Languages of Ukraine
Getting by in a bilingual society; last update: February, 2016
Ukrainian and Russian both belong to the Slavic language family — languages considered difficult for native English speakers because of their different alphabet (Cyrillic is used for Russian, Ukrainian, Belarussian, Bulgarian, Serbian, and Macedonian and for some Central Asian languages), complex system of endings, perfective and imperfective verb forms, unpredictable accents within words (esp. Russian and Ukrainian), difficult pronunciation (namely consonant clusters), and different mindset from romance or germanic languages. That being said, the hardest part is simply getting started. After that it's just like learning any foreign language.
Ukrainian and Russian language distribution
Ukraine and Russian are used roughly equally across Ukraine. While the official state language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, the preferred spoken language in most cities of southern, eastern, and northern Ukraine is Russian. Don't be fooled by statistics on the number of ethnic Russians (~17-20%) in Ukraine or those who consider Ukrainian their "native language" (a somewhat loaded term), which can be as high as 60-80%. If we go by the language people actually speak at home, numbers are roughly 40% Ukrainian, 40% Russian, and 20% a mixture of the two. Moreover, Russian speakers are more often found in large cities, and Ukrainian speakers in rural areas.
In Kiev and many other regions use of Ukrainian has been increasing and instruction in most schools is in Ukrainian. The percentage of people speaking Ukrainian "on the street" is about 30% in Kiev, 40-80% in Zhytomyr, Vinnytsya, Khmelnytskyy, Chernivtsi, Mukacheve, and Uzhhorod, 5-10% in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, and Odessa, 1-5% in Crimea, Donetsk, and Lugansk, and 80-98% in Lviv, Ivano-Frankivsk, Ternopil, Khmelnytskyy, and Lutsk (these are just approximations). Rural areas have a significantly higher concentration of Ukrainian speakers and speakers of "Surzhyk" (Ukrainian mixed with Russian), however, the most literary Ukrainian is spoken by educated individuals in the cities.
In locations where both languages are spoken, Ukrainian tends to be heard more often at government institutions and is the language of most official events. Russian is often more popular in business, where pragmatism reigns. In certain areas of business — for example, programming — Russian is clearly predominant. In fact, I recently read that 80% of Ukrainian websites are in Russian (as of 2008). Most school and university instruction is in Ukrainian, even in many areas where Russian speakers predominate. This is a topic of frequent political debate: should there be more Russian schools? Should Russian be made the second official language? Should Russian be marginalized from public life?
Most Ukrainians oppose the idea of making Russian the second official state language, but support the idea of allowing regions to make it a regional language. And certainly people should have every right to use their preferred language in everyday life.
UPDATE: APRIL 2014
With all the recent craziness in Ukraine, language politics have become very important again. Certain media (particularly Russian) blow the interethnic animosity far out of proportion and make it seem like Ukrainian nationalists want to deny Russian speakers the right to speak their own language. Relatives of Russians living in Ukraine call from Russia to ask if they're safe, because Russian TV channels report oppression and persecution of Russian speakers in Ukraine (this is utter nonsense). Sadly, there is a lot of fear and paranoia being spread these days.
Read more about Ukrainization and language politics in Ukraine
Mixing Ukrainian and Russian
Fortunately for everyone, there is generally not much antagonism between Russian and Ukrainian speakers in personal contact. Any antagonism tends to occur among people who only speak one of the languages and feel alienated when surrounded by people who speak the other language. Luckily, most of the country is bilingual — particularly the well-educated and the well-traveled. Often you hear two people having a conversation where one is speaking Russian and the other Ukrainian. They may not even realize that this is going on.
While educated people usually speak clean literary Russian and/or Ukrainian, large segments of the population — for example, street vendors, laborers, farmers, and many others — speak a mixture of the two languages that leans either towards Russian or Ukrainian. This mix is commonly called "Surzhyk" or "Surzhik."
Is the same Russian spoken in Ukraine as in Russia?
Among educated Russian speakers you will find a few minor differences in pronunciation from "classic" Russian. For example, the [g] sound is often pronounced [h] (which Russians in Russia often make fun of), and there are slight differences in intonation and speaking style. This can hardly be considered a reason not to choose Ukraine as a place to study Russian, though! In fact, "Moscow Russian" has just as many, if not more, idiosyncracies.
Read more about studying Russian and Ukrainian in Kiev, Ukraine
How easy is it to learn Ukrainian if you know Russian?
If you happen to be fluent in Russian, several months of passive exposure is generally enough to learn to understand a lot of Ukrainian — or vice versa. In fact, westerners usually have an easier time learning Ukrainian than Russian, since it has fewer palatized, or "soft" consonants (t', d', l', r', s', and so on) and fewer difficult consonant clusters (str, vstv, and the like). Ukrainian and Russian share much of their vocabulary but have somewhat different pronunciation paradigms. Nonetheless, learning Ukrainian from a base of Russian or vice-versa is far easier than mastering a new language from scratch. You can expect the make very quick progress on Ukrainian or Russian if you already know the other one.
Being an English speaking foreigner in Ukraine actually puts you at a disadvantage if you are trying to learn Ukrainian or Russian, since so many people will want to practice their English with you. For this reason it is highly recommended that you learn the basics of the language first in your home country so that you can begin communicating in Russian or Ukrainian immediately upon arrival (if you have plans to learn the language, of course). So many western expats in Ukraine express a desire to learn to speak the language, but not too many do — except for those who already spoke it when they arrived. The path of least resistance for English speaking foreigners is often too powerful to overcome. What's more, the older you get, the less your brain feels like changing its structure around, which is what is required to become fluent in a foreign language.
Can I pick up Russian or Ukrainian while in Ukraine?
If you are already in Ukraine and nonetheless decide to learn Ukrainian or Russian from scratch, enroll in language courses or find a one-on-one tutor and devote at least an hour or two a day to serious language study. Otherwise the chances of overcoming the tendency to rely on English (even if it's not your native language) are very slim. Keep in mind that it takes a few months just to begin understanding normal conversation, not to mention expressing your thoughts coherently, and by the time this happens you will have already picked up a half-dozen friends who speak English with you. Trying to switch the language you speak with your friends is very difficult. If you want to speak Russian or Ukrainian you will have to find new friends who speak it with you from the very beginning or make friends with a lot of babushki who you are certain will never learn a word of English.
Read tips for learning Russian and Ukrainian for expats in Ukraine
Read about The Curse of the Amero-European Expat
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The easiest way to learn a language well
Some speculation on the future of Russian in Ukraine
It would be naïve to think that after a generation or two of ukrainization Russian will disappear altogether or play only a marginal role in Ukrainian society. This ignores history and the economic and political reality of the far larger Russian state looming to the northeast.
People rarely change their mother tongue and are almost always successful in passing it on to their children in areas where this language is spoken by a majority of the population. It is very hard to tip the scales in favor of Ukrainian in a city where Russian is the majority language, or vice versa. The proportion of Ukrainians who consider Ukrainian or Russian their mother tongue has remained quite stable over the years. Ukrainian seems to be slowly advancing as the demographic situation worsens in the Russian-speaking east and south,
primarily Ukrainian-speaking rural residents migrate to the cities for work, and school and university instruction in Ukrainian slowly makes its mark.
If Ukraine's government tries to totally marginalize the Russian language, and a generation of people arises that has been incubated from the Russian language and culture by an education system that ignores anything Russian, I might expect to see Russia-related fads appear among youth such as a fascination with Russian literature and film, etc. as a sort of "boomerang effect." However, complete "incubation" from Russian is currently impossible to achieve; bookstores are flooded with primarily Russian-language books even in the west and center, Russian music and cinema are popular, and economic ties between the countries are strong. It would be like Canada trying to keep out American influences. I think that's a fair comparison.
Over time, if Ukraine is able to preserve its independence, we might expect to see more and more differences accumulate between the Russian spoken in Ukraine and that of Russia. This process is similar to how British English and American English have diverged. Russians (in Russia) have constant exposure to the Russian literary classics and Russian cultural roots, which anchor the language to centuries-old literary traditions. Russian speaking Ukrainians, on the other hand, may gradually have fewer and fewer bonds to these traditions, and their language may undergo greater changes, especially if Russian is not taught in schools. Even today we see many young people whose mother tongue is Russian but who cannot write properly in the language since they have learned to write in Ukrainian at school, yet they cannot speak Ukrainian fluently.
My prediction is that Ukrainian Russian will be influenced by the Ukrainian language more and more, with people first using Ukrainian words for added effect as they do today, then eventually incorporating them in regular speech. Secondly, Ukraine's national character — which is recognizably different from Russia's and likely to differentiate even more in coming decades — will continue to influence the language. Ukrainian Russian will likely become more terse and pragmatic, cut off from Russia's heavyweight literary traditions — much like American English has come to differ from British. Eventually a unique Ukrainian style of Russian may gain literary recognition.