Monday, March 28, 2011

Learn Russian/Ukrainian Now or Forever Hold Your Peace

With each passing year more and more Ukrainians are becoming conversational in English. Among ambitious young Ukrainians ages 18 to 30, an intermediate level of English is pretty much a given. Sure, people complain about not getting enough practice and we all know that language instruction in Ukrainian schools and colleges leaves much to be desired, but still... процесс пошел (things have started rolling). One thing that is helping bring this change is access to online courses and programs that allow students to communicate with instructors in other countries.

Ukraine is in the middle of an English language boom, and one often gets the sense that there is a frenzied race to learn English for career advancement and to grow closer to the "real" Europe, make new friends, date foreigners, emigrate, etc.

While this may be good news for the country's economy, it's often bad news for Amero-European expats who wish to stay in Ukraine for a longer period of time, perfect their language skills, and integrate into the culture — in short, to feel at home.

Very often, the people expats typically would be most interested in making friends with happen to be those who are most involved in the English language craze: young, well-educated, upwardly mobile and cosmopolitan city dwellers. Most of these Ukrainians have a goal of improving their English and tend to see foreigners through this lens.

To get people to speak a foreign language with you, you generally have to speak their language better than they speak yours. As Ukrainians' average English level rises, the bar for expats' Russian and Ukrainian rises along with it, and it becomes more difficult to get language practice. It used to be that you could practice Russian/Ukrainian with anybody. Now, you're pretty much left with schoolchildren, the less educated, and the elderly (okay, maybe more like those over 45).

Fat chance making Russian or Ukrainian speaking friends among the "young and ambitious" group. You'll literally have to demoralize them into speaking their language with you with your superior Russian or Ukrainian skills. And even then many will hope that some day their English will be good enough to turn the tables in their own favor. But how is an expat to reach that level in the first place if the only people to practice with are uneducated store workers, ticket ladies, pensioners, and language teachers whose services cost 10-20 Euros an hour?

To extrapolate where this trend is going, try integrating into the local culture in the Netherlands or Scandinavia. You might as well forget about it. You're in luck if you're from Latin America, Africa, or Asia: you can always claim that you don't know English. If you're white, that will be pretty difficult.

Ukraine will obviously take many years to reach this point, but given Ukrainians' degree of personal ambition and disillusionment with their own country, it could be as little as 10 years down the road. The time to learn Ukrainian and/or Russian is now, before it's too late! Ukraine is fast becoming a place where you have to pay (or trick) people into speaking Russian or Ukrainian with you.

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. 


  1. This may be true in the cities...but if you go to the small towns and villages it's very easy to learn Ukrainian and Russian. And you can definitely find a villager willing to charge far less than the city rates of 10/20 Euros an hour.

  2. In the suburbs of Kiev, I didn't find many folks who could speak English, but those that could were friends/family already. In the city centre it is a different story, most know enough English to con a tourist :).

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