Thursday, May 6, 2010

Suffering Under the Curse of Babel

русский язык (Russian).  українська мова (Ukrainian).  Magyarul (Hungarian).  Zakarpatian.  These four languages are all commonly spoken around us.  When you come in as a foreigner, which one do you learn? 
     * Ukrainian is the "official" language and is predominantly spoken in western Ukraine.  Most children study Ukrainian in school. 
     * Russian is very widely spoken by adults, having been the official language under the Soviet Union.  Most of the capital city, eastern and southern Ukraine speak Russian. 
     * Hungarian is a minority language spoken primarily by ethnic Hungarian living near the border with Hungary.  Many of our friends are ethnic Hungarians and speak Hungarian at home. 
     * Zakarpatian is a non-written local dialect consisting of a mix of 8 languages from this region (Ukrainian, Russian, Hungarian, Romanian, Slovakian, Polish, Ruthenian, and what am I forgetting...).  It is commonly spoken in rural villages.

George studied Russian at a university in Kyiv for a year and knows it fluently.  He preaches in Russian and when he's preoccupied, he'll even talk to me in Russian!  Living in this region of Ukraine, however, he's seen his accuracy in Russian drop.  Hardly anyone speaks any one language purely and Ukrainian and Russian are often mixed.  After some time, it's easy to pick up on the "mistakes" and not be so sure of the correct word or spelling or grammatical ending. 

Because George spoke Russian, I also started learning Russian.  I didn't want to share a conversation with friends in two different languages.  I'm ashamed to say that I'm not very skilled but can struggle through a conversation.  My excuse is that it's hard to find time to study with three little kids always interrupting. 

George and I both speak Hungarian fairly well.  I learned it while living in Hungary for 3 years and George learned it because he was initially invited to Ukraine to work with the ethnically-Hungarian Reformed church in their outreach to Ukrainian/Russian-speaking majority.  We can both converse easily in Hungarian.

Now, the big question has been - WHAT LANGUAGE SHOULD THE KIDS LEARN?  George and I speak Russian.  Many of the kids' friends speak Hungarian.  Ukrainian is most widely spoken by children in our region.  We settled on Ukrainian and asked a friend to work with the kids to teach them.  She's now too busy and we're searching for someone else.  Abigail knows a lot of Ukrainian and Russian.  (She mixes them.)  She is also able to play comfortably with her Hungarian-speaking friends.  She has a gift for languages and if she could be systematically exposed to just one language, she'd be fluent in no time.  Matthew, on the other hand, struggles greatly.  Even after weeks of practicing phrases like "What's your name?" and "How old are you?", when his teacher asked him, "What's your name?" he would answer "5".  Languages don't come easily for him and he can't tell the difference between Hungarian and Ukrainian which are two completely different language groups.  Elizabeth is still concentrating on English but has picked up a few words in Ukrainian, Russian and Hungarian. 

There's hardly a day that goes by that I don't wish there was just ONE language spoken around us.  It's confusing, tiring, and complicated trying to communicate in so many languages all in one place.  In our situation, which language would you choose to learn?


  1. Great question! I don't know either what to do... I have bought a Ukrainian curriculum, so maybe we will use that if I invested in it, but I am not sure at all that I do the right thing :(

  2. I think Ukrainian is probably the best language to learn in this context but I haven't found any good materials for teaching children. Even school books for Ukrainian children are confusing and poorly constructed. What curriculum did you find? I'd be interested in hearing about it.

    I have bought some items of these. They are very good, but as I don't speak Ukrainian I should prepare for the lessons and it intimidates me, so we haven't started yet.

    An idea for you: read Agatha Christi or other interesting books in Ukrainian without a dictionary. You will be surprised how much you understand. I do it with Slovakian books.

  4. They let me photocopy from the read and color books if I teach in a group, so I am thinking about it...

  5. Great blog, Sarah! ~ ken vh