Post-Program Reflections: Ukraine

My SLA experience in Ukraine emphasized the importance of cultural immersion in learning a new language, particularly when that language is rarely spoken natively in the US. While I am not primarily an auditory learner, hearing Russian both in the classroom and on the street most definitely improved my listening comprehension. When listening to a conversation about a familiar topic, I can now understand at least 75% of what is being said, and if I’m watching a movie or TV show that includes some Russian, I can usually understand 90% of it without looking at the subtitles (the Russian in English-speaking films or shows is slower and typically does not have a native accent). I would say that in terms of pronunciation and listening comprehension, I met my language learning goal, but also look forward to improving both during the upcoming year. I think that in terms of my goal to comfortably carry on a conversation about daily topics, I fell short with regard to the term “comfortably” on quite a few occasions, but saw some improvement when I stopped focusing so much on the grammar and instead focused on trying to communicate my thoughts. In terms of my last goal, to write in Russian about my experience in Ukraine, I would say that I also accomplished this goal, because although I have yet to actually write about my experience in Russian, I wrote a final essay for my class describing why I want to study film. I was able to use the vocabulary and discussions about politics we had learned in class to write my essay, and was able to speak about a topic more complex than writing about basic categories, such as what activities I did over the weekend or the weather.

I also gained new insights about the value of traveling. At least for me, living in the US makes the rest of the world seem thousands of miles away (which is it), and consequently the events and people don’t seem as immediate as what’s happening in this country. However, while I was in Ukraine, I was struck by how both Ukrainians and other Europeans I met were so aware of what is going on in the US and in many other European and non-European countries in the world. While I have been interested in international relations for a long time, I didn’t really understand how much geography impacted domestic and international politics until I went to Ukraine. I feel like I now have a better understanding of how geographically isolated the US is, and how this may contribute to the general American public’s lack of awareness and apathy towards international affairs. This has also made me more interested and invested in Eastern Europe, not only because I have never specifically studied Eastern Europe before, but also because communicating with people who live there has made me want to know more about their lives and their reality. For someone who is considering applying for an SLA grant, I would say two things: 1) it will be both an invaluable language experience and opportunity to make real connections with people who speak the language; and 2) go to your country of study as long as you possibly can. The longer you are immersed in the language and the culture, the more natural it feels and, at least for me, the more comfortable you will be to communicate with people and make real progress.

As I look forward to beginning my senior year in college, my SLA experience has given me reason to reconsider my post-graduate plans. While I am still considering many possibilities after graduation, spending time in Ukraine has made me want to achieve fluency in Russian and has renewed my interested in political science (my second major). I think that my improved listening comprehension skills will be beneficial in my last year of Russian classes, and I am looking for ways to continue learning the language post graduation, whether it is graduate school or a career. However, language-specifics aside, my SLA experience has given me more confidence in speaking with other people in general, either in Russian or English. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I tend to be introverted, and while I have worked to be more outgoing during my time in college, it was a new challenge to try to be outgoing in a different language. But this challenge also helped me work on my social and conversational skills in a different way that will stay with me as I move forward in my academic and professional career.

Язык в Украине

After being immersed in a different culture for the past five weeks, it feels very weird to have to say goodbye. Perhaps it’s because this is the first time I’ve been the Europe, or because this is the longest amount of time I have lived abroad, but I am still struck by how normal everything is here. For all the differences in language, culture, architecture, history, and politics, life in Ukraine is pretty much like life anywhere else. People are people, regardless of what label you stick on them.

That being said, the things that make us different are also incredibly important: our differences are what help shape our identity and give us individuality. United by our common humanity but also defined by our separate characteristics, talents, and goals, there is a fine line to walk between celebrating our diversity and citing our differences as reason to divide us. Many countries, including the United States, are still struggling with this problem right now, but the issue is particularly language-centric in Ukraine.

My teacher refers to the issue of language in Ukraine as яблоко раздора (apple of discord, bone of contention). In eastern Ukraine, the war in Donbass continues between pro-Russian separatist forces and the Ukrainian military, while in Lvov, the cultural center of Ukraine, Ukrainian is overwhelmingly spoken. In Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, both Russian and Ukrainian is widely spoken and understood, yet there is a growing number of people who refuse to speak Russian and insist on only speaking Ukrainian. Some restaurants have menus in Ukrainian, Russian, and English, while others only have menus in Ukrainian and English. According to one taxi driver, while at least 70% of the Ukrainian population can speak both Ukrainian and Russian, many more people are choosing to only speak in Ukrainian. My teacher at school also said that a few years ago, when she would speak Russian to someone on the street, they would reply in Russian. But now, people reply in Ukrainian and refuse to switch languages.

House of Taras Shevchenko

This is both a cultural and political issue that has a long history, but in terms of modern context, it dates back to at least the 19th century when Ukraine was part of the Russian Empire. The Ukrainian language was banned in the 1860s, during the time of Taras Shevchenko, who is considered the founder of modern Ukrainian literature and arguably the most iconic figure in Ukrainian history (think: Founding Fathers, but if the British had imprisoned all of them for life after the Constitutional Convention). Born into serfdom, Shevchenko became a poet, writer, artist and political figure who promoted Ukrainian nationalism and suffered greatly for his opposing political views to the Russian Empire at the time. While I am not an expert on the complicated relationship between the use of the Russian and Ukrainian languages in Ukraine today, it seems to me that the recent trend towards speaking only Ukrainian is an attempt to establish a national identity that is separate and independent from Russia. Especially given the annexation of Crimea and Революция Достоинства (Revolution of Dignity) in 2014, Ukraine is seeking to disassociate itself with Russia, both on a domestic and international level.

Political posters in Maidan
Protesting the 2018FIFA World Cup in Russia

Linguistically, there has been another shift, from using the preposition на (in) to the preposition в (in) when talking about Ukraine. While the preposition на is used for provinces, the preposition в is used for cities and countries. During Soviet times, people would say на Украине (in Ukraine), because Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union. However, after Ukrainian independence, people started saying в Украине (in Ukraine), because Ukraine became an independent country. A really good way to make Ukrainians angry, besides speaking in Russian, is to say на Украине instead of в Украине. Being aware of this nuance in Russian, it has also started to bother me in English when people refer to Ukraine as “the” Ukraine. That’s like saying “the” Russia, “the” Germany, or “the” Canada. It sounds weird, right? Ukraine is a country; it doesn’t need an article in front of it.

I have been asked many times why I came to Ukraine to learn Russian (hello there’s another country to the north that might of better interest), and the answer comes down to finances and feasibility. However, while circumstance brought me to Ukraine instead of Russia, I am wholly grateful that it did. While this past election in the US made it difficult for me to invest my energy in politics anymore, spending time in Ukraine has reminded me of why I became a political science major in the first place: human rights. Every person in the world deserves to be treated with dignity and respect, and seeing how Russia has violated that prerogative in Ukraine has renewed my interest in both pursuing politics and mastering the Russian language in order to better communicate and understand this part of the world.

Давайте поговорим о еде

It’s hard to believe that this is my last week in Kiev. While I have only been here for four weeks, it feels like a lifetime. Being immersed in a different language and culture is very intense, and for someone who is more introverted like me, it has been somewhat of a challenge to force myself to speak with people that I would not normally even speak to in English. However, I like challenging myself (why else would I be taking Russian when I could take Spanish to fulfill my language requirement?), and studying a foreign language has given me new insight on how and why we communicate with each other. Furthermore, studying in Kiev has made me want to be better at communicating both in English and in Russian.

While I enjoy conversational practice in class, my favorite part about my program is the conversation practice I do with my peer tutor. Talking with someone who is my age, who speaks Russian natively, and can correct my pronunciation and conversational speaking pattern has been the most helpful and interesting part of my time here in Kiev. Peer tutoring has also been very motivating, because having a concrete person to talk to makes me want to be able to talk with people in Russian fluently. I know that when I return to the US, I want to focus on accumulating more vocabulary and continue to improve my conversational pace so that I can communicate my thoughts without having to give the first-grade rendition of them. However, also needing to “dumb down” my thoughts in order to communicate with other people has been an interesting exercise in being more aware of what I actually want to say, and how I can say it.

On the flip side, peer tutoring has also helped me practice my listening comprehension with a native speaker. While hearing my teacher speak in class is also good practice, I appreciate the one-on-one time with my peer tutor to ask questions and be more actively engaged in listening to what he is saying. However, one of the main issues I have is recognizing a word in Russian, but not remembering what it means; or, knowing that I learned a word for something in Russian, but not remembering what the word is. In short, I have really come to appreciate the value of vocabulary in both understanding and communicating with others.

Зелëный борщ со сметаной (green borsch with sour cream)

On a slightly different note, I finally tried борщ (borsch) and must admit that I was underwhelmed. It wasn’t amazing but it wasn’t terrible. I could probably eat it multiple times a week but it would never be my favorite dish. I’m still very conflicted. I asked my host mom why borsch is so popular in Ukraine, and she said that Ukraine has a lot of beets, that it is a historical dish and easy to make. Seems reasonable enough to me. My peer tutor said the same thing. My host mom’s mom (my host grandma?) made me borsch a week ago and she said that it was зелëный борщ (green borsch). While this borsch looks red to me, red borsch is made with beets and is much darker in color. I tried to ask her about the difference between green and red borsch, but all I got was that they are made with different vegetables. (Note: see the importance of vocabulary above). All in all, no matter what color your borsch, just make sure you don’t forget a large serving of сметана (sour cream) to top it off.

On top: хинкали (khinkali) – Georgian dumplings
On bottom: хачарури (khachapuri) – bread topped with cheese and an egg

Lastly, I couldn’t talk about food in Ukraine without mentioning Georgian food. I was surprised to find a fair number of Georgian restaurants here in Kiev, complete with what I assume is not authentic Georgian folk music and interior decorating. To give a more or less accurate analogy, I would say Georgian food is to Ukraine what Mexican food is to the US: not the real thing, but still pretty good. However, instead of ordering tacos with a side of chips and guac, you order хинкали (khinkali) with a side of хачарури (khachapuri). And instead of a margarita, you drink Georgian wine. Overall, it is a worthwhile experience, and I’m definitely going to miss khachapuri (aka glorified cheesy bread) when I return to the US.

Разговоры и Сленг

It’s almost the end of week four. Friends have come and gone but the city is starting to feel like home. Walking past buildings I know and seeing familiar faces on the street, I no longer feel like I’m in survival mode all the time, constantly worrying I won’t be able to talk with or understand the people around me. Don’t get me wrong, there’s still a fair chance I won’t be able to understand anything someone says to me in a restaurant or on the street, but I’m not as worried about it anymore. First of all, I realized that, in many instances when I don’t understand a single thing someone says, it is because they are speaking in Ukrainian, not Russian (go figure). Secondly, if they are speaking very quickly in Russian, I can ask them to speak more slowly (пожалуйста, говорите немного медленнее) so I can understand them. Lastly, if they are both a) speaking Russian, and b) speaking slowly and I still don’t understand, I can repeat the words I didn’t know and ask what they mean (что это значит?). While I am in no way fluent, I feel as though I’m starting to gain the language skills to navigate a foreign country without panicking every time a waiter asks what I want to eat–I am somewhat ashamed to admit that until recently, when ordering at a restaurant, I would just point to the picture on the menu and say, можно? (May I?). In my defense, I usually go to restaurants for lunch, which is right after three and a half hours of Russian class and my brain can’t really function in Russian or English at that point.

However, I have recently had some good conversations with native Russian speakers, which has helped me feel more confident about my Russian speaking ability. For instance, I took a taxi home with some friends last night, and was able to talk to the taxi driver in Russian about why we are in Kiev, what we are studying, and how we like Ukraine. Although it was a simple conversation, it was a good feeling when I actually understood his questions and was able to reply with more words than just да or нет.

Last week, I was also able to have an hour and a half of class time alone with my teacher because some students had finished their program while new students hadn’t arrived yet. This was probably the best class day I’ve had so far. Normally, everyone prepares to talk about something they read in the news, but because I was the only student in class, I got to talk with my teacher for the entire first half of class. This was very important for me, because I was able to speak without the anxiety of making mistakes in front of other students, and my teacher could give me vocabulary without stopping our conversation so that I could express myself more clearly. I had chosen to talk about two football fans who were attacked in Russia during the World Cup, yet we ended up talking about homophobia and race relations in the US, and the role of education in poverty and vice versa.

These two positive interactions have reminded me that the purpose of language is to communicate and express yourself. Learning Russian has also taught me that some things aren’t directly translatable, such as patterns of speech and idioms. For example, when I work with my peer tutor, we have to do a lot of “talking around” words. He doesn’t speak English, so if he uses a word I don’t know, he has to explain the meaning to me in Russian. Something I have noticed in his speech pattern, as well as with my teacher, is that when he is trying to explain something to me, he begins his explanation with смотри (look) or допустим (let’s say), and then gives me an example or corrects my grammar. While we also use this phraseology in English in a similar context, it seems to be used more consistently in Russian to begin an explanation.

Other common phrases and responses I have learned:

  • круто (cool)
  • здорово (great, good)
  • ладно (okay, all right)
  • понятно (understood)
  • почëм instead of сколько стоит? (how much does this cost?)

We also talk about a surprising number of idioms in class, which include but are not limited to:

  • вот где собака закрыта (that’s where the shoe pinches, this is the crux of the matter)
  • что-то сводить меня с ума (something drives me crazy)
  • что-то отошли на задний план (something is on the back burner, not as important as other things at the moment)
  • всë, что душе угодно (all that you please, everything your heart desires)
  • вы как две капли воды (you are like two peas in a pod, two people who are very similar to each other)

While I look forward to going home in a week, I also wish I was spending the whole summer here in Kiev. Learning a new language is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting, but the feeling of communicating with another person in a different language is extremely rewarding. Or as my peer tutor would say, очень круто (very cool).

Слава Богу!

I can’t believe I’m over halfway done with my program here in Kiev. I feel like I’m finally starting to know my way around the city but there’s still so much more to explore. While I do a lot of exploring on my own with friends, my school also provides me with excursions on Saturday mornings. Yesterday morning, we visited Софийский собор (Saint Sofia Cathedral), which is located several blocks from Золотые Ворота (Golden Gates), the metro stop near my school.

Bell tower at Saint Sofia. The cathedral is also the burial place of Yaroslav the Wise. Fun fact: my school is located on the street called Ярославов Вал (Yaroslavov Val Street).

Saint Sofia Cathedral was founded in Kiev in 1011 by Yaroslav the Wise during the reign of his father, Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kievan Rus’. Vladimir the Great brought Eastern Orthodox Christianity to Ukraine at the end of the 10th century, and named Saint Sofia Cathedral after the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople (present-day Istanbul). The name “Sophia” means “wisdom” in Greek. [Note: “Sofia” is the Cyrillic transliteration, “Sophia” is the Greek transliteration]

One of the most interesting aspects of Saint Sofia is the architecture. I was raised Roman Catholic, but didn’t know very much about Eastern Orthodox Christianity before coming to Kiev. The Eastern Orthodox tradition of iconography and religious symbolism is exemplified by Saint Sofia Cathedral, where every inch of the interior is covered in frescos and mosaics. While the original mosaic tile floor inside the cathedral has not survived except for in a few places, I can only image how breathtaking the architecture would have been in its prime.

The cathedral has 13 cupolas (domes) for Jesus and the 12 apostles.

On the walls and the ceiling, the iconography is partly 11th-century fresco, and partly 18th-century oil painting due to restoration efforts. However, the difference between these mediums is apparent and it’s amazing how bright the frescos are given their history (the Mongols sacked Kiev in the 13th century and the cathedral was damaged in the 16th century during attempts at unification of the Catholic and Orthodox churches in Ukraine). However, because Saint Sofia Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage site, no photography of the interior is allowed. I did, however, manage to sneak a picture of a modern art exhibit located in the cathedral.

The artwork is composed of painted Ukrainian eggs (писанка) and was donated to the museum in 2010.

Stalin planned to destroy Saint Sofia in the 1930s during the Soviet anti-religious campaign, but the start of World War II saved the cathedral from destruction. However, located at the opposite end of the street from Saint Sofia is St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, which was destroyed in 1934 and rebuilt in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union and Ukrainian independence.

St. Michael’s Monastery is visible from Saint Sofia’s bell tower.

While Saint Sophia is now a museum and no longer an active church, St. Michael’s belongs to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, one of the three major denominations of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine. St. Michael’s is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel, who is the patron saint of Ukraine.

Generally the trend worldwide seems to be that younger generations are becoming less religious than their parents, but I think it is important to recognize the significance of religion to the Ukrainian identity. Churches such as Saint Sofia and St. Michael’s seem to not only be religious symbols but also contribute to the political and national identity of Ukraine.

St. Michael’s Monastery

For example, at the center of Kiev in Майдан Незалежности (Independence Square), there is a statue of Saint Michael the Archangel on top of one of the former medieval gates to the city, facing the victory column that celebrates Ukrainian independence. As I mentioned in a previous post, Майдан Незалежности was the location of the 2014 protests known as the Revolution of Dignity, which overthrew the Ukrainian government and ousted former President Viktor Yanukovych. While religion may not hold the central role that it once did in the identity of medieval Kiev, it is still an important aspect of understanding the culture and identity of modern Ukraine.


Мысли о США (Thoughts about the USA)

I have been in Kiev for two weeks, and while it sometimes feels like I have been here forever, I still have so much to learn. My listening comprehension is slowly improving, and I have been focusing on participating more in class during our discussions. This has been difficult, because while there are only four other students in the class–three from France and one from Norway–they are all my senior by 15-20 years, if not more, and Russian is their third language.

Белая ворона (white crow): a Russian idiom, similar to a black sheep. I sometimes feel like a белая ворона in class with trilingual Europeans.

However, my teacher is encouraging in class and prompts me to respond to my classmates when they dominate the conversation. This has been a new experience for me, because my whole life in school I have never hesitated to participate in class discussion. But this experience has taught me to be more conscious of how people think and participate at their own pace.

I have also been focusing on my pronunciation, particularly the unstressed “о” in Russian that is pronounced like an “а.” I have gotten much better at pronouncing commonly used words like потому-что (because) [pronounced: pah-tah-moo schtA, NOT pah-tah-moo schtO] and Россия (Russia) [pronouced: rAh-see-ya, NOT rOh-see-ya]. And yes, I have been pronouncing the word for “Russia” wrong the entire time I’ve been learning Russian. But I still have some trouble with other words, and my sight-reading is horrendous. I can read and write Cyrillic well, but I can’t sound out new words to save my life. It reminds me of kindergarten all over again…

On a different note, I asked my peer tutor, my host brother, and a student that my host mom tutors, what they think about the United States. The general consensus was that US is a good country, and better than Ukraine in many ways. For my peer tutor, who is in the National Guard of Ukraine, his response focused on the superiority of the US military in comparison with that of Ukraine, as well as how there are many more opportunities in the US than in Ukraine. However, while he would like to visit the US, it is very difficult to obtain a visa to travel there. He isn’t very interested in politics, and didn’t have much of an opinion about Donald Trump.

My host brother will be starting high school next year. While he said that it might be a good thing that Trump is controversial in the US because it could be a sign that things need to change, he added that he can see why people might call Trump a racist, due to his comments towards minority groups. My host brother also talked about how the US government takes care of its people and has better health care, in comparison with Ukraine. However, he was much more interested to talk about the comparison between education systems, and wanted to know more about life in the US based on the American movies he has seen.

Lastly, I spoke with a university student that my host mom tutors in English. He said that he wants to learn English because he is interested in programming, and he can make a lot more money programming in the US than in Ukraine. Like my host brother, he also mentioned that the US has better social services and that the US government takes better care of its people than the Ukrainian government. He said that Trump is “strange,” but that he has an interesting way of communicating with North Korea and Russia. The student also stressed the importance of gun rights for self-defense in the US, commenting how in Ukraine this is not allowed and that the government will take the weapons away.

Khreshchatyk Street runs through Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square).

I think an important context for these three interviews is the Революция Достоинства (Revolution of Dignity), also known as the Euromaidan Revolution, which occurred in Ukraine in February 2014. Led by university students and taking place in Майдан Незалежности (Independence Square) in Kiev, the revolution sought to address the corruption and stagnation of economic growth in Ukraine, as well as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to forego an agreement with the European Union and instead pursue closer ties with Russia. Long story short, over 100 people were killed and 1000+ people injured in protests, but the revolution resulted in the ousting of Yanukovych and overthrow of the Ukrainian government. The annexation of Crimea by Russia occurred shortly thereafter.

Since 1991, Maidan Nezalezhnosti has been the traditional place of political rallies in Kiev.

While the three Ukrainians that I interviewed are young, they are all old enough to remember the Revolution of Dignity only four years ago. I did not want to ask them about it specifically, because it is a very sensitive topic and I do not know them very well. However, after witnessing their own government release riot police on peaceful protestors and seeing the violation of international borders by Russia in Crimea, it is understandable why gun rights, military might, and the government’s treatment of its own citizens are all characteristics of the United States that stand out to these Ukrainians.

I originally asked my host mom for her opinion on the US, but she deflected my question to her son and her pupil. I am currently reading a book about the Revolution of Dignity, so I am hoping to finish it and talk with my host mom about it before I have to go home.

Привет из Киева!

I arrived in Kiev last Sunday, the day after the city hosted the 2018 UEFA (Union of European Football Associations) Champions League Final between Real Madrid and Liverpool.

Aerial view of Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex in Kiev on the right, the Dnieper River on the left

The match was held in the Национальный спортивный комплекс «Олимпийский» (Olimpiyskiy National Sports Complex), which was recently renovated for the 2012 UEFA European Championship, along with other major improvements to the infrastructure of the city. Most interesting of these is the addition of English alongside Ukrainian and Russian titles in the metro and on street signs, to better accommodate international football fans and promote tourism.

Advertisement for the 2018 UEFA League Final in Kiev – blue and yellow are the colors of the Ukrainian flag


After I arrived in Kiev, I was taken to my host mom, Viktoria, who lives on the left bank of the Dnieper River in a Soviet-style apartment building with her teenage son. While the goal of my home stay is to speak with my host family only in Russian, I was slightly relieved to find out that my host mom is actually an English tutor and both she and her son speak Russian and English, which is helpful for learning and translating new Russian vocabulary.

View from my host mom’s apartment

Every morning at breakfast and every night at dinner my host mom talks with me in Russian about what I did that day. While I have yet to try borsch, she serves me potatoes with almost every meal. Coffee and tea are also very popular drinks here, and there are small stands with кофе (coffee) and чай (tea) on almost every corner. The majority of advertisements are in Ukrainian, but in Kiev most people can understand both Russian and Ukrainian, and menus at restaurants are available in Ukrainian, Russian, and partly in English.

Photo taken from the right (west) bank of the Dnieper River

I ride the metro to school every day, across the Dnieper from the left (east) bank to the right (west) bank. I was interested to find out that the terms “left” and “right” are only directionally correct if you are facing south, in the direction that the river flows. The metro ride takes me about 30 minutes plus a 5-minute walk past Золотые Ворота (Golden Gates), which was the southern gate to the city of Kiev in the 11th century. Today, this neighborhood is the location of many restaurants, cafes, and foreign embassies, as well as my school.

Zoloti Vorota (Golden Gates)
Zoloti Vorota metro station

I am currently taking one class in Russian at the B2 level. We meet every day and begin class with лекция (lecture), which is when we each talk for a few minutes about news or events that happened the previous day. My vocabulary has been the biggest hurdle to overcome, besides adjusting to how quickly native speakers talk. I also have peer tutoring once a week and an excursion on the weekends with a native speaker to practice conversational Russian. We talk and walk around the city for about 2 hours, visiting landmarks in Kiev and discussing every day life. This is another area I look to improve, because once I understand what is being said, it is then much more difficult to formulate a coherent response to demonstrate my understanding.

However, I think that practicing my conversational Russian in class, with native speakers, and my host family will help me improve my speaking fluency. I also look to attend weekly movie screenings with Russian subtitles to improve my vocabulary, outside of the vocabulary practice my teacher assigns for class.