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‘Ukrainian has become a symbol’: interest in language spikes amid Russia invasion

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Scott Richards was planning to move to Kyiv from his current base in Zurich. As the eastern Europe team leader for an investment firm, Richards already spoke Russian. Now, with his family’s relocation on hold, Richards is “diving deep” into studying Ukrainian and taking an intensive online course from Lviv’s Ukrainian Catholic University.

“I want to speak with Ukrainians in Ukrainian to celebrate their culture, their liberty and the incredible courage with which they are now standing up in their own defense in the face of indescribable and unprovoked brutality,” he said.

Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine, rooted in the idea that a uniquely Ukrainian identity does not exist, has only increased global interest in the Ukrainian language. Suppressed and denounced as a peasant dialect by the Russian and Soviet empires, Ukrainian is a distinct language from Russian, with a degree of similarity somewhat akin to that between Italian and Portuguese.

The language learning app Duolingo reported a 577% increase in the number of global users studying Ukrainian and a 2,677% increase in Poland, which has welcomed 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 received close to 1,000 sign-ups in just three days.

Like most Ukrainians, Sophia Reshetniak, 20, is fluent in both Ukrainian and Russian. She grew up using Russian with her family, but learned Ukrainian at school. (About 46% of the population speak Ukrainian at home, 28% speak Russian and a quarter speak both equally, according to a 2019 survey.)

“It’s my second mother language,” she said. “I have friends from the west [of Ukraine] and they are talking in Ukrainian and we understand each other.”

Before Russia invaded her home city of Kharkiv, Reshetniak was a university student and taught private lessons in English, Ukrainian and Russian. She lost her regular students after she fled the country, but has since found new ones through a social enterprise called NaTakallam, which hires displaced people to teach their languages and share their cultures online.

NaTakallam, which means “we speak’’ in Arabic, launched in 2015 with a goal of generating income for Syrians in Lebanon who lost their livelihoods fleeing war. “You can give aid, but giving a job or giving income that’s earned is just so much more respectful and rewarding and makes people feel much more empowered,” said co-founder Aline Sara. “They get a restored sense of dignity and purpose, and they share their story, which is one thing we really need the world to hear” to combat discrimination against refugees, particularly those from the Middle East and Africa. The company pays tutors a minimum of $10 an hour.

The platform has since expanded to offer lessons in Armenian, English, French, Kurdish, Persian and Spanish and hired its first Ukrainian and Russian teachers in March. Sara said about 150 to 200 people have expressed interest in studying these two languages, with “slightly more traction” in Russian as it is more widely spoken, though many want to learn both.

Reshetniak now teaches from the hostel room she shares with her 15-year-old sister in a Czech village. She was matched with her first students within days of being onboarded by NaTakallam. Two are learning Ukrainian and three are learning Russian.

While Reshetniak doesn’t see Russian as the “language of enemies”, some who once used it to get by in Ukraine are choosing to learn Ukrainian as a sign of respect.

Polina Levina, a Canadian with Russian parents and a grandmother from Kharkiv who spent two years in Donetsk and Kyiv working on human rights with the United Nations, said that she “always felt that speaking fluent Russian was enough to engage with the country”. Now, she believes, it’s important “to be able to listen to Ukrainians in whichever language they prefer to speak, to allow them the freedom of not having to revert to the lingua franca if they choose not to”.

Some learners see studying Ukrainian as a way to help the country rebuild. Abby Davis, an IT project management consultant based in Atlanta, lived in Druzhkivka, a town in Ukraine’s largely Russian-speaking eastern Donbas region, as a “bilingual tot” in the 90s with her missionary family. She hopes to apply her skills to strengthen the country’s IT infrastructure and has been using the Pimsleur app to learn some conversational Ukrainian “to be ready to help”.

Several learning platforms have extended special offers related to Ukraine. LingQ is offering free access to Ukrainian lessons and free premium accounts for Ukrainians studying other languages. MyCoolClass, a teacher-owned cooperative, has waived fees and simplified the application process for Ukrainian teachers using its platform. Duolingo has pledged to donate all ad revenue generated by learners of Ukrainian to relief efforts “for at least the next year”.

Richards still plans to settle in Kyiv when it’s safe to do so, and hopes to be able to converse in Ukrainian when he does.

“It feels like the war has changed everything,” he said. “Ukrainian has become a symbol of heritage, survival, strength and resistance.”

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