Unfotunately, it’s been a long time since my last contribution due to work commitment. The summer is now here and it’s not all work, work, work – at long last I’ve found some time to update with a language blog post. As I wrote a few months ago, I have an emotional, yet complex relationship with the Ukrainian language, and this is what we’ll look at again today. On the one hand, it’s the official language of the country I’ve been living in for the past two years, but on the other hamd it’s still like a foreign language to me with, never coming into any contact with it whatsoever. All of this was to change when I went to Kiev for a two-week course.
I was so looking forward to first of all travelling to somewhere different – even though I’d been there before it was the first time I’d be there by myself, and I am a firm believer of the notion that you haven’t explore anywhere until you’ve explored it alone. However, not knowing the language really bothered me. I’d been in western ukraine before and understood that people don’t really like to speak Russian, regardless of whether you have any language in common with them or not, which I just find ridiculous. It’s not that I don’t have any sympathy for nationalist movements and threatened languages of the world, far from it. I used to know enough Galician to have decent conversations with people (just don’t ask me now), and I’ve got friends from minority areas all over the world to understand the the political sensitivities which are connected with language, and am by and large understanding to such problems. Nevertheless, there comes a time when zealous ideology is counter-productive. Russian, like English, is a language of international communication spoken over wide parts of the world and people who refuse to speak Russian are on the same level as the independence orientated Welsh citizens who will not speak to anyone in English, only in Welsh. Woe betide the unwitting foreign tourist who encounters such well-motivated, proud and determined, albeit misguided individuals – it can only lead to shooting oneself in the foot when meeting people who have in many cases don’t even suspect the point they’re trying to make. I have come across Ukrainians who say “I don’t speak Russian, only Ukrainian and English” and Basques who say “I don’t speak Spanish, only English and Basque”. More often than not however the absense of English leaves a lot to be desired as far as communicated is concerned.
I don’t know why, but I was convinced that Kiev was also a nationalist hotspot in the same way as Lvov. I shared my fears with my friends and colleagues, much to their amusement. I spent the week preceding my departure working hard on my Ukrainian, which no one seemed to be able to understand at all. “Why learn Ukrainian?” Was the question which I was always confronted with first of all, but none of the answers I provided ever seemed to be satisfactory. Answers like “Why not?” (which for me is genuinely as good a reason as any), “Because I’m curious”, “Because it’s the sole official language of the country I’ve been living in for two years” were just incomprehensible to everyone. I soon discovered that my attempts to get local people to help me learn Ukrainian met with mixed success. Whereas some people were able to speak quite freely (which I definitely couldn’t I still can’t), others stumbled over basic words and phrases when I asked them what they were. Nevertheless, during this week I’d been able to increase my vocabulary exponentially (from more or less nothing) to a little bit. Armed with this new found knowledge I set off prepared for the capital.
Of course, the reason for me actually going to Kiev was far removed from learning Ukrainian. I was working on an intensive teaching training course for children, carried out exclusively in English. During the limited time I wasn’t at school, I was doing coursework and speaking Russian to everyone except my flatmate, who was Australian. This presented a very interesting challenge in itself, since I’d never been in a situation before when I needed to overcome this kind of artificial language barrier. I normally find it fairly easy to make myself speak the local language and just suffer until I can get by and feel confident in it without resorting to English. The issue here was altogether different though, as I found myself avoiding one of two local languages, to speak the other one. Nevertheless, this didn’t put me in the desired situation where I was completely immersed due to the situation on the ground. The fact of the matter is that Ukrainian society is diglossic, that’s to say that two languages are used on a daily basis for communication. The degree of diglossia is in many ways geographic, so whereas in Sevastopol more or less only official documentation and some advertising are in Ukrainian, but no one speaks it, the other extreme is Lvov, as mentioned mentioned above. My experience of Kiev is one where people will speak to each other using whichever language they prefer, meaning that more often than not you’ll have a conversation where one person is speaking Russian and the other speaking Ukrainian. I realised that I was going to have to go for something other than just wandering around and chatting to people.
So what did I do? I resorted to one of the best tools available for lovers and travelling that the world has to offer – Couchsurfing. I put out a message to the people of Kiev stating my aim – meeting people who want to help me speak as much Ukrainian as possible over the period of two weeks in Kiev. I’m happy to say that this paid off and I able considerably improve my language with the help and generosity of a few nice people. Of course, now I’m back in Sevastopol and the problem is being able to keep everything I’d previously learnt.