One of my professors told me that this year in Lithuania would be my “last chance to become really fluent in Lithuanian.” No pressure there. As I mentioned before, I understand a lot and can make myself understood. But my speaking ability is still fairly rudimentary. I often wish I could wear a t-shirt that says “I’m not as ignorant as I sound in Lithuanian.” Therefore, my goal this year is to increase my vocabulary and to refine my language usage. Towards that goal, I am trying to learn the distinctions between pairs of words that might have the same definition in English but have different distinctions in Lithuanian.
For example, I learned the word minkštas for soft. One day I was reading the English-language book Pat the Bunny to a little boy and I explained to him in Lithuanian that the bunny was minkštas. His mother corrected me — a bunny is švelnus, she said. Minkštas means “squishy soft,” like a piece of foam that you can squeeze, whereas švelnus means “soft like fur.”
Similarly, I learned the word dalykas for thing. However, I noticed last fall that Lithuanians seemed to be using the word daiktas, which I discovered by looking in the dictionary also means thing. So which thing to use? It turns out that dalykas is used for abstract things and daiktas is usesd for concrete things. So, for example, if you enter a room carrying an armful of stuff, I will tell you to put the things — daiktai (plural) – on the sofa. On the other hand, I could tell you that I have learned interesting things — dalykai — through my interviews.
The example above leads to another type of challenging word pair — one Lithuanian word that has two different English meanings. I was struggling to remember the Lithuanian word for “to put or to lay down” even though I kept looking it up in the dictionary. Every time I wanted to use the word “to put down” when speaking Lithuanian, I would start to say padėti and then I would say to myself “No, that means to help.” Finally, after an embarrassing long time — over a year — I finally realized that I wasn’t wrong. Padėti does mean to help, but it also means to put down.
Now I have these six words down, only several thousand more to go…