True Lithuania

Languages in Lithuania

The sole official language in Lithuania as well as the language you will hear the most is Lithuanian (native to some 85% of the population and spoken by 96%). With millennia-old history and struggles for its survival, Lithuanian language is very much a part of national identity.

Minority languages in Lithuania

The largest minority languages are Russian and Polish, spoken natively by 8,2% and 5,8% of the population respectively.

Russian native speakers live primarily in cities. They include not only ethnic Russians but also many Belarusians, Ukrainians, Jews and other ethnicities common in the former Soviet Union, collectively referred to as Russophones. Some "Russophones" speak another language natively but still speak better Russian than Lithuanian or don't speak Lithuanian at all. Not speaking Lithuanian is common among the elder generation of Russophones. That's because during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990) knowledge of Lithuanian was not required and Russian was the lingua franca (unlike Latvia or Estonia, Lithuania gave its citizenship to every person who resided in Lithuania at the time of the collapse of the USSR, regardless of their knowledge of the official language).

Polish is spoken mostly by the ethnic Polish minority in the southeast Lithuania (including Vilnius). In some towns there Polish is actually the majority language.

While there are other minorities in Lithuania it is very rare to hear any other language than Lithuanian, Russian or Polish spoken in Lithuania by locals in their own conversations (rather than when talking to foreigners).

Minority languages are used extensively by the minorities in question and this is promoted by the government. For instance, there are many public schools where either Russian or Polish are used as the medium of instruction. However, any official government texts (e.g. laws or street names) are Lithuanian-only.

Christmas greetings projected under Vilnius castle tower alternates Lithuanian, English, Polish and Russian languages. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Foreign languages in Lithuania

Spoken by some 70% of the population, Russian is still the most popular second language in Lithuania, although this is declining. The Russian language was both mandatory and ubiquitous during the Soviet occupation (1940-1990), making virtually everybody in the older generations (i.e. those born ~1980 and before) fluent in it. Nowadays, however, many ethnic Lithuanians regard the Russian language as a "colonial leftover". Only some 40% of the kids learn it. Likewise, Russian public inscriptions have been gradually removed or replaced by English ones (although the Russian language may still be seen on an occasional old plaque or in unrenovated museums). On the other hand, private hotels and restaurants have Russian menus and employ Russian-speakers to cater for numerous Russian tourists. While to some ethnic Lithuanians any use of Russian is a reminder of the tragic history, some others enjoy Russian music and media, claiming that "culture and politics should not be mixed".

English is the most popular foreign language to learn today. It is spoken by 30% of total population and 80% of the youth. Older generations are unlikely to speak English however as very few schools taught it seriously under the Soviet occupation. Today English is the language Lithuanians expect foreigners to know, so it is widely used in modern museums, hotels, tourist signs and city/resort restaurant menus. As the "top language" of the "prestigious West", it also became fashionable for some key local trademarks and popular songs.

It is relatively rare for non-Poles to learn Polish as a foreign language. It is not taught as such in schools. However, non-Polish people from areas with strong Polish presence may have some knowledge of Polish acquired in day-to-day life, making 14% of Lithuania's citizens fluent in Polish. Polish signs for tourists are available in the areas most visited by the Polish tourists, namely the Vilnius region and the borderland. Polish-inhabited areas have Polish cultural events and media, although they are mostly aimed at the local Poles.

German (spoken by 8% of the population) held popularity as a 2nd foreign language (after Russian, instead of English) under the Soviet occupation as the Soviet Union had close ties to East Germany (but no close ties to any English-speaking country). Today German usually competes with Russian for the place of second foreign language in school (after English). In the formerly German-ruled Klaipėda region restaurant menus and other information in German is more common due to catering for numerous German tourists there. In terms of cultural impact, German is far behind English, Russian and Polish, however: there is no local German media, few cultural events, few books for sale and so on.

Fifth and sixth foreign languages by the number of speakers in Lithuania are French and Spanish, but they are spoken only by some 2% and 1% of the population respectively.

2011 census results on the correlation between age and what foreign languages a person can speak. Native languages are excluded (therefore total numbers of Russian and Polish speakers are larger by 6%-8%). Diagram by Lithuanian department of statistics.

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

Click to learn more about Lithuania: Culture, Languages Leave a comment
Comments (8) Trackbacks (1)
  1. Great article, aciu. I do wish however that Yiddish had been mentioned. Although it is probably no longer spoken in Lithuania, except in the Yiddish course at Vilnius University and perhaps by a few remaining Jews, Vilnius and Lithuania were centers of Yiddish. Yiddish was a very large minority language before the Holocaust, in some cities including Vilnius possibly spoken more widely than Lithuanian. However, it died an unnatural death – if not for the Holocaust and the destruction of Lithuania’s Jews, Yiddish might very well land very high in this list. Perhaps worth mentioning in some way. A major piece of the heritage of our ancestral homeland was destroyed and at the very least it’s memory should not be erased. Aciu.

    • The article is about languages currently spoken in Lithuania.

      Indeed, there were several languages that were once spoken natively by relatively many Lithuanian citizens but are no longer so (Yiddish, German and Latvian).

      You are correct that Yiddish was once an important language in Lithuanian cities and towns, spoken by most local Jews. Barely anybody speaks it today however – in fact, even less than 10% of Lithuania’s Jews know Yiddish, most of them elderly.

      There were actually three reasons that led to the demise of Yiddish, Holocaust being just one of them.

      Another reason, that continued from late 19th century until today, was a massive emigration of Jews. In fact, far more Jews emigrated from Lithuania in this period than were killed during Holocaust, mostly to the USA, Russia, South Africa and Palestine/Israel. For example, between 1898 and 1923 alone the Jewish population of Lithuania declined by 150 thousand, despite its natural growth. While some emigrated Litvaks continued to speak Yiddish there or some time, eventually most have dropped the language in favor of English (USA/South Africa), Russian (Russia) or Hebrew (Palestine/Israel).

      The third and final reason that sealed the fate of Yiddish in Lithuania itself was however a linguistic drift among Lithuania’s Jews themselves. Even after the Holocaust Lithuania still had some 25-35 thousand Jews (including those who returned after being evacuated), most of them likely Yiddish-speaking. However, by 1970s most Lithuania’s Jews were already Russian speaking. The majority of Litvaks ceased to teach Yiddish or even talk in Yiddish to their kids, choosing the more “politically beneficial” Russian language instead (it was the time of Soviet occupation and Russian was the main language of the government and science). Currently, the young generation of Lithuania’s Jews often speaks Lithuanian as their main language, which is more beneficial in independent Lithuania.

      It should be noted that similar decline of Yiddish / linguistic shift was recorded globally. Even in Israel, where most people likely had Yiddish-speakers up to their parents, grandparents or great grandparents generations, only a small minority regularly speak Yiddish today. That was because global Zionism decided to adopt Hebrew as the main language for Jews rather than Yiddish.

      By the way, Yiddish is not the only once-prominent native language in Lithuania that has faced a decline. Another language that similarly suffered was German, which used to be the native language for some 5% of Lithuania’s population before World War 2. Like with Yiddish, the majority of its speakers were killed or forced to flee by a Genocide (in that case, Soviet-perpetrated) while the remainder switched to Russian or Lithuanian languages, often in fear of persecution as German language/culture was commonly equated to nazism in post-WW2 Soviet Union. German thus remained spoken in Lithuania only as a foreign language rather than native.

      Latvian language too was once of greater importance in the borderland areas, while the Curonian Spit had a unique Latvian-like language before WW2 that also suffered a similar fate to German.

      Should this article be written before World War 2, the languages would be as such (censae did not ask for language but rather for ethnicity at the time, and these not always coincided so there is a need to make some presumptions):
      Lithuanian – 82%
      Yiddish – 6%
      German – 5%
      Polish – 4%
      Russian – 2%
      Latvian – 1%

  2. My heritage is Latvian Kurshu (Curonian). My wife was born in Lithuania.I read somewher in Marija Gimbutas’writings that the Kurshi inhabited the coast of Latvia and Lithuania with their cultural centre being at or near Palanga. She also said that the southern Kurshi were never conquered and assimilated with the Samogitians. Your comment about the language spoken pre WW2 on the Curonian Spit interests me. Who were these people?Also,has your research found any trace of the Old Prussian language?

    • It may be hard to understand easily, as there were many different population groups that are called the same in English. I’ll try to explain.

      1.The original Curonians were a Baltic tribe living on the Baltic Sea coast. It was one of many such Baltic tribes that eisted ~11th century. In late Medieval era however they converged to Lithuanian and Latvian nations. I think nobody would be able to trace one’s heritage to these Curonians now, as there are no records so far back into history. These are however likely the “Kurshi” taked about by Marija Gimbutas. The Lithuanian name for them is “kuršiai”.

      2.The name of Curonians, namely Courland (Lithuanian: “Kuršas”), was adopted in 16th century for a German-ruled Latvian-inhabitted fief of Lithuania in modern day Latvia (“Duchy of Courland and Semigallia”). It stretched far beyond the original Curonian area, it even established colonies in Gambia and Tobago. There was no ethnicity “Curonian” at this time however, as Courland was inhabitted mainly by Latvians (the countryside) and Germans (the cities). But it is indeed possible to be a known descendent of somebody who lived in Courland as the Duchy was disestablished by Russian occupation only by 1795, when records were already available. Furthermore, part of Latvia is still informally known as “Courland” to this day.

      3.There was also an ethnic group I spoke about in previous comment. In Lithuanian it is called “kuršininkai”, but may also be called “Curonians” in English. It existed until World War 2. They were mostly fishermen who inhabitted the villages of Curonian Spit. Their terriotrial extent was limited to that small and unique peninsula, they did not live in Palanga. They spoke a Baltic language that was closer to Latvian than Lithuanian. They probably developed their own language/culture because of the isolation of the Curonian Spit and the unique lifestyle there (however, they likely never truly understood themselves as a nation). Their origins are not entirely clear, with a common version being that they originate from Latvians who migrated from Courland; there are however also claims that these migrants may have intermixed with the “remnants of the original Curonians”. Gradually, many of these kuršininkai Germanized (their villages were up to half German-speaking by WW2) and those who remained suffered Soviet Genocide. However, it may be possible to trace one’s ancestry to these people.

      As for Baltic Prussians, they disappeared long ago (because of German crusader onslaught), and their language died out. However, just like with Courland, the name “Prussia” was adopted for a German-ruled state that later existed the same place. This state also included Baltic speaking areas, but the prevailing language there was already Lithuanian rather than Prussian (see the article about Lithuania Minor). Also, Curonian Spit was too ruled by Prussia for long.

  3. Hello there,

    I am wondering if English is taught at school on Lithuanian?
    If so, please could you let me know from what age and what age children stop learning it? How well is it taught? Is it taught by native English students?

    Many thanks in advance
    Tom

    • In Lithuanian schools, there are typically two foreign languages taught.

      The first foreign language lessons generally begin at the 5th grade (kids ~11 years old) and the second foreign language at the 7th grade (kids ~13 years old). The lessons of first foreign language generally continue throughout the school years (until 12th grade / 18 years old) and then in university (regardless of study program) while the second foreign language may be dropped at the 11th grade / 17 years old (as an alternative, a 3rd foreign language might then be chosen).

      These days, the first foreign language is typically English while the second foreign language is typically a choice between German and Russian.

      That said, there are various exceptions depending on schools as schools may have the teaching of some subjects “strenghtened” (i.e. it begins earlier or more lessons are scheduled). In my school, for instance, English was taught from the second grade (8 years old).

      Likewise, some schools may have another first foreign language, e.g. German, in which case English is only a second foreign language, perhaps optional. This is rare, however.

      Almost invariably, the English language (and other foreign languages) is taught by Lithuanian citizens who (typically) completed their English university studies in Lithuania.

      In Lithuania, it is highly unusual that a native speaker (presumably a foreigner) would be invited to teach a language in public schools. It is generally believed that it is important that the person would have a great command of Lithuanian as well, and very few native speakers of other languages speak Lithuanian well (except for the native speakers of Russian and Polish). Explanations by teachers in Lithuanian have an important role in the classrooms.

      The quality of teaching depends on the school and the teacher. Teachers are quite free in Lithuania to alter programs (in my time at least, there was no “official” English textbook but each teacher would choose their own). That said, these days many kids pick up some English words/phrases before they learn them in school, e.g. through PC games, trademarks, etc.

  4. What a great website. Thank you for this wonderful introduction to Lithuania. Very civilized discussion too. That is refreshing these days.


Leave a comment