BPrior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Scott Richards was planning to move to Kiev from his current base in Zurich. As Richards, the leader of the Eastern Europe team for an investment firm, has already spoken Russian. Now, with his family relocated, Richards is “deeply immersed” in studying Ukrainian and taking an intensive online course at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv.
“I want to speak with Ukrainians to celebrate their culture, their independence and the incredible courage with which they now stand in their own defense in the face of indescribable and unspeakable barbarism,” he said.
Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine, at the root of the notion that there is no unique Ukrainian identity, has only increased global interest in the Ukrainian language. Oppressed and denounced as a peasant dialect by the Russian and Soviet empires, Ukrainian is a distinct language from Russian, with some similarities between Italian and Portuguese.
The language learning app Duolingo reported a 577% increase in the number of users worldwide studying Ukrainian and 2,677% in Poland, welcoming more than 2 million Ukrainian refugees. In Ukraine, where native Russian speakers have increasingly embraced Ukrainian since the 2014 revolution, a new Ukrainian conversation club has received nearly 1,000 sign ups in just three days.
Like most Ukrainians, 20-year-old Sophia Reshetniak is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. She grew up using Russian with her family, but learned Ukrainian at school. (According to a 2019 survey, about 46% of the population speaks Ukrainian at home, 28% Russian and a quarter speak both equally.)
“It’s my second mother tongue,” he said. “I have friends from the west [of Ukraine] And they speak Ukrainian and we understand each other. “
Before Russia invaded his hometown of Kharkiv, Reshetniak was a university student and taught private lessons in English, Ukrainian, and Russian. She has lost her regular students since fleeing the country, but has since found new ones through a social initiative called Natakallam, which employs displaced people to teach their language and share their culture online.
Natakallam, meaning “we speak” in Arabic, was launched in Lebanon in 2015 with the aim of generating income for Syrians fleeing the war and losing their livelihoods. “You can help, but giving a job or earning a living is much more rewarding and rewarding and makes people feel much more empowered,” said co-founder Aline Sara. “They have a sense of dignity and a sense of purpose, and they share their stories, which we really need to hear from the world,” he said. The company pays tutors a minimum of $ 10 per hour.
The platform has expanded to offer lessons in Armenian, English, French, Kurdish, Persian and Spanish, and in March hired its first Ukrainian and Russian teachers. Sarah said that about 150 to 200 people have expressed interest in studying these two languages, with “somewhat more traction” being more widely spoken in Russian, although many want to learn both.
Reshetniak now teaches from a room in a hostel he shares with his 15-year-old sister in the Czech village. Within days of being onboard at NaTakallam, he met his first students. Two are learning Ukrainian and three are learning Russian.
Although Reshetniyak does not view Russian as “the language of the enemy”, some who once used it to visit Ukraine are choosing to learn Ukrainian as a sign of respect.
Polina Levina, a Canadian with Russian parents and a Kharkiv grandmother who spent two years in Donetsk and Kiev working with the United Nations on human rights, said she “always felt that speaking fluent Russian was enough to get involved in the country.” Now, he believes, it is important “to be able to listen to the language that Ukrainians like to speak, if they do not like it, not to give their language the freedom to return to Franca.”
Some students see Ukrainian studies as a way to help rebuild the country. Abby Davis, an IT project management consultant based in Atlanta, lived with her evangelical family in the 90’s as a “bilingual child” in Druzhkivka, a town in the predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Donbass region of Ukraine. He hopes to apply his skills to strengthen the country’s IT infrastructure and is using the Pimsleur app to learn some conversational Ukrainian “ready to help”.
Several learning platforms have extended special offers related to Ukraine. LingQ is offering free access to Ukrainian lessons and a free premium account for Ukrainians studying other languages. MyCoolClass, a teacher-owned cooperative, waived fees and facilitated the application process for Ukrainian teachers using its platform. Duolingo has promised to donate all advertising revenue generated by Ukrainian students to the relief effort “at least for next year”.
Richards still plans to settle in Kiev when it is safe to do so, and hopes to be able to speak Ukrainian.
“It’s like the war has changed everything,” he said. “Ukrainian tradition has become a symbol of survival, strength and resistance.”