Ivano-frankivsk railway station, Western Ukraine

Five ways to learn the Ukrainian language

How to learn Ukrainian language using less conventional means

I’ll be honest, I wrote this post after seeing Amanda Holden’s role as the UK’s Eurovision Song Contest jury spokesperson in 2021. 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. 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. I was up for that! But none of them spoke English. What to do?

Now it’s 2023, and more people are interested in learning Ukrainian than ever. The Duolingo app is useful, and great for giving you practice, but on its own it’s not enough. Here are some fun ways to learn Ukrainian language.

#1: Listen to the language
Ukrainian Lessons Podcast is my all-time recommendation. The podcast itself is free, but subscribe to get the lesson notes, to see what you’re 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, simple words you might use to ask WTF is going on in this courtyard in Lviv:

The Yard of Lost Toys, Lviv, learning Ukrainian language
The Yard of Lost Toys, Lviv

#2: Take a course
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.

Rural house in Rakhiv painted in colours of Ukrainian flag

#3: 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, Ukraine’s most famous rock band, with an international following.

If you enjoy acoustic music, you’ll probably enjoy listening to 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 on River Smotrych, Kamyanets-Podilsky, Ukraine
Not alone on a kayak in Kamyanets-Podilsky

#4: 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.  

Of course this isn’t possible during the war, but if you or your town is hosting refugees, don’t be shy about talking to them. They’ll appreciate it.

Road with chapel from Ivano-Frankivsk to the Carpathians, Western Ukraine

#5: When all else fails, try a translate app.
You can speak into translate apps, such as Google Translate, and the app will speak back in the other language. My current favourite app is Say Hi, which Ukrainians tell me churns out decent translations. It’s been incredibly useful for those hosting refugees.

When I was travelling in Ukraine, 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.

Abandoned grave-marker crosses in a Ukrainian cemetery; learning and using Ukrainian language.

Remember, although you might see this1

Underground Pub sign in Kolomiya, Ukraine

and this2

Painting of Winston Churhill hanging in the British Club, Lviv, Ukraine

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

Travels in a Young Country book, travel in Ukraine discovering Ukraines's past and present

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1 = British Club, Lviv

2 = The Underground Pub, Kolomiya