Table of Content
- Languages Spoken in Ukraine
- Ukrainian language: history and development
- What language Ukrainians speak at home: latest survey data
- Minority languages and their significance in Ukraine
- Communicating in Ukraine
As a nation that has seen its fair share of tumultuous history, Ukraine’s cultural and linguistic landscape is as diverse as it is fascinating. Understanding the complexities of the linguistic landscape of Ukraine is crucial not only for linguists but also for anyone seeking to visit or do business in the country.
Languages Spoken in Ukraine
The Ukrainian language is undoubtedly the most widely spoken language in Ukraine. It is an East Slavic language and is closely related to Russian and Belarusian. The language has a rich history, dating back to the 9th century, and was once considered one of the most prominent Slavic languages.
Today, Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine, and its use has been promoted by the government since the country gained independence in 1991.
On April 25th, the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (the Parliament) passed a law called “On ensuring the functioning of the Ukrainian language as a state language”. The Ukrainian language is guaranteed state status by the Constitution, but the specific rules for its use in different areas of life must be established by law.
Until 2012, this was done through the Soviet law “On Languages in the Ukrainian SSR”. The new law adopted on April 25th does not infringe on the rights of national minorities.
Foreign languages and languages of national minorities can be used freely in private conversations, religious ceremonies, foreign language education, scientific publications, trademarks registered in Ukraine, and in the cultural activities of national minorities. These rights are protected by a separate law called “On National Minorities”.
In certain professions, such as border guards, law enforcement officers, and doctors, who deal with individuals who do not speak Ukrainian, the use of foreign languages and minority languages is allowed.
Ukrainian language: history and development
Since the fall of the communist regime, there has been a surge of interest in the origin and history of the Ukrainian language. Many Ukrainians associate the concept of the Ukrainian language with its modern literary form that they hear every day on the radio and television, which is taught in schools, and used to print books and newspapers.
There is no doubt about the origin of the modern Ukrainian literary language. Undisputed, writer and poet Ivan Kotlyarevsky founded it with his works “Eneida”, “Natalka Poltavka”, and Taras Shevchenko played a crucial role in its development.
They were writing their works in the folk language on the basis of the Ukrainian Middle Dnieper dialects. Prior to this, there were two literary languages in Ukraine: Church Slavonic, borrowed from the Bulgarians along with the adoption of Christianity, and Old Ukrainian, a written and literary language used from the 13th to 18th centuries.
Old Ukrainian written language was heavily influenced by local linguistic features. It was used for secular purposes, such as in state administration, princely offices, chronicles, and more.
Written in the 11th- early 12th centuries, in Kyiv “The Tale of Bygone Years” is a significant chronicle of the millennial Ukraina-Rus period. The text contains a considerable number of words from the Ukrainian colloquial language.
“The Tale of Bygone Years” was written by Nestor the Chronicler (1056-1114), a monk from the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. It is used as a primary source for the study of ancient Ukrainian history.
When exploring the origins of the Ukrainian language, it is not the ancient or modern literary forms that we seek, but rather the folk speech and dialects from which it emerged. Those unique phonetic, grammatical, and lexical features, ultimately became defining traits of the Ukrainian language.
Historically, the Ukrainian language has been closely associated with the ancestral home of the Slavs. This is because the majority of the territory that constitutes modern-day Ukraine was inhabited by Slavic tribes.
While other regions in Eastern Europe were predominantly populated by non-Slavic groups such as the Balts and Finno-Ugric peoples.
What language Ukrainians speak at home: latest survey data
58% of Ukrainians speak only Ukrainian at home. These are survey data of the Sociological Group Rating commissioned by the Center for Analysis and Sociological Research (CSGR) of the International Republican Institute.
The survey was conducted from February 1 to 5, 2023, using the computer-aided telephone interview (CATI) method, based on a random sample of mobile phone numbers, and was conducted throughout Ukraine, excluding the occupied territories of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk regions. A total of 2,000 residents aged 18 and older were surveyed.
The survey found that 58% of Ukrainians speak only Ukrainian at home, while 30% speak both Ukrainian and Russian, and 11% speak only Russian. Of those who speak only Ukrainian, 7% recently switched to it recently, while only 1% of those who speak only Russian at home have switched to it recently.
Another survey from the Ilko Kucheriv Foundation for Democratic Initiatives reported that the percentage of Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian in their daily lives rose from 64% in 2021 to 71% in 2022.
The use of the Russian language is still prevalent in everyday life in the southern and eastern macro-regions of Ukraine. In the western region, 95.6% of people speak Ukrainian in their daily lives, while in the central region, the figure is 78.3%.
In contrast, in the south and east, only 34.6% and 40.3% respectively speak Ukrainian in their everyday lives. The Ilko Kucheriv Foundation for Democratic Initiatives also observed that the use of the language of the Russian language has decreased by almost 10%.
It is also worth noting that Ukraine is home to many dialects of Ukrainian and Russian, each with its own unique characteristics and variations. These dialects can vary greatly depending on the region, and some can be difficult to understand for non-native speakers.
Minority languages and their significance in Ukraine
Ukraine is home to representatives from over 100 different nations, with each ethnic minority group comprising less than 1% of the total population. The most populous minority groups in Ukraine include Russians, Jews, Belarusians, Moldovans, Bulgarians, Poles, Hungarians, Romanians, Greeks, Tatars, Armenians, Roma, and others.
The largest ethnic minority in Ukraine is the Russian community.
Ukraine has recently passed a new law on national minorities, which has been identified by the European Commission as one of the seven prerequisites for starting negotiations on Ukraine’s membership in the EU.
The legislation on national minorities in Ukraine was in need of an update, as the previous law “On National Minorities of Ukraine” was written 30 years ago.
As of April 20, 2023, the Ombudsman has discussed the new law with experts from the Venice Commission. Currently, the Venice Commission is preparing an opinion on the Law of Ukraine “On National Minorities (Communities) of Ukraine” and is expected to present it in early June of this year.
Communicating in Ukraine
Language Barrier: Speaking English in Ukraine
Ukraine falls behind other European countries in terms of the population’s readiness to converse in English. The country’s geographical distance from the European Union and other factors have contributed to subpar language proficiency rates.
According to the 2022 EF EPI edition, Ukraine ranks 35th out of 111 countries, indicating a moderate level of proficiency in the English language. As stated by the EF English Proficiency Index portal, Ukraine’s percentage of English-speaking residents is significantly lower than other countries.
Research indicates that the majority of English speakers in Ukraine are employed in the IT sector, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 25. This level of proficiency still allows for moderately well communication in English with many international partners and businesses.
Do locals speak English in Ukraine?
English is not widely spoken by locals in Ukraine, especially outside of major tourist areas and cities. Those who work in the tourism industry or other international businesses in Ukraine often have a good command of English.
Due to the nature of their work, they regularly interact with visitors from all over the world and need to be able to communicate effectively in English. As a result, they are likely to have a higher level of proficiency in the language than the general population.
In addition, many international companies operating in Ukraine require their employees to have a certain level of English proficiency, which further increases the number of people with good English skills.
People in the age over 40 in Ukraine are unlikely to know English. Due to the fact that they were born during the Soviet era, they did not have the opportunity to learn the language in school properly.
In rural areas, the percentage of people who can speak English is generally much lower compared to those living in urban centers. However, younger generations tend to have better English skills due to its widespread inclusion in the school curriculum.
Tips for communicating in Ukraine for non-native speakers
For foreigners, communicating in Ukraine can be a challenging experience due to the language barrier and cultural differences. The Ukrainian language is a Slavic language that may be difficult to understand for those who are not familiar with the language family.
Moreover, the country’s unique culture and social norms can also pose challenges for effective communication.
Here are some useful tips for non-native speakers on how to improve their communication when in Ukraine:
- Learn some basic Ukrainian or Russian phrases before you go. Even a few words can go a long way in building rapport and showing that you are making an effort to communicate.
- Download a translator app on your phone to assist with more complex conversations.
- Be patient and willing to repeat yourself if necessary when you speak English. It can take time for locals to understand your accent and grasp what you are trying to say.
- Consider hiring a local interpreter or guide in Kyiv to help navigate language barriers. This will also give you a deeper understanding of the culture and history of the country.
- Be respectful of the local language and culture, and avoid being dismissive or rude if you encounter difficulties communicating.
As we conclude our exploration of the diverse linguistic landscape of Ukraine, it is clear that the country’s history and culture have been shaped by the various languages that have been spoken on its soil throughout the centuries.
It is crucial to note the importance of language learning and communication for navigating daily life in Ukraine, as it can greatly enhance one’s experience in the country. Whether it is for business or leisure, being able to communicate effectively with locals can make all the difference.
With this in mind, non-native speakers should make an effort to learn the basics of the Ukrainian language and show respect for the country’s linguistic diversity.
About the author
Greetings! My name is Victoria and I am both a private tour guide in Kyiv and fingers and lens behind this blog. If you’re considering a trip to the Ukrainian capital, I would be delighted to work with you to design the perfect Kyiv private tour tailored to your interests.
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