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:

1) educational;

2) motivational;

3) economic;

4) geopolitical;

5) emotional.

Educational Factor

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.

Motivational Factor

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, 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 (Levkovska 2006).

Economic Factor

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.

Geopolitical Factor

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.

Emotional Factor

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 (“language allergy”).

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. 484).

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 particular


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Table of contents: The Kazakh-American Free University Academic Journal №3 - 2011

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