ways to live together in peace."

For Malinauskiene, English was a no-brainer: after 50 years of Soviet occupation and resented Russification, many Lithuanians are happy to turn westward. But the second language, Polish, reflects the essence of the project: ethnic Poles represent nearly 7 percent of the population. Poland is also Lithuania's brawny western neighbor and by far the largest of new EU members.

One commuter, college student Vilija Jakubelskaite, says she assumed the language trolley would have included Russian, what with its even larger local minority.

"But I liked that it was in Polish – because it wasn't Russian," she says, smiling. Though she confesses, "I don't like the Polish language too much; it doesn't sound nice."

Partners in other countries chose languages to fit local conditions: a Hamburg, Germany, tram offers Turkish; buses from Iasi, Romania, offer Italian for laborers seeking work in Palermo; and San Donato, Italy, offers Spanish so locals can communicate with Spanish immigrants.

Malinauskiene says her team from the Soros International House language school kept the pilot project modest: two trolley lines, and only certain times of the day. Cost is a factor, but they also don't want to irritate commuters. A city campaign last summer to promote Vilnius as a 2009 European cultural capital irked many by playing Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and others continuously.

On recent runs of both language trolleys, few commuters appeared to be tuned in. Of scores of passengers, a handful picked up the brochures, which also offer writing exercises.

Irena Girdeniene said she'd like to learn English. When she watches TV with one grandson, who works summers in Britain, "He's my English translator," she says, "and I translate Russian for him."

Among those reading the brochure, though, there was endorsement.

Passing time with his wife and adolescent son, Anatolijus Jurkevic perused the brochure. He's Russian, while his wife, Vera, is an ethnic Pole. Their son, Miroslav, goes to a Polish school, where he also studies Lithuanian and German. English will come later.

"I speak Lithuanian, of course, but it would be great if someone, like a neighbor, were to say 'Hi' to me in Polish," Vera says. "Then I'd feel more comfortable here."

Zagun, who's reading along, claims to be too old to learn a new language, especially difficult-to-pronounce English. But then, with a shy chuckle, she lets loose a stream of vocabulary: "Tomorrow … Good night … See you!"

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