(Re-posted from The Polyglot, Indiana University Bloomington’s IU Summer Language Workshop Alumni Newsletter).
by Skylar Lipman
“In summer, you can!” This colloquial Estonian saying describes the energy one experiences during summer, that energy that drives people to the beach, to their friends and families, and to tackle life-long projects. This summer encouraged me to do just that; through the Indiana University Summer Language Workshop, I began to tackle a life-long goal of mine to learn the language and culture of Estonia, helping me to connect with family, and perhaps one day taking me to the beautiful beaches of Estonia. The IU Summer Language Workshop coupled with the Baltic Studies Summer Institute (BALSSI) provided many opportunities for focused study and for connecting with individuals, guaranteeing a strong start in language acquisition and securing multiple paths for continued studies.
This summer course was organized such that students were truly immersed in a language-learning environment. The result was eight weeks of focused, meaningful study. Main components of the Workshop included interactive classes, coffee hours, films, and presentations by guest lecturers. The variety of programming helped me approach the language from multiple angles, and kept the language-learning process from stagnating. Classes encompassed the bulk of daily activities. BALSSI’s small class sizes allowed the class a great deal of freedom in pace and in specific materials covered. There were three students studying Estonian, myself included, each with distinct interests. Because of the flexibility of the program, opportunities for learning vocabulary relevant to our interests were plentiful. Coffee hours were wonderful ways of relaxing and practicing Estonian in a more casual environment – a valuable opportunity to continue to be immersed in the language after the morning courses. Outside-of-class activities, such as cooking demonstrations, were also enjoyable opportunities to learn the language and meaningfully engage with the target culture. BALSSI’s varied programming also included weekly Baltic film screenings, ranging from post-WWII to contemporary Estonian and Lithuanian films, and helped students connect with Baltic societies in unique ways. Each film offered a new perspective on relevant issues, and exposed students to regionally important political, historical, and current events and views. These films, combined with lecturers, opened students to new ideas, spurring new thoughts and questions.
An important feature of this year’s program was a guest speaker who truly did combine the BALSSI film series with lectures. Liina-Ly Roos gave two presentations and consequently lead two discussions surrounding cinema in the Baltic region. Through the weekly BALSSI film screenings and discussing these as well as other films with Roos, students from Estonian, Lithuanian, and Russian courses came together to explore memory in the Baltic States, drawing from a range of sources reaching from haikus to contemporary music, stretching our imaginations to ponder time and even the existence of a unified “Baltic” identity. Discussing such matters as memory and time invited students to adopt a new mentality, a rich, culturally-minded addition to our goals of language acquisition.
Issues of memory and time were further explored in the BALSSI talk titled “Baltic Modern: Art in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania,” this time through visual art such as painting, architecture and urban planning, graffiti, and photography, among others mediums. Bart Pushaw, a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland and a BALSSI alum, presented on major Baltic art movements throughout an extraordinary range of time periods, connecting them with cultural and relevant political developments in the Baltic States and worldwide. Pushaw became an unexpectedly important connection for me personally, as we discussed the concepts of nationalism, impacts of music on visual art and vice versa, as well as the connections between these arts and ecology. Pushaw is now a wonderful reference and resource for me as a student of Baltic culture, as we have kept in contact, further discussing these themes.
A topic that permeated all BALSSI films or lectures was the topic of politics, from the distant to recent past and to the present. Pushaw’s photographs of graffiti were quite direct in addressing the current political atmosphere, putting a humorous spin on the shared agendas of prominent political figures. Many conversations on the Estonian political climate as well as many relating to Estonian culture turned, if only briefly, to recent Soviet occupation, an interesting topic for many, and one with very relevant implications today. On this, and on the continuing topic of a “Baltic” identity, Indiana University’s Professor Toivo Raun spoke succinctly and purposefully, using concrete figures to compare countries, regions, and even cultural values. Despite these widely varying approaches to understanding Estonia, it is easy to identify common threads among Professor Raun’s, Pushaw’s, and Roos’s research interests.
I cannot delve into each lecture relevant to the Estonian program, as there is an infinite number of intersecting disciplines. I have learned over this past summer that culture and even language itself are quite interdisciplinary subjects. For this reason, the Indiana University Summer Language Workshop’s and BALSSI’s use of formal classes, coffee hours, activities, films, and lectures were all necessary and useful ways of internalizing Estonian. Just as important as programming, however, were my peers. Through my classmates, I found myself connected with new fields of research, with new collections of experiences and interests. Each of my Estonian classmates had vastly different interests, and we used these to contribute to each other’s language-learning experiences. From one peer’s fascination with linguistics, I learned so much about various grammatical systems, which only furthered my understanding of the grammar of both my native tongue and Estonian. This has truly enhanced my skills in the art of communication. My other classmate is a wonderful storyteller, spinning tales that sparked in me a new wonderment of the people of Estonia. Perhaps above all, my peers and I studied with an open-minded and understanding professor, one who is passionate and curious, asking and answering questions with genuine care for her students.
One unique aspect of the Indiana University Summer Language Workshop is the opportunity to create rich connections between individuals from diverse academic and cultural backgrounds as well as between important topics in social studies. The multiple cultural intersections that exist between most Workshop languages can be observed in the Workshop’s extracurricular program. Because we were situated among so many other language-learners, I believe that we were afforded a very unique opportunity to explore aspects of other languages offered in the summer program and could choose to learn about other cultures and how each of our languages of study fits into the histories of the others. Indeed, language is not a stagnant object but a living, changing organism. Language is every being’s means of interaction, and in today’s increasingly globalized society, it is becoming imperative to make the effort to understand other peoples. Reaching out to learn a language is reaching out to make a connection. The process stirs much questioning, perhaps decreases those things we take for granted, and opens us to new experiences. These beginning strides in learning the Estonian language have done just this, and the summer programming has assisted me in securing connections for continuing this beautiful study.
Skylar Leili Lipman (Estonian level 1, 2016) is an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois pursuing dual degrees in Restoration Ecology and Bassoon Performance. Aside from her main studies (and spending quality time with her bird), she is very passionate about learning the Estonian language as a means of strengthening her ties to her heritage and as a means of connecting with family members still in Estonia. She is also engaged in intercultural work on campus and hope to continue this research far into the future, perhaps with Estonian as a driving force.
To read more about Skylar’s experiences and thoughts, follow the link here.
If you are interested in either IU’s Summer Language Workshop or the Baltic Studies Summer Institute, follow the following links: