I’ll be honest: Ukraine was not my first choice for study abroad programs. I had my heart set on a cross-cultural diplomacy program in Havana, Cuba and St. Petersburg, Russia. Alas, it wasn’t meant to be as COVID happened and Russia became more strict in visa provisions. There’s a saying about when one door closes, another opens, though, and I couldn’t agree more having spent the past month in Ukraine. In my posts I’ve talked about the wonderful food, the picturesque cityscape and nature, and my adventures with myself and the people of Ukraine. There was something I couldn’t ignore, though. Something that caused a bit of trouble when my group visited western Ukraine this past weekend. It’s unavoidable: I’m in Ukraine learning Russian.
While I don’t enjoy the aggressively monolingual culture in the US, I understand it. You can travel about three thousand miles – across basically an entire continent vertically and horizontally – and never need another language besides English. In Europe, traveling to another village might necessitate a language switch. So I understand why Americans don’t tend to speak more than one language. However, I feel like this blinds us to the politicization of language and how deeply it runs through the veins of a culture. It only takes one instance of a new immigrant struggling with their English before some take up arms about the need to learn English in order to live in America. Our ubiquitous single language experience prevents us from seeing the ways in which language can unite and divide peoples. My eyes have been opened in Ukraine.
Not to provide a lecture in Ukrainian history, but the codification of the Ukrainian language is fairly new, as far as languages go. The poetic works of Taras Shevchenko (for whom the national university in Kyiv is named), like those of Alexander Pushkin with Russian, solidified and recorded the Ukrainian language as a fully formed entity in the 1800s. For the American mind, consider the Ukrainian language to Russian as the Spanish language is to French. There is some intelligibility and they share a common mother tongue, but they are separate in sound and in vocabulary generally. Ukrainian even has a modified version of the Cyrillic alphabet that makes reading signs a bit tricky for me. The important thing to note is that they are different languages that represent different peoples, and that most people in Ukraine know both fluently.
While in Kyiv, at cafes, restaurants, and most other spaces, I use my Russian and get by just fine. Occasionally, though, I receive a confused stare before the interaction continues, or my interlocutor will respond to me in Ukrainian. The experience is quite odd, since Ukrainian to me sounds like an English speaker listening to Dutch or German. It sounds enough like a language that I do know that I feel like I should understand, but I simply do not. Most conversations become even stranger when I’m inevitably asked where I’m from and what I’m doing in Ukraine. The look I get when I say “Я учусь русский язык в Киеве” (“I study Russian language in Kyiv”) is priceless every time. The closest I can compare the concept to would be if an international student came to America specifically to learn Spanish in Washington DC. In the very least, the level of confusion that evokes resembles that which I see in Ukraine.
This past weekend I went with my program group to western Ukraine. It was a truly magical time as we visited the cultural capital of Ukraine, Lviv, and the towns
of Slavske, Mukachevo, Darcen, and Uzhhorod. The scenery in the Carpathians was unmatched and the streets of Lviv and Uzhhorod were like out of a movie. I desperately want to return to the чан (chan), a large cauldron used in a tradition of bathing in hot water, dunking in cold water, returning to the hot water, and repeating. It was surprisingly pleasant to be boiled like a human tea bag. The trip was full of highs and lows, but today we’re here to talk about the language.
Western Ukraine, quite simply, would like to be part of Europe. Their history supports this desire, they support Ukraine’s efforts to join the European Union or NATO, and they aren’t particularly fond of Russia. Unfortunately, they feel so strongly about this that, despite understanding Russian, they refuse to speak it at all. This is troublesome for foreigners who only know Russian, like me. Ukrainian is the main language in this region, though Polish is also quite common, and the community in Darcen speaks exclusively Hungarian! Here, people strengthen their identity and their perspective of global politics by which language they choose to speak. By rejecting the Russian language, western Ukrainians consider themselves as having instead embraced their future with Europe and not Russia. It’s all very fascinating, but when I’m trying to order some famous Lviv coffee, I only know how to order in Russian. It’s not helpful when the cashier understands me, but refuses to respond in a language I understand.
On the other hand, in southern and eastern Ukraine, Russian is the language of choice. Southern Ukraine doesn’t seem to care one way or the other about Russia and eastern Ukraine is a bit too messy for me to make a concrete assessment. However, both regions prefer to use Russian as the main language, turning the dynamic on its head. I will visit these regions in the coming two weeks as my program closes out and I look forward to seeing how unique each region is.
In the end, I’m very grateful that I ended up in Ukraine for my education abroad experience. As a person enthralled by language and sociolinguistics, Ukraine provides endless considerations and new perspectives. I understand how controversial or simply strange it is that my first weeks here were to study a language belonging to another country. I’ve seen first hand how subtly and vehemently language choice determines identity here. When I return home, I want to keep these feelings with me. I want to have them when I see how language disappears in immigrant families, when people are scolded for speaking anything other than English, or when I, myself, am confronted with my mostly monolingual brain. Another saying goes that it’s not simply what you say, but also how you say it. I can only hope that the Ukrainians understand my deepest gratitude to them whether I say будь ласка or спасибо (bood lahska [Ukrainian] or spasiba [Russian] both mean “thank you”).
P.S. I can’t tell you how many people try to speak English with me. It’s endearing until they apologize for not speaking English well. It’s somehow upsetting that a person should apologize for not knowing a foreign language in their home country. The people of Ukraine are incredibly sweet and generous, I’ve learned.
This post was contributed by Kylie Heitzenrater, a Global Ambassador for summer 2021. Kylie is a Linguistics and International Relations & Global Studies double major studying abroad in Kyiv, Ukraine. Read her first post here.
Daniel Ach says
Great reflections and insight about the cultural identity of language. Thanks for sharing!