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Young foreigners increasingly learn Ukrainian, not Russian

Learning Ukrainian is a rewarding challenge, say young foreigners as they share their experiences of learning the “nightingale” language.
learning Ukrainian
Students practising the Ukrainian language on Ukrainian Language Day, November 9, at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv. Photo: Unian
Young foreigners increasingly learn Ukrainian, not Russian

There is a growing interest among foreigners in learning Ukrainian, often referred to as the “nightingale” language, for its melodious tones and inflexions. More than a million people  worldwide have embarked on the journey of learning Ukrainian. Moreover, since the onset of the full-scale war, 57 per cent of Ukrainians have shifted to using the state language, either wholly or partially.

Five young foreigners are actively contributing to the teaching and popularization of Ukrainian. Some of them have already lived, or currently reside in Ukraine, while others hope to visit the country.

These young men and women discuss the intricacies of the Ukrainian language, their motivations for learning it, and share their thoughts on the Russian-speaking jaw.”

Ukrainians re-discover their own language

Alison: “It’s crucial to get information from primary sources.”

learning Ukrainian
Alison Rochford prepares a savoury pot of Ukrainian borsch. Photo: Alison Rochford

Alison Rochford is a 29-year-old freelance editor from a town near Boston, Mass. While she has yet to set foot in Ukraine, she enthusiastically discusses this intriguing country on her blog.

It was 24 February 2022 when she joined a company with an office in Kyiv. Alison channels her skills as an editor to assist Ukrainians with English-language texts and translations. She then donates all the profits from this work to support the Armed Forces of Ukraine. But that’s not all; she has also taken on the challenge of learning the Ukrainian language.

“I wanted to learn Ukrainian because, first and foremost, I want to understand the president and be able to read Ukrainian news. I believe it’s crucial to get information from primary sources,” she explains.

Alison’s interest in Ukraine grew as she gained new knowledge and scanned through photos of its cities online. Among her dream destinations are the Carpathian Mountains and vibrant cities like Odesa, Kyiv, and Lviv.

Today, she possesses a wealth of knowledge about Ukraine, more than the average American. Yet, she wants to know more. She wishes she had known about the origins of the Russian-Ukrainian war back in 2014, but she’s determined to make up for lost time.

As an American with Jewish heritage, Alison’s connection with Ukraine runs deep. Her grandparents immigrated to the USA from Belarus and Latvia. Learning about the history of the Jewish people has given her a profound understanding of the struggles of Ukrainian refugees. This helps her to interact with many Ukrainians in her area.

Learning Ukrainian hasn’t been without its challenges. Alison admits that conjugating possessive adjectives and remembering the vocative endings can sometimes be perplexing. Pronunciation is also a hurdle, particularly with lengthy words containing soft signs or the combinations “вд” and “вч” (pronounced “vd” and “vch”), such as the word “вчитель” (pronounced “vchytel,” meaning – teacher).

Despite the occasional stumbling blocks, Alison loves the language. Her favourite word, “перемога” (pronounced “peremoha”, meaning – victory), resonates deeply. She often shares Ukrainian words with her friends, and the phrase “Слава Україні” (pronounced “Slava Ukraini”, meaning – Glory to Ukraine) has become a favourite slogan among them. At a recent party, her friend’s son wished his mom “з днем народження” (pronounced “z dnem narodzhennia”, meaning – Happy Birthday) in Ukrainian.

Alison has been running a blog on social media for about a year, where she posts engaging videos in Ukrainian, supplemented with English subtitles. The switch to using Ukrainian has proved to be a game-changer, propelling her from 700 subscribers to 15,000 devoted followers.

Her blog has become a dynamic platform where she promotes everything Ukrainian. Beyond sharing news from Ukraine, Alison talks about her culinary triumphs, reminiscing about the first time she made traditional Ukrainian cheesecake and borsch.

“I can communicate with Ukrainians and help them because it feels more relevant now. I watch Zelenskyy’s addresses without English subtitles, and while I know many Ukrainians still communicate in Russian, I find it hard to blame them. After all, I’m fortunate to live in safety and have time after work; I don’t have to worry about my child’s safety, so I can fully focus on studying Ukrainian,” she concludes.

Berdia: “Now I can understand Belarusians and Poles to some extent.”

learning Ukrainian
Berdia Bakhdatze says the Ukrainian language posed some difficulties and that it’s different from Georgian. Photo: Berdia Bakhdatze FB

Berdia Bakhtadze is a 25-year-old native of Batumi, Georgia, who now resides in Tbilisi, with his wife and young daughter. Although working in the hotel business, Berdia is also pursuing his studies in dentistry.

After completing his schooling, Berdia set his sights on Kyiv for higher education. He successfully completed the preparatory faculty at Shevchenko University before enrolling at the Faculty of Dentistry at Bohomolets Medical University. He immersed himself in Ukrainian culture and academics and studied alongside his Ukrainian peers.

Yet, Berdia’s plans took an unexpected turn. After a year, he returned to Georgia. He reflected on the challenges he encountered during his time in Ukraine.

“Studying with Ukrainian students was my dream, but it was costly, and the Ukrainian language posed some difficulties for me. It’s quite different from Georgian,” he said.

Mastering Ukrainian has opened new doors for Berdia, allowing him to understand Belarusian and Polish to some extent, as these languages share some similarities. Still, he admits that pronunciation remains a hurdle.

His favourite word in Ukrainian is “подобатися” (pronounced “podobatysia”, meaning – to like). But Berdia acknowledges that Ukrainian grammar presents its fair share of challenges, particularly with letters like “і” and “и” (pronounced “ee” and a short “i” as in “it”), with dots or tails, and without them. He is able to distinguish between the pronunciation of “г” and “ґ” in Ukrainian (pronounced “h” and “g”), a skill he used back in Batumi to differentiate Ukrainians and Russians.

Presently, Berdia practises speaking Ukrainian with his wife, who has Ukrainian origins but was born in Georgia. As they raise their daughter, they primarily teach her Georgian, considering it a more complex language to learn. However, they plan for their daughter to learn Ukrainian in her mother’s homeland once the war is over.

For Berdia, language is not just a means of communication; it is a narrative passed down through generations. He believes that if someone truly desires something, they will stop at nothing to achieve it. He values the power of language, recognizing that when you speak, others listen – be it your child, friends, or an audience.

“Language is a story; it must be learned and passed on to the next generations; that’s how it’s reached us through the ages,” he explains.

Daniel: “Conjugation is the most challenging aspect of Ukrainian”

learning Ukrainian
Daniel Broomfield enjoying Hutsul dish Banosh. Photo: Daniel Broomfield/Instagram

Daniel Broomfield is a globetrotter whose journey took him from his hometown in Wakefield, UK, to Ukraine, where he has found a true sense of belonging. His adventure began in 2013 when he first set foot in Odesa, intending to stay for a year.

Daniel fell in love with Odesa’s rich culture, extending his stay for four years. He then spent another four years in Kyiv before finding himself in Lutsk, where he currently resides.

Daniel’s passion for language and education led him to become an English teacher, and to establish his own English language school. In Odesa, he studied Russian, but the predominance of Ukrainian in Kyiv encouraged him to embark on learning Ukrainian. Today, he communicates exclusively in Ukrainian.

Initially, Daniel embarked on a self-taught journey, relying on online materials. However, he found them somewhat ineffective and soon turned to Ukrainian films and news to deepen his understanding. He asked colleagues and friends to converse with him in Ukrainian. He eventually asked a teacher to help him refine his grammar skills, finally achieving fluency in his second year of study.

Daniel admits that some linguistic obstacles remain. Pronouncing letters like “ч” and “щ” (pronounced “ch” and “shch”) proved to be a challenge, as was distinguishing between them. The soft sign “Ь” was another formidable aspect, especially considering its absence in English.

“There are words without all these letters that are very challenging to pronounce – like ‘паляниця’ (pronounced ‘palianytsia,’ meaning – a type of flatbread), for example.

Regarding cases and genders, it’s a stumbling block for me. I don’t know how Ukrainians can remember everything. I’ve studied and studied and studied, but I still can’t remember them all. After a certain time, things become automatic, but I consider conjugation the most challenging aspect of Ukrainian,” he shares.

Daniel admits a strong distaste for Surzhyk – the mix of Ukrainian and Russian. He also finds it challenging to understand certain dialects, especially when conversing with people from Volyn.

Despite the language hurdles, Daniel envisions a bright future in Ukraine. He dreams of exploring Ukrainian Crimea and visiting Alushta. For him, Ukraine feels like a second home. He believes that mastering Ukrainian opens a world of possibilities. For Daniel, even imperfect Ukrainian surpasses proficient Russian – a testament to the passion and love he has for his adopted homeland.

Ethan: “I’ll never be able to pronounce certain letters in Ukrainian”

learning Ukrainian
Ethan Miska mixing in Ukraine. Photo: Ethan Miska/Instagram

Ethan Miska is a music producer from San Francisco, Calif., with a love for exploration and travel. During his many journeys, he resided in Berlin for several years, becoming fluent in German. His passion for adventure and discovery led him to spend the summer of 2021 in Kharkiv.

It was in Kharkiv that Ethan became acquainted with Ukrainian. Inspired by his family’s Eastern European heritage, with great-grandparents who immigrated to the United States from Ukraine a century ago, he decided to embrace the Ukrainian language and culture. However, he realized that Russian was predominantly spoken in Kharkiv, so he adapted to the local linguistic landscape and mastered spoken Russian to better communicate.

In February 2022, respecting his family’s concerns amidst the unfolding war, he left Ukraine.

During the Russian occupation of Kharkiv Oblast, Ethan’s close Ukrainian friend called him daily. Unable to directly assist her, he created a music album in her honour. The album, dedicated to supporting the volunteer community “Допомагаємо виїхати” (Helping to Leave), garnered the support of fellow musicians who donated all the profits from its listening sessions.

To raise more money, Ethan recorded messages, including an address in Ukrainian, where he passionately spoke about his charitable intentions. This propelled him beyond his initial “shopping” level of Ukrainian, allowing him to push the boundaries of his communication skills.

Speaking Ukrainian holds a special place in Ethan’s heart, transporting him back to the days in Kharkiv before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Simple words like “обережно” (pronounced “oberezhno,” meaning – attention) evoke memories of the closing doors in the Kharkiv metro, for example.

There are no words in Ukrainian that he dislikes, even the ones with the sound “щ” (pronounced “shch”), which he fears he may never be able to pronounce correctly.

“I don’t really know the difference between certain letters like ‘г’ and ‘ґ’ or ‘і’ and ‘ї’ (pronounced ‘h’ and ‘g’ – ‘i’ and ‘yi’). I tried watching a video about it once, but honestly, it didn’t help me grasp the sounds any better. Usually, during conversations, I instinctively skip over these letters,” he notes.

Ethan never heard of the “Russian-speaking jaw” phenomenon. Being familiar with several languages, he explains that different languages require the use of different muscles in the speech apparatus. So, before speaking in any foreign language, he warms up his jaw.

“But, I’m always ready to make a fool of myself and make mistakes during training and, of course, in real-life practice,” he concludes.

Ana: “Language is closely tied to statehood.”

learning Ukrainian
Ana Daukševič reporting in Ukraine. Photo: Ana Daukševič FB

Ana Daukševič, an experienced Lithuanian journalist, has been working as a war correspondent in Ukraine since 2017. While she learned Polish during her school years and later acquired Russian. Reporting from the war zone prompted her to study Ukrainian as well.

“At first, I communicated in Russian during my business trips to Ukraine, but later I found it uncomfortable as I realized it was the language of the aggressor country,” says Ana.

Recognizing the distinction between Ukrainian and Russian, she decided to learn the new language. During her language study, Ana sought guidance from her Ukrainian colleagues who helped correct her mistakes and explained pronunciation and writing rules. As the full-scale invasion of Russia into Ukraine unfolded in 2019-2020, she actively used Ukrainian in her work and faced the challenge of accurately translating words to Lithuanian, particularly dealing with differences in sounds like “і” and “и” and “г” and “ґ” (pronounced ‘i’ and ‘yi’ / ‘h’ and ‘g’).

Ana communicates in Ukrainian with minimal mistakes, thanks to daily interactions with her colleagues. Yet, she admits that certain words, such as “Укрзалізниця” (Ukrzaliznytsia, meaning – Ukrainian Railways), remain a mystery and pose challenges in pronunciation.

Ana values language as integral to statehood, pointing to Lithuania’s case, where everyone speaks Lithuanian despite their proficiency in other languages. She believes that the younger generation in Ukraine should avoid learning Russian because it can help counteract Russian propaganda, as it has done in Lithuania.

“Lithuanian youth remain unaffected by Russian propaganda because they don’t understand the language. If the young people in Ukraine also avoid learning Russian, it’s one of the ways to combat propaganda,” Ana emphasizes.

A short guide to the linguicide of the Ukrainian language | Infographics

According to a report by Duolingo, more people are interested in Ukrainian, with more than 1.3 million beginning to learn the language in 2022. People in countries far from Ukraine, such as Argentina, Japan, and Vietnam, are interested in the language, as a show of solidarity with Ukraine. For many years, Russian was considered a more popular language to study Ukrainian, but this trend is now shifting.

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