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Is It Worth Your Time to Learn Ukrainian?

If you’re traveling to Ukraine, it’s probably a natural question to ask if you should learn Ukrainian. When you head to a foreign country the first obvious concern is: will I be able to communicate with people at all?

So, here’s the deal about Ukraine:

  • The official language is Ukrainian.
  • The majority of people, especially in the cities, speak Russian.
  • If you venture out to the villages, the Russian levels might drop.
  • As far as business goes, Russian is (typically) the language of choice.
  • Both are pretty difficult to learn for native English speakers.

And yes, there are some Ukrainian people who will be offended if you don’t speak Ukrainian and not Russian. While this is a topic I’d prefer not to get in to, it’s almost necessary to.

There will be the occasional Ukrainian people who will be mad if you speak Russia and not Ukrainian. Never mind how difficult it is to learn Ukrainian or Russian. Never mind the fact that Russian is more often used in the rest of the world).

How Common Are These People?

Learn Ukrainian

You won’t find them too often, thankfully. Let’s also be realistic about something else—the majority of tourists going to Ukraine are men. You don’t see many Western females heading to the Former Soviet Union. It’s just how it is. Girls go to Paris, guys go to Ukraine.

From experience (zero facts on this), it seems that the people who are offended of people speaking Russian tend to be Ukrainian men.

It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be out on a date with a Ukrainian girl and she’ll be upset that you’re speaking Russian to her and not Ukrainian. Most of the women in Ukraine won’t expect you to learn Ukrainian. They’ll be incredibly happy if you can communicate on a basic level of Russian with them.

Learn Ukrainian vs. Learn Russian—The Statistics

250 million people in the world speak Russian.

40 million speak Ukrainian.

That’s quite the difference. At that point, you have to ask yourself how much you’ll truly invest if you take the time to study Ukrainian.

You’ll be able to communicate with people who speak Ukrainian but not Russian—those people are mostly going to be village folks. And yes, you’ll be able to talk to the fellas who hate Russia.

But how often are you going to run into that situation?

Unless you plan on heading to the villages on vacation, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll ever need to speak Ukrainian. You’ll be able to navigate cities such as Kiev and Odessa with ease using broken Russian and English.

The Crossover Between the 2 Languages

I’m nowhere near fluent in Russian. Let’s get that out of the way first. However, I’ve studied enough that I can recognize it on the streets, even when I’m in another country such as the Czech Republic. So take these bullet points as someone who is definitely still at a near beginner level of Russian.

  • A few of the letters in Ukrainian are different.
  • Many of the sounds are the same, but some inflections are a little different.
  • If you want a comparison, I’d say that Ukrainian and Russian are more similar to each other than Spanish and Portuguese.

A lot of Slavic languages are “relatively” similar in nature. Polish people can understand some Russian, though they have a lot of trouble communicating back to Russian speakers. Quality of education very well might play a part of this.

The point is, if you study Russian, you’ll be able to pick up a little bit of Ukrainian. At first though, anticipate that it’s just going to confuse you—that’s the point that I’m at right now.

Don’t Bother to Learn Ukrainian

I know I’m going to upset some of the Ukrainian readers of this site (sorry!), but it’s just not worth investing time learning Ukrainian. As a Westerner, it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever be in a situation where you need to communicate with someone who doesn’t speak Russian.

On top of it, there is just no practical application to the rest of the world. If you learn Russian, you now have better skills to take on other parts of the world—Russia (obviously), Belarus, Moldova, and Kazakhstan—just to name a few. Some of these places have English levels far worse than in Ukraine, and learning Russian will effectively “unlock” them for you. People in those countries are going to look at you quite funny if you try to communicate in Ukrainian with them.

If you study Ukrainian, you’ve really only got one place you can use it. Ukraine.

On top of it, if you truly take the effort to learn Russian and become conversational, you’ll probably be able to piece together enough Ukrainian that you could utilize if absolutely needed.

In Conclusion

Despite this website being titled Ukraine Living, it’s the humble opinion here that you should not learn Ukrainian. Your time is far better spent invested in learning Russian.

‘Til next time,

-UL

PS: It’d be rude to leave you without a resource to learn Russian online, so start here.

  • December 9, 2016
Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 9 comments
frygr

Two points here:

1. The map of Ukraine https://ukraineliving.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/06/Ukraine-Flag-Map-300×200.png is missing Odessa region. Please change to a proper one.

2.You forgot to mention that many people will answer in the same language that you interact with them. In other words, if you refer to a person in Ukrainian, the person will reply in Ukrainian. Apart from that, more points to consider:

– Laws, government interactions, and court proceedings are done in Ukrainian;
– Public transport is only in two languages: Ukrainian and English;
– Price tags in the supermarkets and shops – mostly in Ukrainian. Product description will have Ukrainian on top (if a product is exported to ex-Soviet country, Russian will also be there);
– Most of the restaurant chains will have only Ukrainian/English menu, e.g. McDonald’s (in case you miss old good burger with fries/chips) has only Ukrainian menu;
– Signs and outdoor advertisement – only in Ukrainian;
– 90% of the news on TV and Radio – in Ukrainian;
– Songs on radio – up to 30% are required to be in Ukrainian;
– Cinema – 99,9% movies are in Ukrainian (voice dubbed). As an example – trailer to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in Ukrainian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCxiMzyvgsA Only a few place run some movies in original language + Ukrainian subs;

3. ‘Never mind how difficult it is to learn Ukrainian or Russian. Never mind the fact that Russian is more often used in the rest of the world’

You wonder why some Ukrainians get angry when you come to Ukraine, where majority speaks Ukrainian, and you go like ‘Nah, don’t bother learning even a bit of Ukrainian’? It a simple matter of respect. With just Russian, you won’t impress anyone, especially with the attitude ‘Don’t waste your time learning Ukrainian’.

When you learn Ukrainian, the attitude is opposite. Example of a Korean guy called Stepan. He came to learn Ukrainian and few times got featured on the TV. Here, a Ukrainian program (95 Квартал | 95 Kvartal) in Russian has a small interview with him on the street: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-yOLMtAOxBM At the end, the host is impressed of Stepan’s level of Ukrainian and urges everyone to speak Ukrainian more often.

To put the long story short, just Russian is not enough in Ukraine for a comfortable life. You need to know at least some basics. Moreover, Ukrainian is getting more widely-used around the country.

Reply
Ukraine Living

“To put the long story short, just Russian is not enough in Ukraine for a comfortable life.”

This is simply an opinion and it’s wrong.

We can say this because the writers of this site are all living breathing proof of this.

“You wonder why some Ukrainians get angry when you come to Ukraine, where majority speaks Ukrainian, and you go like ‘Nah, don’t bother learning even a bit of Ukrainian’? It a simple matter of respect. With just Russian, you won’t impress anyone, especially with the attitude ‘Don’t waste your time learning Ukrainian’.”

Only a few very narrow-minded people think like this. The vast majority of Ukrainians understandable perfectly why we chose to learn Russian instead of Ukrainian. We don’t care about “impressing” anyone. You fail to grasp basic common sense, so let’s look at each point you raised (our response in brackets):

– Laws, government interactions, and court proceedings are done in Ukrainian; [We’re not going to court or dealing with the law, if we had to a translator would be necessary]
– Public transport is only in two languages: Ukrainian and English; [That’s fine, public transit you just look at the names on a map anyway]
– Price tags in the supermarkets and shops – mostly in Ukrainian. Product description will have Ukrainian on top (if a product is exported to ex-Soviet country, Russian will also be there); [Doesn’t matter again until you’re at a high level of the language. Most of buying stuff is just guessing.]
– Most of the restaurant chains will have only Ukrainian/English menu, e.g. McDonald’s (in case you miss old good burger with fries/chips) has only Ukrainian menu; [This is wrong, most are in Russian at least in cities]
– Signs and outdoor advertisement – only in Ukrainian; [Doesn’t matter, why would a foreigner care about reading outdoor ads]
– 90% of the news on TV and Radio – in Ukrainian; [Again doesn’t matter, we don’t watch the Ukrainian news]
– Songs on radio – up to 30% are required to be in Ukrainian; [Again doesn’t matter, we don’t listen to the Ukrainian radio]
– Cinema – 99,9% movies are in Ukrainian (voice dubbed). As an example – trailer to Guardians of the Galaxy 2 in Ukrainian: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sCxiMzyvgsA Only a few place run some movies in original language + Ukrainian subs; [AGAIN doesn’t matter, no foreigner can go to the theater because they rarely have subtitles in English. AGAIN, until you reach a level of fluency it doesn’t apply]

As you can see you’re thinking up situations that really only apply to being FLUENT in a language. We agree learning a few words in Ukrainian isn’t a bad idea. But becoming FLUENT is a time investment of SEVERAL years. And as you can see, most of the examples you provided aren’t even applicable to us.

So yes, LEARN and become fluent in RUSSIAN which can provide infinitely more opportunities and will not impact your quality of life.

Westerners and tourists reading this—don’t worry. You’ll be fine with English even if you don’t know any UA/RU.

Reply
frygr

“Only a few very narrow-minded people think like this. The vast majority of Ukrainians understandable perfectly why we chose to learn Russian instead of Ukrainian. We don’t care about “impressing” anyone. You fail to grasp basic common sense, so let’s look at each point you raised”

I am not failing to grasp anything. I am just simply trying to explain that the Russian language is not 100%/solely used everywhere (in my previous examples), while you are bashing with ‘narrow-minded people’ and caps locking words.

In my comment, I didn’t say that you need to learn Ukrainian FLUENTLY. Not at once. I only mentioned that knowing some basic Ukrainian (few words) is a must for a comfortable life (ok, it’s an ambiguous definition) and to what you have also agreed:
“We agree learning a few words in Ukrainian isn’t a bad idea.”

On top of that, as you are living in Ukraine, you should understand why some Ukrainians are not happy with Russia and Russian language and could be quite emotional on this topic. Of course, such people will get angry when you come to Ukraine to learn Russian and don’t bother mastering two – three Ukrainian words, given the fact that both languages are quite related. That what makes these people unhappy. Everyone understands that you can use Russian in many countries, but some people won’t understand why one living in Ukraine can’t learn few words (e.g. Дякую, Привіт, Будь ласка) in Ukrainian. That’s the main point that I am trying to explain. Not the Russian language itself, but purposely not learning a handful of Ukrainian words to simply show respect to the Ukrainian-speaking Ukrainians.

Apart from that please change the map to a proper one.

Reply
    Ukraine Living

    2-3 words is fine, great–agreed with you.

    You’re mentioning dealing with law, watching movies, etc. That takes a lot more than 2-3 words. You need to be specific.

    Agreed that people should learn a few Ukrainian words as a courtesy. We do not recommend studying it intensively. The entire argument of this post is that you should STUDY Russian and not Ukrainian. Sounds like you agree on that point.

    You can’t have it both ways. Make up your mind if you’re going to criticize.

    Reply
    Ukraine Living

    Here’s some more tips for you—in English, this sounds incredibly rude:

    “Apart from that please change the map to a proper one.”

    It’s not your website and it’s simply art. It fits well into the post. Not to mention you’ve critiqued it repeatedly all because it’s not “proper”.

    So settle your argument with proper rhetoric (i.e. choose which one you want to make instead of being wishy-washy) and stop nit-picking.

    Thanks.

    Reply
frygr

“Everyone understands that you can use Russian in many countries, but some people won’t understand why one living in Ukraine can’t learn few words (e.g. Дякую, Привіт, Будь ласка) in Ukrainian.”

Correction:

Everyone understands that you can use Russian in many countries, but some people won’t understand why one living in Ukraine and learning Russian can’t learn few words (e.g. Дякую, Привіт, Будь ласка) in Ukrainian.

Reply
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