Last autumn, I started to learn Ukrainian. After a reporting trip to the country, I felt that on my return, I really should try to be less than totally linguistically helpless. The Ukrainian Institute in London offers group and individual lessons remotely with highly qualified teachers but, perversely perhaps, I decide I would like to learn from an instructor based in the country itself. I am recommended a friend of a friend, an internal refugee from the capital now living in Ivano-Frankivsk, western Ukraine.
Olya Makar, who manages to make her Zoom lessons fun and exacting, is carrying on her work despite many setbacks. Owing to Russian missile strikes on the country’s energy infrastructure, she has electricity only for three two-hour blocks a day – supposedly according to a schedule, but one that can shift unexpectedly – and a patchy internet connection. We reluctantly have to cancel a couple of sessions.
Like most Ukrainians I have met, she greets such problems with bracing realism; things could easily get more difficult, she says. “After each attack it’s getting worse and worse,” she says. “But we will find new ways to adapt.” I also tune into the Ukrainian Lessons podcast, in which a cheerful and charming voice belonging to teacher Anna Ohoiko guides me through the early steps of learning a language: saying hello, describing family, and eating out. The first seasons of the podcast were made in 2016, and there’s a bittersweet feeling in them of time-travelling to a different Ukraine, with Ohoiko describing carefree trips to the market and her favourite park in Kyiv – which was hit by Russian cruise missile attacks when I was in the city this October.
Then there is the language app, Duolingo, which, to my surprise, has a Ukrainian course. I imagined Duolingo Ukrainian may be something of a minority sport – but last month, the app’s data crunchers reported that it was Duolingo’s fastest-growing language of the year in the UK, with users rising by 1,254% – and that it had grown by a remarkable 2,229% in the Republic of Ireland. In the UK, there was a spike for Ukrainian learning in February and March, and then another in May, when the system finally spluttered into gear and Ukrainians began to arrive in substantial numbers, the curve in the graph a reflection of the inefficiency of Britain’s refugee scheme.
The overall trend is similar in other countries receiving refugees – Poland, Germany, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic all saw spikes in Ukrainian learning this year. But there have been sharp rises in Japan, Vietnam and Latin America too, and “in just about every country on Earth” that uses the app, according to Cindy Blanco, one of Duolingo’s learning scientists, many of them receiving few or no refugees. Around the world, 1.3 million people started learning the language on Duolingo in 2022, she says.
In short: people across the globe have been learning Ukrainian to express their solidarity with the victims of Vladimir Putin’s aggression. At the same time, the growth of Russian has slowed, which, in relation to the rate of uplift in app users overall, amounts to a decline. In a delicious irony, Vladimir Putin himself is behind this extraordinary own goal in soft diplomacy terms, since he is indirectly responsible for the very presence of the Ukrainian language on the app: in 2014, in the wake of Russia’s occupation of Crimea, the US’s Peace Corps withdrew its volunteers from the country, freeing up some of the staff to pursue individual projects. It was one of them, Iryna Krupska, who worked with Duolingo to develop a Ukrainian course, as well as an English course for Ukrainian speakers.
There are many reasons to learn a language: school, university, work, relationships, ancestry, the prospect of holidays and travel. Sometimes, though, the reason is political, since language and politics walk in lock step. Ukrainian was audible in TV footage of the invasion; it was heard when President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s daily addresses were broadcast round the world. It became swiftly clear for those following the war that the language itself was at stake in the conflict. Putin’s obsession with Ukraine hangs on his false conviction that the country exists only as an appendage of Russia and has no identity of its own; many Ukrainians have been dropping Russian in favour of speaking Ukrainian as a symbol of resistance.
Ohoiko tells me she’s seen numbers for her podcast surge – by 600% on Spotify, for instance, while her Ukrainian Lessons’ Facebook group has grown from having a couple of thousand active users before February’s invasion to 10,000 now. When I confess to her that a small part of me feels Russian would be a more “useful” language to learn, more adaptable to many countries in the former Soviet Union, she tells me that one of the main reasons she set up her podcast was her certainty that Russian would enter a long-term decline, in her country and others.
“I’ve always felt that it has been a generational question,” she says. “I always hoped that when I was old and retired, and Ukraine was developing towards democratic values and European integration, that Russian wouldn’t be as strong as it used to be in Ukraine. Since independence there has been a slow move towards Ukrainian, but now it’s become much faster.”
Ukrainian is not straightforward for those who do not already speak a Slavic tongue. I myself am under no illusions: if I can say a few words and order my dinner in Ukrainian, I’ll be doing just fine. But in my case too, studying the language goes way beyond the practical. It makes me feel a connection with friends in Ukraine, and draws me towards a cultural landscape I’ve been reporting on. I feel closer to the country when I practise the language, whether it’s because of my teacher’s struggles to keep going with her work, or Ukrainian Lessons’ social media posts highlighting vocabulary that, says Anna Ohoiko, “we are hearing every day on the news and matter a lot to us now – words for air raids and missiles, different types of weapon, ways of describing the energy crisis”.
I feel small shots of triumph, too – when, for instance, I read my first poem in Ukrainian, Vasyl Symonenko’s glorious You know that you are human? (and I feel a chill when I learn he died in 1963 aged 28, after being beaten up by police). One day, though, I want to be one of those who learn in order to increase their pleasure in holidaying in a perfectly normal country – when I can raise a glass of Ukrainian red wine, червоне вино, on the peaceful shores of the Black Sea.