Five ways to learn the Ukrainian language

I’ll be honest, I wrote this post after seeing Amanda Holden’s role as the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest jury spokesperson. Holden said Good evening in French and Dutch, followed by although I’ve got absolutely no idea which is which.

Whoever came up with that lame idea of a joke? They clearly misread the room – even the Brits perceived it as embarrassing or arrogant. It’s bad enough that the UK is hellbent on wiping out our language education, but why make out that being monolingual is some kind of cuddly national characteristic?

The first time I went to Western Ukraine, I used an interpreter to visit my father’s village. We found the family of my father’s first wife, a young Ukrainian woman who died in the 1930s. Despite these people not being related to me, they welcomed me and invited me back to stay next year, to look for my other family. But none of them spoke English.

One: Listen to the language
Ukrainian Lessons Podcast is my all-time recommendation. The podcast itself is free, but I subscribed to get the lesson notes, to see what I was hearing. There’s also a handy set of flashcards for the most common Ukrainian words, with each word shown in sentences for context. The ULP blog has useful information on almost everything you can think of. Using this site I learned c.150 words for my first trip. Useful stuff, the kind of thing you might use to ask WTF is going on in this courtyard in Lviv: The Yard of Lost Toys, Lviv

Two: Converse with people
Some universities run online classes, such as Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. There’s a time commitment, but it’s great if you enjoy learning with others. The Ukrainian Language Academy in Lviv also runs residential courses and offers individual Skype conversation.
Most valuable was being able to ask questions about customs in the rural villages. ‘No’ can sometimes mean the opposite! Useful if you find yourself staying in a village house where the only English word you hear is selfie.


Three: Listen to Ukrainian music
People claim they learned English through listening to music. Why not learn Ukrainian the same way? The lyrics may not be the most useful for conversation, but you’ll start recognising common words. Even better, search for the song on the Lyrics Translate site, and you’ll get the original lyrics along with a translation. One of my favourite Ukrainian bands is Okean Elzy, but I’ve also discovered the wonderful Один в каное (Alone in a canoe). Useful if you find yourself by the River Smotrych chatting to strangers, who then invite you on an actual canoe or kayak:
Kayaking

Four: Get out there and talk! To anyone!
Bus stations in Western Ukraine are the best places to talk to random strangers. I learned to recognise the call to a stranger: звідки? — where are you from? — and off we would go. Useful if you find yourself again and again at bus station no.3 in Ivano-Frankivsk, where I heard many life stories. If you’re lucky, someone might invite you into their garden to drink apple juice.  

Five: When all else fails, try the Google Translate app.
Elderly people in the villages didn’t bat an eyelid when I whipped out the smartphone. Could be useful if you find yourself looking for your grandmother’s grave and a local person shouts something unintelligible. Google Translate told me the woman was suggesting I gate-crash a funeral and ask the mourners if they knew where my grandmother was. I did say could be useful.

Remember, although you might see this1 Kolomiya


and this2 in Western Ukraine, it doesn’t mean you can get away with doing an Amanda Holden.

Did I mention Один в каное?

1 = British Club, Lviv

2 = The Underground Pub, Kolomiya

Lviv from the top of the Town Hall

The no. 9 tram: December in Lviv

“You from here, then? Only you seem to know what’s what.”

I laughed and shook my head at the English couple, fresh off the Stansted flight, and explained, pointing to the large ‘5.00 UAH’ written below the airport bus timetable. “The fare’s written here, look,” I said.

I was curious to know why they’d chosen to come to Lviv in December. It turns out they’d planned to go to France, but had been tempted by the ridiculously cheap flights to a place called Lviv that sounded interesting.

“And you?”

“I came here once before. I’ve come back to ride the trams.”

Continue reading “The no. 9 tram: December in Lviv”
Ivano-Frankivsk from the town hall viewing platform

Track changes, eastward bound: London to Western Ukraine by train

When I booked the eight trains spanning four days of travel from London to the formerly Polish ancestral village of my father (now lying within western Ukraine), I hadn’t realised that I’d be following the same route, more or less, that my father had driven us as a family in the late 1960s.

A wartime Polish exile, unable to visit his real homeland when it became part of the USSR, he would drive us to Poland as a second-best option. Back then it involved what my nervous mother referred to as ‘going behind the Iron Curtain’ that divided the West from the communist East. I remember hours standing next to the car at checkpoints as unsmiling DDR border guards pulled out the back seat and slid mirrors beneath the chassis. Long days were spent driving along the transit corridor through the forests of East Germany and Poland, where small crowds would gather whenever we stopped, and I had the job of handing out sweets and oranges to the wide-eyed children.

Some fifty years later I decided to travel east again, although this time it was possible to keep going into Ukraine, to the town closest to my dad’s village – the town of Ivano-Frankivsk, closed off by the Soviets until the early 1990s.

The lack of direct flights to western Ukraine gave a good excuse to do it by train.  Ryanair’s forthcoming route to Lviv will win for speed and price, but a couple of hours strapped into a budget aircraft will hardly convey the same sense of travelling through central Europe to the east.  And a train trip encourages some wonderfully atmospheric stopovers. Just don’t expect it to be restful.

Continue reading “Track changes, eastward bound: London to Western Ukraine by train”