Bilingualism in Ukraine: English learning implications
Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011
Chesnokova Anna, Kyiv National Linguistic University, Ukraine
Sergeyeva Maria, Specialized Programmes of English Language Learning for Adults Center, Ukraine
As Ukraine is becoming a member of Western organizations such as the
Council of Europe, the European Union, OSCE, WTO, and preparing to become the
host of world sports’ events (e.g. “Eurocup” 2012), awareness of the need for
multicultural policies in this post-Soviet country is rising fast. The issue of
foreign language learning (English in particular, as lingua franca for
international communication) is gradually receiving greater attention as an
essential factor for becoming a member of the European and the world community.
A Eurobarometer survey demonstrated that “47% of EU citizens spoke
English well enough to hold a casual conversation” (European Commission 2001).
No data is available to asses the extent of knowledge of English in Ukraine. However, very rough figures gathered by means of a street-poll, show that approximately
only 1 Ukrainian out of 5 speaks English at a level sufficient for general
communication. The street-poll was carried out by a Portuguese ex-patriot on
one of the central streets of Kyiv. Twenty-eight randomly chosen individuals
were asked in English to give directions to different places. Only 4
respondents showed an excellent knowledge of English, and 2 persons
demonstrated the ability to communicate in English sufficiently well. It is
reasonable to assume that if the street-poll had been carried out in any other
Ukrainian city, the figures would have definitely been much lower.
Such wide discrepancy between the knowledge of English in Western
European countries and the knowledge of English in the Ukraine raises the question of what factors might be accountable for the lack of the English
language knowledge among the Ukrainian population.
In the results of the Eurobarometer survey revealed the factors
mentioned by the European respondents as discouraging them from language learning:
lack of time (34%), motivation (30%), and expense of language classes (22%)
(European Commission 2006, p. 5).
Our analysis of the factors accountable for the lack of knowledge of
English among the Ukrainian population, revealed the following factors:
In the Ukraine, English language learning starts at primary school
and continues through higher education. The Ukrainian system of education,
however, is rather new. Only a small percentage of the population has graduated
from the system, while the majority learned foreign languages in the Soviet
educational system. Thus, the Soviet system of foreign languages education
should also be taken into consideration. During the Soviet times, learning
English as a foreign language usually started in the secondary school and
continued at higher educational institutions. Without evaluating the present
Soviet system of English language instruction, one may expect that more than 10
years of even poor language instruction should result in a level of English language
proficiency that is sufficient for communication. This level is not achieved as
apparent from the data presented above.
One other possible explanation for the data on the English language skills
among Ukrainians is the lack of incentives, material ones in particular. A
study of the motivation for learning foreign languages in the European Union
showed that the reasons for foreign language learning are becoming more and
more tied to practical benefits, such as using the skills at work (32%),
working abroad (27%), and getting a better job inside the country (23%)
(Special Eurobarometer 2006, p. 5).
An analysis of 50 randomly chosen employment ads (taken from
www.alljob.com.ua), all offering a salary higher than $1,000, however, shows
that 32 of them (about 65%) require a “good knowledge of English”. The
examination of 50 randomly chosen resumes from the same Internet source
demonstrated that only 14 (fewer than 30%) job-seekers meet this requirement,
indicating “fluent English” under “foreign languages” in their CVs. Given that
the offered salary is much higher that the average wage in the Ukraine, UAH 2,233 (about $ 279), a question arises: Why is such salary not a sufficient
motivation for learning English? This question is especially intriguing taking
into account the data obtained by the Ukrainian Institute of Social Studies and
the Social Monitoring Center. According to the data, 92% of Ukrainian youth
give a high priority to “a high level of payment” in their system of values
While money may be a potential motivation for language learning, it
may also serve as an obstacle to learning a language if learning English comes
with a cost. To test whether cost is an obstacle we gathered information about
tuition fees for different language courses in Kyiv. We found that the average
monthly cost per person varies from $90 to $130, the cost per hour being $5.
Such a cost is relatively low, given the fact that a 1.5-hour lesson of English
in Kyiv costs less than a cinema ticket, priced $8. This data gives us the
grounds to claim that the economic factor brings only a limited contribution to
the lack of the English language knowledge among the Ukrainians.
Although geographically Ukraine may be considered the center of Europe, politically this is by far not the case. Only sixteen years ago when the Soviet
Union collapsed, the borders of Ukraine, as well as the borders of all the
other Soviet Republics, were closed to Western influence. This resulted in the
absence of an English language environment necessary for language learning.
Hence, lack of language environment might be more accountable for the fact that
many Ukrainians do not know English than the educational system or lack of
motivation are. Interestingly, however, there does not seem to be an
improvement in English skills among the Ukrainian population at this point
despite the fact that the cultural influence of Western civilization (the
United States in particular) on Ukraine has sky-rocketed since 1991. It is very
likely that the last one, the emotional factor can be responsible for the lack
of knowledge of the English language among Ukrainians.
Much research over the last decades has concentrated on the role of
emotion in learning (Christianson 1992). Researchers have different, often
quite contradictory, opinions on this issue about the role of emotions in
foreign language learning. Some of them claim that “the memory advantage for
highly affective material was the same for negative as for positive reactions
to the material” (Bower 1992, p. 15); while others state that it is only
positive affect that has a powerful and facilitating effect on memory and
learning (Isen 1999).
Given the fact that prior research has revealed that emotions might
affect foreign language acquisition, it is reasonable to hypothesize that
emotions associated with language learning might be responsible for the lack of
English skills in Ukrainians. Can emotions enhance or hinder the process of
English language learning? Is it the case that positive emotions account for
success in acquiring skills in English, and negative ones might account for the
failure to do so? Is there such a notion as “language allergy”? Is it “language
allergy” that prevents Ukrainians from learning English? These questions cannot
be answered without some awareness of the linguistic situation in Ukraine and its language policies during the 20th century.
In the Soviet Union, the primary language of communication in Ukraine was Russian, Since Ukraine became an independent state in 1991, Ukrainian has been
proclaimed the only official state language and have been actively introduced in
the country. This introduction has occurred not without resistance from a large
part of the population. The issue of bilingualism in Ukrainian and Russian has
always been on the political agenda (Kolesnikov 2003). One of the key slogans
of a leading political party was the idea of introducing Russian as a second
state language, which raised numerous discussions both during the last
presidential and parliamentary elections (Preobrazhenskaya 2006). The opinion
shared by the majority of the Western Ukraine population is that bilingualism
would lead to another Russification of Ukraine, thus restricting the rights of
the Ukrainian-speaking population in their own country (Slezko 2000, Shaizhin
2006, Podobed 2007). Another view ascribed mostly to the population of the Eastern Ukraine is that bilingualism is essential for preserving the rights of those who
consider Russian as their native language (Kotsina 2007).
The introduction of the Ukrainian language has occurred as rapidly
as the process of Russification, or the introduction of the Russian language
during the Soviet past. We argue that the rapid interchange of Ukrainization
and Russification processes has resulted not only in the rejection of the
governmental language policy by the population of Ukraine, but also in the
development of the general negative attitude to learning foreign languages
The process of Russification that occurred in the Soviet Union has
been relatively fast. In 1958 only 21% of children studied in Ukrainian schools
compared to 1926, when over 97% of high school students were obtaining their
education in Ukrainian (Dzyuba 2005, p. 175). It is worth noting that, before
1920s, there were hardly any Ukrainian schools at all after the Ems Ukaz of
1876, which banned the Ukrainian language.
Similarly, the processes of Ukranization, which replaced
Russification, was also rapid. In 1990-1991 the number of students using
Ukrainian in higher educational institutions of Ukraine constituted only 7%
(Ivanishin and Radevych-Vynnizkiy 1992, p. 128). This situation has changed
dramatically, however, after 1991 when the independence of Ukraine was proclaimed and Ukrainian was recognized as the only official state language. During the
first years of independence, the share students attending classes with the
Ukrainian language of instruction at the secondary level was as follows:
1991-92 – 45%, 1995-96 – 58%, 2004-05 – 77%. In higher educational institutions
at the I and II level of accreditation 7% of students studied in Ukrainian in 1990-91. In 1995-96 these numbers soared to 55% and in 2005-06, they increased to 85% (Statistical
Yearbook of Ukraine 2004, p. 477; Statistical Yearbook of Ukraine 2007, p.
These figures somewhat illustrate the fact that over the first
decade of independence the government transformed the system of secondary and
higher education from overwhelmingly Russian to overwhelmingly Ukrainian. These
essential, though abrupt, changes led to the charges of Ukrainization, put
forward mostly by the Russian-speaking population and to the general
dissatisfaction of the public with the language policy, and, possibly, language
aversion towards either Ukrainian or Russian. .
What remains to be seen, however, is whether this opposition, or
“language allergy”, hinders learning other foreign languages, English in
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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011