Article by Svein Lund, published in "Bilingual education among indigenous people and other minorities".
Edited by Sami Education Council, 1995

On the "wrong" side of the border

Language and school among Lithuanians in Poland and Poles in Lithuania


As a student of bilingual pedagogics at the Sami college in Guovdageaidnu (Sámi allaskuvla) I visited schools and institutions in Poland and Lithuania in spring 1996. As I speak neither Polish nor Lithuanian the trip and collecting of information was made possible by help of Barbara Głowacka who interpreted for me from Polish to English. Thanks to her and to Alan Drop who has been helpful to correct my bad English.

Sami schools and educational institutions in Norway have for the last years paid great attention to school conditions in other bilingual areas, and visited many countries. But nobody has so far looked at the countries in Central and Eastern Europe. Most of these countries between Russia and the EU consist of a mixture of nations and languages. After the demolition of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia most languages now have their own state(s), but there are millions of people who live in another state than the state(s) where their mother tongue is the state language. In addition there are language groups which never had any official status. I wanted to see how the situation is for some of these language minorities, and if any of their experiences could be relevant to Sami schools.

Historical background The Polish state was established around 900 AD and the Lithuanian state around 1200 AD. From around 1100 AD to 1400 the Germans conquered a great amount of land eastwards, also parts of what today is Poland and Lithuania. They established themselves as a feudal upper class, and the peoples living here were partly germanized, partly exterminated, while some other peoples managed more or less to keep their language through the German period.

1385 a Polish-Lithuanian union was established. Later the union was strengthened and so was the Polish domination. Polish became the only state language and the Lithuanian upper class became polonized. In 15th century Lithuania reached it greatest size and reached from the Baltic Sea to the Black Sea. After 1700 the Polish / Lithuanian state was divided between Russia, Germany and Austria. In Lithuania the official language was Russian, the language of the upper class mostly Polish, and Lithuanian was mainly used among farmers.

Both Poland and Lithuania got independence in 1918. Lithuania included the municipalities of Sejny, Punsk, Suwalki and Augustow. But in 1922 Poland conquered a great part of eastern and southern Lithuania, including the capital Vilnius. Lithuania was forced to transfer its capital to Kaunas. The Vilnius area was given back in 1939, but the four municipalities mentioned over remained in Poland as they are still.

In 1940 Soviet Union invaded Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia and made them Soviet Republics. But already in 1941 they were invaded by Germany, which killed out almost all the big Jewish population. In 1944 Soviet took Lithuania back and the country was a Soviet Republic up to 1991. A great part of the population was deported to camps or faraway places in the Soviet Union. At the same time a lot of Russians and people from other natonalities in the Soviet Union settled in the Baltic states.

The World War Two resulted in Russian troops in Poland and a regime under Soviet influence up to 1980s. It also resulted in moving of Polands borders westwards, with great forced deportations of people who were living on the "wrong" side of the new borders, meaning that they spoke a "wrong" language. The result was that the Polish state was more "pure" Polish than ever before. The dominant ideology was and still is: "one country - one language".

In the last part of the 1980s in the Baltic states a new movement for independence grew. In 1988 the Lithuanian republic started a school reform to make a national school in Lithuania. After the first free elections in 1989 Lithuania was declared an independent state and this was finally accepted in 1991, a short time before the Soviet Union itself fell apart. Lithuania and Poland are in the border zone between East and West of Europe, and have through centuries been influenced from both sides. The geographical middle point of Europe is in Lithuania. In religion and culture they are connected to the West through the Catholic Church, while their neighbours to the east are Orthodox. Politically they have been parts of the Eastern Bloc, while they now seek to the West. Both countries have applied for membership both in NATO and the EU. A result of their recent liberation from Moscow is that there is a tendency to estimate the value of Russian and other eastern languages and cultures as of no value and on the other hand swallowing everything western. Languages and national minorities The Polish language belongs to the Slavic language family and Lithuanian to the Baltic language family, both Indo - European languages. The two languages are far from mutually comprehensible, but some words are quite similar and they also have some common grammatical features. Lithuanian has changed less through centuries than neighbouring languages and kept a great part of the Indo-European roots.

Today it is difficult to get reliable numbers of national minorities in Poland, probably altogether between 5 and 10 %, consisting of Lithuanians, Belarussians, Russians, Ukrainians, Lemkis, Slovaks, Checks, Germans, Jews, Gypsies, Tatarians and Kashubians. In Lithuania there are official numbers of national minorities, telling that there are 8,5 % Russians, 7 % Polish, 1,5 % Byelorussian, 1 % Ukrainian and 2,3 % others.

Lithuanian in Poland

There are today approximately 25000 Lithuanians in Poland, 15000 of them living in the areas close to the border, areas which belonged to Lithuania in the Russian period and 1918-22. The biggest concentration of Lithuanians is in Punsk (80 %) and Sejny (30 %). The first known population of this district was the Jatvingians, a Baltic-speaking people which was defeated by the German knights and deported. After that their area was empty until Lithuanians came from the north and Poles from the south in the 16th century.

When travelling from Gdansk by train to Elk and further by bus to Suwalki we did not hear anything but Polish language. But in the bus from Suwalki to Punsk we heard mainly Lithuanian. For the population of Punsk, Suwalki is the nearest town, where people go for shopping or further connection.

Punsk The village of Punsk is the centre of the Punsk municipality, with around 5000 inhabitants. In Punsk most posters were only in Polish, but a few shops, the culture house and the school had posters in both Polish and Lithuanian. Lithuanian is taught in 5 schools in Punsk and 3 in Sejny. The first Lithuanian classes started in 1952. Outside these municipalities Lithuanian is not taught in ordinary schools in Poland.

We visited the school in Punsk where we met the headmaster of the primary school and the English teacher in the gymnasium. There are three schools in one: primary school, gymnasium and agricultural school. There are three parallell classes for 1st to 8th year, two in Lithuanian and one in Polish. But for some classes the amount of Polish children is so small that they have joined two classes, so that e.g. classes 3 and 4 are together. 4 out of altogether 42 teachers don't speak Lithuanian, even if some of them understand it quite well. But because of these teachers meetings for teachers of primary school are in Polish. In the administration of the school they only write in Polish. Some of the teachers had been educated in Lithuania. All the teachers who teach in Lithuanian classes have Lithuanian as their first language. Most of them come from the Punsk area, a few come from Lithuania.

Pupils in Lithuanian classes have 1 hour less Polish than in Polish classes. But as they have 4 lessons of Lithuanian, they have altogether 3 lessons more. Except for Lithuanian language and history they have the same program as all other schools in Poland. Lithuanian children learn Polish as second language from class 2. But usually children more or less understand Polish before they start school. Polish children do not need to study Lithuanian. They usually learn it in kindergarden or outside school. Only pupils from mixed families choose Lithuanian. Some Lithuanian parents send their children to Polish schools. They have schoolbooks in Lithuanian only in the Lithuanian language and history. In other subjects they use schoolbooks in Polish. This is a big problem especially in the lower classes, where the children don't understand Polish so well. The teachers have some books in Lithuanian from Lithuania, but these are not accepted for the pupils because of different curriculae. Teachers use mainly Lithuanian when writing on the blackboard, they must explain new words in Polish and Lithuanian to the pupils. That way they learn Polish not only through the lessons in Polish, but also through other lessons.

Because they get newspapers and TV mainly in Polish some matters are mostly known and better understood in Polish. People often use Polish words with Lithuanian endings. This makes the Lithuanian spoken here a little different from the language spoken in Lithuania. The dialect here is also influenced by Polish sounds.

Municipalities get support from state per pupil in primary school. For pupils who are taught in Lithuanian they get a little extra, only to cover the extra lessons because of the Lithuanian language. They have discussions with the authorities in Warszawa because they need more to give good bilingual education. But if they don’t get what they need from central authorities, they have strong support in the local community. Parents care about school and help in repairing and painting the school. Local companies also sometimes give gifts to the school.

There is no official status for the Lithuanian language. In Punsk one may usually speak Lithuanian in municipal offices, but everything is only written in Polish. The trade companies also use mainly Polish.

In secondary school they have 4 classes of gymnasium and 3 of agricultural school. All classes of secondary school are taught in Lithuanian. This is the only secondary school in Poland with teaching in Lithuanian, and Polish-speaking children must go to other places for secondary school. All teachers of secondary school speak Lithuanian and it is also used for meetings among teachers.

They have tested the results of the bilingual education. The level in the Polish language is not lower than for other students in Poland, and in the other subjects they are on average better. They have also better results in passing exams to Universities. In the headmaster's opinion the reason is that they got education through two languages.

The headmaster is not satisfied with the work of the Polish school authorities and compares it with the situation for the Polish minority in Lithuania. In Lithuania there are printed handbooks in Polish, but not in Lithuanian in Poland. Poland is richer and bigger but can't give the same service as smaller and poorer Lithuania, he says.

In Poland there is edited one magazine in Lithuanian, called "Auóra". It comes out every second week and is sponsored by the Polish Ministry of Culture. Only a few local editions, some books about local history and culture, calendars etc. are printed in Lithuanian. The bookshops have very few books in Lithuanian. Newspapers from Lithuania are usually not read in Punsk because mail take at least a week. There are also problems for transport of printed material across customs. In Punsk and Sejny there are some places where it is possible to see Lithuanian TV.

We met the teacher of English, who was from Lithuania and did not speak Polish. However she said that this was not a big problem, because in Punsk almost everybody could speak Lithuanian. She invited us to attend an English lesson, where I told them in English about Norway and Sápmi and Sami schools. It was a 10th class, which there is 2nd class of secondary school. The students had approximately the same level in English as Norwegian students of the same age, and they were so active in asking me that we used the whole lesson.

Earlier the first foreign language was Russian. For the last 7 years they have also taught English. From class 5 they choose English or Russian. In secondary school they will study both. This is standard for Polish schools, but some places one of these languages may be replaced by German. In English lessons they use mainly books with only English texts, but for beginners the teacher has chosen some basic stuff from Lithuanian material. The students from Punsk have learnt English in primary school, but in some of the villages around they don't have teachers in English and they start from zero in secondary school. It is therefore necessary to divide classes according to levels of competence.

32 students from Punsk are now studying in Lithuania. They study the Lithuanian language, pedagogics and also other subjects. Lithuanian government give scholarships for some students from Poland, according to appointment between ministeries.

Sejny From Punsk we went to Sejny, a small town with a very mixed population. In the streets we heard mainly Polish, a few times Lithuanian. We asked about relations between the Lithuanian and Polish population and were told that in general they were good, but there were some extremists on both sides making trouble. Other people told that it is not so easy to be a Lithuanian in Sejny and that use of the Lithuanian language here is in decline.

In Sejny we also saw a very interesting institution, the Borderland Centre, which is working for cultural exchange and understanding among the different peoples in the area. A woman working here told about their work with Gypsy children. There are 40-50000 Gypsies in Poland. Their schools are very bad, and very few teachers are able to speak their language. There are big problems with standardisation of Romani language, because of very different dialects and mixture with other languages. Therefore a book in Romani made in one country is often not understood in another. Almost no Gypsies get higher education. For Gypsy children there is often a conflict between education and tradition / family. The Borderland Centre exchange cultural activity between Gypsies and other nationalities so that they learn more about each other and learn to respect and appreciate each other.

Polish in Lithuania.

Vilnius Vilnius is the capital with around 600000 inhabitants, of which one half are Lithuanians, while Polish and Russians each are around 20%. We were surprised to hear that so many people were able to speak Polish. My interpreter managed in Polish most places, only a few times she had to use Russian.

Up to 1991 Russian and Lithuanian were official languages of Lithuanian Soviet Republic. After liberation Lithuanian was made the only official language and there was given high priority to take away every sign in Russian. This campaign was so effective that today it is difficult to see remnants of the Russian language even if you look for it.

During the Soviet period the Baltic republics were best off economically in the Soviet Union. But after independence Lithuania has had severe economical problems. The State lost most of its money in a bank bankrupcy. The result is that a great part of the economy has stopped, and there is no money for investments in the state sector. This hits schools and other public service severely. The salaries and especially pensions are very low and not always paid on time. In the streets of the big cities we saw quite a lot of beggars.

Ministry of Education In Vilnius we visited the Ministry of Education, where we met two women responsible for education in Polish. The education in Polish follow the same program/ curriculum as education in Lithuanian, only that they have the Polish language as an additional subject and the Lithuanian language as second language from 2. class. In towns pupils usually understand Lithuanian when they start school, but in the countryside they often don't hear Lithuanian except on TV and therefore have very poor knowledge of the language. There are separate books in learning Lithuanian from Polish and from Russian. All subjects except Lithuanian and foreign languages are usually taught in Polish / Russian for these pupils, mainly with books translated from Lithuanian. Sometimes they try to use two languages in teaching or teach some subjects in Lithuanian.

There is teaching in Polish for the whole primary school and gymnasium, less for vocational schools and higher education. The Polish language is accepted for exams to enter University. On average 38% of Lithuanians and 48% of Polish go to University after gymnasium.

Not all teachers master the Polish language perfectly. They will now offer courses in the Polish language for teachers, especially for teachers in science. Polish schools have the same financial conditions as the Lithuanian ones. There are big reforms of the educational system going on. New books are coming, before 1998 all old books will be changed. Earlier it was usual that books in Polish and Russian came a year after books in Lithuanian. Present policy is that they should come at the same time.

Smaller minorities have one school each: Ukrainian, Byelorussians, Jews, Germans and Karaites. The Tatarians have so far gone to Polish or Russian schools, but now there is planned a school for them solely. Ukrainians and Byelorussians use books imported from these countries.

It has been common to make separate schools for the national minorities. Now it is being discussed whether it is not better to have separate classes but common schools. Today there are 120 schools with Polish classes, 53 of them have only Polish. 16900 pupils are in Polish classes / schools. In vocational schools there are some Polish / Russian groups. Earlier there were many more Russian schools, because many Poles went to Russian schools. Lithuanian children in Polish-speaking areas usually don't learn Polish at school. If they do, it is as additional course, not as part of ordinary school. Some books have double text, e.g. in literature.

The Polish University In the official list of Universities in Lithuania you will not find the Polish University. It is a private educational institution with 100 students, organized by the Assosiation of Polish Teachers of Lithuania and the Assosiation of Polish Scientists of Lithuania. Polish University gives education in Polish at university level, but it's exams are not accepted by Lithuanian authorities. Therefore the students after three years at the Polish University have to go to Poland to complete their education. After 2-3 years in universities in Poland they get their diplomas there, and these are accepted by the Lithuanian authorities. The only problems are that there are restricted how many students may go to Poland and they also fear that many students who get their last part of education in Poland will stay there and not come back. It is difficult for students who for any reason can't go to Poland. It they want to complete their education in a Lithuanian university, formally they have to start from the beginning. Some faculties find solutions, but usually they have to use a lot of extra time.

The reason for the foundation of the Polish University in 1991 was that Lithuanian authorities did not want to give sufficient higher education in Polish. But after the Polish University was started, the Lithuanian universities also increased their education in Polish. There are now lessons on Polish language and culture and some courses in Polish terminology. Many Polish students have got their education only in Russian / Lithuanian and they don't have good enough background in Polish language, litterature and culture to teach Polish classes. The Polish University does not get any support from the state, but is financed by gifts from rich Polish-Lithuanians who have made great money abroad. In addition the students have to pay an annual fee.

Language politics During the Soviet period (1944-91) Lithuanian was taught as second language in Russian and Polish schools, but most Poles and Russians did not learn it very well. In 1991 Lithuanian was made not only the main, but the only state language. This has made some problems for the national minorities, they don't get Lithuanian citizenship if they don't speak Lithuanian. There is a strict law on state language which says that all public posters must be in Lithuanian only or Lithuanian first. If other languages are used, the characters must not be bigger than characters in Lithuanian. There are inspectors ensuring that the language law is followed and one may be punished for putting up posters in other languages.

There are two trends in minority politics: - the extreme nationalist, which want to assimilate the minorities - the tolerant, which will make regional solutions for minorities. The headmaster of the Polish University looks to Finnish and Swiss models which he thinks could be used in Lithuania. - When will citizens from minority groups have loyalty to state, he asks, if they are supressed or if their language and culture are respected by this state?

Education in Polish is a result of fighting and resistance against both Soviet and Lithuanian authorities. The fight of the Polish population in Lithuania for their rights as a linguistic minority does not get much support from Polish authorities. The reason is that national minorities in Poland have less rights than national minorities in Lithuania. Authorities do not want to give any support which could be used against them if they support rights for Poles abroad which they refuse their own national minorities.

Mickuny In the countryside around Vilnius, Polish is the biggest group. Mickuny is a village 20 km from the centre of Vilnius. Here is 70% of the population Polish. The school is trilingual, they have Polish, Russian and Lithuanian classes. It is a 1-12 school, with Polish and Russian classes on each level, Lithuanian classes were so far only 1-4. Children from mixed families usually go to Lithuanian classes.

All teaching is in the pupils own language. There is a plan of introducing history and geography in Lithuanian from 5th class, but they resist this plan. In their opinion the pupils don't know Lithuanian good enough to get education in this language until class 11-12. There are problems with teachers in Lithuanian as second language, and they are not satisfied with the methods which are used today. Too often teachers only read and translate. There are courses in university in teaching Lithuanian as second language, there are also additional courses for teachers who shall teach in Polish or Russian.

Lithuanian classes don't learn neither Polish nor Russian in school. Neither region nor municipality has the right to decide that everybody should learn the language which is spoken by majority in their area. (When I tell about the situation in some Sami municipalities they say they wish they had the same possibility.) From 5th class they learn German or Russian. They have also wished to teach English, but it is not realized yet.

What do children talk with each other, we ask. - Childrens language, they answer. To understand each other they mix the three languages, and also there is influence from Belarussian, as we are only 20 km from the border. Lithuanian children usually learn Polish / Russian in the street.

Among teachers Polish is mostly used, it is also the language of meetings. There are only 4 Lithuanian teachers in this school. They understand Polish but are afraid of speaking.

For some classes and subjects there are good schoolbooks in all three languages. But in many subjects there is lack of books. Teachers have to collect material here and there, among others from books from Poland. The biggest problem is that the school does not have a copy machine (!)

Some books have terrible level of translations, they are translated by specialists in language and literature, not in subjects like science and mathematics. In the Soviet period books were normally written first in Russian. Now all books are written first in Lithuanian. Russian books were often of better quality than the new ones. There are also many good books made in Poland, but they can only be used as help for teachers. In Polish language / literature they may use books from Poland, but there is often lack of books. It is expensive to get books from Poland. On average Polish / Russian pupils have two lessons a week more than Lithuanian pupils. They have less lessons in foreign language.

Polish and Russian students have earlier used to go to other Soviet republics to study. Now the teaching in Lithuanian in schools is better and it is getting easier for Polish / Russian students to manage to study in Lithuanian. In their opinion it is not so bad to study in Lithuanian if they get extra courses in Polish language and terminology.


In the beginning of this report I wrote that I wanted to see if any of the experiences of these language minorities could be relevant to Sami schools. I have of course made up some thoughts for myself about this. But rather than presenting ready made conclutions, I will suggest that you readers compare this which you have read here with the knowledge you have about the situation of sami schools.

* You may go back in the text and change the name of the minority language into Sami and name of the majority language into Norwegian, Finnish or Swedish. Would any of these sentences be true then?

* In which ways is the situation of the Sami language approxemately the same, better and worse?

* Which factors outside of school influences the mastering of the language? Is there a similar situation in Sápmi?

* Can we learn anything about the effects of bilingual education?


You may find other articles by Svein Lund here:

About education (mainly in Norwegian, some in Sami, a little in English)

In English

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