Sunday, July 18, 2010

The Curse of the Amero-European Expat

So you've come to Ukraine to travel, work, date, or just live or whatever. Like most other expats, one of your goals here is to learn the language. After all, how are you going to get around, interact with people, and feel safe?

"Strraff-st-phooey-tye!" you say to the border guard, proud of your progress after a few hours of language cramming the day before your flight. The guard doesn't answer. After scrutinizing your passport and checking something in the computer, he asks you, "Vatt is dee purpus ahv yore dzhurnee?"

For a good many American and European expats, with this interchange the pattern is set for the next X years of their life in Ukraine.

It is all too easy to be enveloped in a cocoon of English and be unable to break free of it after settling down in Ukraine. In this post we'll examine how this happens. In tomorrow's post we'll see what, if anything, can be done about it.

1. Your work. Chances are 100 to 1 that your work in Ukraine involves using your native language (or English). Though there may be Ukrainians around you at work speaking Ukrainian and/or Russian, chances are your work doesn't involve understanding what they are saying to each other or participating in their level of discussion. Everyone you really need to interact with at work speaks English and/or your other native language and is eager to improve their skills for professional and personal reasons.

Any Russian or Ukrainian you pick up generally will not be rewarded with additional professional opportunities. If you start inserting Russian or Ukrainian phrases at work, coworkers may find it endearing, amusing, or annoying, but it's unlikely they'll actually start speaking with you in their language. After all, part of the reason they hired you is so that they can practice English with you.

2. Your social circle. When you come to another country, you need to make new friends with whom to do things and share experiences and feelings. Generally, true friendship requires an advanced level of language mastery, so for the time being you start making friends with the people you work with or meet along the way who speak your language well enough to have real conversations.

You may think, "eventually I'll have more friends that I speak Russian/Ukrainian with," but this day might actually never come. First of all, are you just going to get rid of all your old English-speaking friends and find a crop of new ones when you reach a certain language threshold? Or do you expect that after years of speaking to each other in English you and your friends will just suddenly switch to Ukrainian or Russian (or Surzhyk)?

As you develop friendships with English (or German, or French, etc.) speaking locals, their language mastery will be improving month after month, making it harder and harder to ever catch up in Russian/Ukrainian to their level of English. After a year of friendship, chances are they've reached an advanced level of fluency. Meanwhile, you're still wondering why people sometimes say "девушка" and other times "девушку".

3. Prestige. The least prestigious languages in Ukraine are Ukrainian and Russian. They vie for last place, with Russian winning in the west and Ukrainian in the east and south. The most prestigious are English, German, French, and Italian. Therefore, by befriending you and speaking your language, your Ukrainian friends are increasing their prestige.

When you come to Ukraine and many other less wealthy countries, you receive an added degree of status simply by virtue of being from a wealthy country. If you go around speaking a prestigious language, you further secure your higher status.

You may think you're the fortunate one walking around with your trophy wife/girlfriend. The fact is, it's she that's got the trophy boyfriend/husband. By speaking to you in English, she's in a sense flaunting her trophy. If she's dressed to kill, then you're even.

If you try instead to speak Ukrainian or Russian with people, you may sense that your status actually drops. In fact, the better you speak it, the less different you appear, the more accessible and understandable, and hence the less prestigious. Splendid -- now that you can converse freely with babushki, your yuppy Ukrainian friends aren't as interested in you anymore.

Finally, no matter what your fluency in either language, you'll still get people addressing you in English who expect you not to speak anything else. Among acquaintances, even after you've established your total fluency in Ukrainian or Russian people will still occasionally start speaking to you in English hoping that you'll practice with them. I sometimes feel like I'm letting people down by speaking their language. I have probably sacrificed dozens of potential casual friendships with ambitious young Ukrainians simply because of the fact that I am already fluent in their language and don't wish to spend more time in Ukraine speaking English. On the other hand, I've gained many friendships with other categories of Ukrainians.

4. Adult time constraints. Even if, after all the above, you still wish to learn to speak Russian or Ukrainian, your work, social engagements, and domestic duties may leave you little time and energy to devote to language study.

It probably takes 100 hours or more of focused study to really get a grip on the basics of a language, especially one with grammar as difficult as Russian or Ukrainian. If you only have a couple hours a week available, you may feel like you just can't get far enough quickly enough to make it all worthwhile.

Furthermore, an adult lifestyle usually involves settling down to live alone or with one other person (most likely your English-speaking companion) and spending much of your waking time at work (where you're using English with a consistent circle of people).

As a student you have much more exposure to different groups of people, and your circle of friends and contacts is constantly changing. Such an environment is much more conducive to language learning because you are continually starting over again and have far fewer obligations and committed relationships. It's a lot easier to just start speaking Russian or Ukrainian with new acquaintances and to distance yourself from people you don't want to spend time with anymore.

As an adult, your life is defined by habits and routines. Once language habits are established and routines set, it can be very difficult to find room in your life for a new language that would shake everything up.

In the next post we'll discuss how one might go about learning Russian or Ukrainian despite all this.

UPDATE 2016:

I have finally decided to teach others my method for learning and mastering foreign languages at Take a look and download or order my book and/or instruction manual. My views and methods have are clearer and more evolved than what I wrote back in 2010.


  1. Very interesting, with perspectives I had not considered. I also enjoy your writing style!

  2. Mate that's a great post. I reckon you've nailed this one. It does clearly explain why many of my mates who are Ukrainian try to talk to me as well as amongst themselves in English, rather than in our native language. Sad but true indeed,

    Much appreciate your perspective here.

    1. Interesting, in that I'm in America, converted back to my 'heritage' Orthodox Christian in a Ukrainian/Russian/Serbian speaking parish. 'They' expect me to speak to them in English (pa angliski, spacebo...!), instead of me learning their tongue..just as you state. And, the confusion of trying to sort out 'good morning' in Rusyn/Russian/Ukrainian/Serbian/ mind boggling. Your observations are spot on, and obviously from life experience. Ya Mikhail

  3. Hello from new zealand just stumbled onto your site, just wanted to say from my read that I am so grateful and informed fantastic. Good to read good to know material, just so positive fills in so many gaps as it were. I am greatly encourage to visit Ukraine yippie Robb

  4. Very impressive article. It was thoroughly thought out and presented. I've never been to Ukraine but have experienced a similar phenomenon in other European countries; once you begin a social relationship in one language, it is difficult to switch to another.

  5. The information provided is very enriching and interesting.The fascinating details of the Ukrainian beauties and their polite and humble manners are very impressive.

  6. It's the same in the Czech Republic, for what it's worth. When women are attracted to Western men this is almost always because they want to practise their English: speak to them in Czech, however fluent, and they will walk away. At times they will strenuously deny that they don't want to speak Czech - even though, in these very conversations, you will be speaking Czech to them and they are attempting to answer in their broken English.

    What this means, of course, is that you should *only* speak Czech, since this separates the very few who are genuinely interested in your company from the bulk who just want to use you.