Vyts Beliajus and the
English Language


Vyts Beliajus

Vyts Beliajus immigrated to the United States at the age of 14 knowing no English but fluent in his native language, Lithuanian, and in German. He attended school for one year, entering at the third-grade level and being promoted to the sixth and seventh grades. Although he skipped grades, he was able to learn English without much difficulty, although he did miss out on learning the important parts of grammar, never learning to be able to parse an English sentence nor learn the grammatical terminology.

He learned languages easily and probably could have had a linguistic career. While he found English not hard to speak, he had difficulty with its spelling and reading. Vyts said,

"English spelling and pronunciation are inconsistent and barbaric. The A, E, I, O, U, and Y can be pronounced in many different ways. Even a simple name like RO has to be spelled out, for it could be Roe, Rowe, Rawe, or Row. The C before an E should be pronounced as an S, but no one plays sockser, they play sokker and spell it soccer. Such inconsistencies are a major part of English and bedevil a student of the language. In Lithuania no one asks how to spell Steponavičius, or among Poles, no one asks how to spell Jesczcepanski. The rules are definite and unchangeable. When I was on the boat crossing the Atlantic and trying to show off how well I could read English, I asked for an item on the menu called "Itse tsre'am." But the English-speaking waiter couldn't understand me. I had to point out the item on the menu. Instead of a meal I got "Ice cream." How they figured what was plainly written as itse tsre'am to be ice cream was beyond my understanding. However, I liked ice cream no matter how it was pronounced. I attribute my learning how to spell to reading, which I did and still do a great deal, and to crossword puzzles. From the crossword puzzles I learned fine shadings of different meanings for the same words."

Vyts' thirst for knowledge could not be quenched. He taught himself more than others could have learned in a formal environment and became a prolific writer in English, authoring several books, contributing many articles to publications, and editing and writing for his very own premier folklore magazine in the United States, Viltis, which became the primary networking medium and cross-cultural forum for folk dance enthusiasts.

In a 1972 award presentation speech, Professor Mary Bee Jensen of Brigham Young University described Vyts as "a storehouse of knowledge" built up from attending operas, symphonies, stage plays, musicals, and museums; from reading every type of book, from novels to biographies to histories; and from doing crossword puzzles to learn to spell.