In 1984 Jāzeps Lelis, a respected linguist and lecturer at the Latvian Language Program at Western Michigan University in the United States, published a textbook titled Basic Latvian. The book and course materials—used in Lelis’ classes—were originally developed in and for an intensive seven-week summer language course.
Lelis said he believed that teaching the grammar and structure of the language was the most important thing, since vocabulary could then be easily added on top of the solid linguistic foundation. The target audience was “young adults of Latvian descent who had not been brought up speaking Latvian and were now seeking to reconnect to the Latvian part of their families, or non-Latvian spouses who were trying to fit into the Latvian part of their families,” according to the book. Such students needed formal training in the structure of the language, but then their Latvian-speaking family members and friends would eventually help them accrue necessary vocabulary.
Lelis’ language course is now available for free on the Internet. Produced by the University of Washington Baltic Studies Program, this online version even looks like the original typed textbook from 1984. The site is in English, although, obviously, relevant parts of it are in Latvian. The course teaches vocabulary and dialogues for real, everyday situations—no need to waste time figuring out what a sprigulis, rija, and īlens are. The Web site also provides plenty of good quality RealPlayer sound files.
The article “The Lelis Structural Method” (look under “About”), written by Dzidra Rodiņa, gives a good introduction to the course. Rodiņa worked as Lelis’ assistant for many years and was the editorial consultant for the Web site project. In the article she explains the logic behind Lelis’ seemingly rigid and difficult structural system of teaching language. Although she supports him, she also explains her own reservations about the system and describes how she has since modified it in her own teaching career.
Be forewarned: Basic Latvian is in-depth and intense with a lot of emphasis on grammar. But it’s also logical, thorough and well-organized. Anybody with some linguistics background will, of course, be at an advantage, but that shouldn’t discourage serious students with a genuine interest in learning the language. The course is best for the person who wants to develop a good background of Latvian grammar to build upon and has regular access to a native speaker of Latvian for consultations, practice sessions, and help with pronunciation.
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