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Discovering the Structure of Lithuanian

Ten minutes before class is to begin, Laimis Kisielius sits on a table outside Room 106 in Tucker Hall. Up walks Rob Simmons, a senior from Arlington.Laimis Kisielius

"Labas, Laimis," Simmons says.

"Labas!" Kisielius replies with a smile, and then turns to a third party. "You see? They're learning."  Which means Kisielius, William and Mary's second-leading scorer this past basketball season, is doing his job. The only Lithuanian student on campus, Kisielius is helping Jack Martin's descriptive linguistics class learn the structure - but not necessarily an overall understanding - of his native language.

"I'm not telling the kids how to do it," Kisielius said. "I'm just a source for the language, as they say. It's mainly how to construct sentences, and the kids are learning fast."

Kisielius is not the instructor - that would be Martin, an associate professor of English whose focus is on language preservation. But every semester, he tries to find someone on campus or in the community who speaks an exotic language to work with his descriptive linguistic students. In the past, they have studied Turkish, Tongan and Igbo (Nigeria).

"The point of the class is to serve as a capstone course for linguistics majors," Martin said. "They have to learn the techniques to describe a language they've never learned or never heard before. They have to figure out what sounds are important in a language and they have to take it apart and figure out how the grammar works."

Kisielius, who is paid for his time, sits near the chalkboard. On this particular day, he is asked to write some sentences in Lithuanian. Then he is asked to translate them.

Vakar buvau muziejuje.

Yesterday I went to a museum.

Martin and his students discuss the grammar, the phonetics and the orthography. Later, Kisielius is asked to write down some verbs so the class can study prefixes and see how (or if) they are similar to other languages. After several conjugations of faksuoti (to fax), Kisielius surrenders. "I don't know what more you can do with a fax machine," he said.

The atmosphere in the small classroom - 15 students, all but two of them linguistics majors, are enrolled - is relaxed. Someone always brings food to share, and on this beautiful Tuesday morning almost everyone is wearing shorts.

Kisielius likes to joke around some, and that's encouraged. It's also important that he fully understands what he's talking about.

"He studied a lot of Russian in addition to English, so he knows how languages work and he knows the proper terminology," Martin said. "That makes it really helpful."

The students also appreciate his approach.

"Laimis is a friendly giant," Dylan Goldblatt, a senior from Virginia Beach, said of the 6-foot-8 Kisielius. "He's been a best friend to everybody in the class. We all go out a lot after class and meet at restaurants, and we talk about European soccer. He's just like the rest of us - the only difference is that he speaks Lithuanian."