Language, at first glance, seems simple and straight forward. One human makes certain sounds or writes certain symbols on a piece of paper and his fellow humans should know exactly what he is trying to say. As I have learned so far in my short stint in Ukraine, simplicity couldn’t be further from the truth. Whether it be street signs, people talking, or simple food menus I have so far been ignorant to the message. As far as my basic communications skills are concerned, I might possess the ability to communicate with a toddler.
So how to alleviate this problem? The good news is that the Peace Corps has a fine, tuned machine that is capable (I’ve been told) of helping even the hardest of heads learn to speak and understand Ukrainian. For the moment I want you to picture a small child. A child who is just beginning to form basic sentences. By basic I mean, “I want that,” or “See dog run.” This imaginary child possesses as much of an understanding of English as I do of Ukrainian. So for the next two months I, and numerous other Americans spread across Chernihiv, will be spending 4 hours a day, 3-5 days a week learning everything we possibly can about the Ukrainian language.
The focus on studying Ukrainian begs another question that I have been asked by numerous people back in the States. What do they speak over there? Russian or Ukrainian? The short answer is both Russian and Ukrainian and it all depends on what part of the country you are in. Where it becomes problematic is that, even though both languages share virtually the same alphabet, they are two separate and distinct languages. All of us who are in training are being taught strictly Ukrainian. Ukrainian is the official language of the country and all government and most televisions shows are in Ukrainian, so it is deemed more important for our work. After all, we are here to work with local governments and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) so if we cannot communicate with our counterparts what would be the point. Unfortunately, learning a language and using it effectively are entirely different animals.
At first glance, the Cyrillic alphabet shares many similarities with English. There are: A, B, C, K, M, T, H, i, O, Y, P, X, and b. Some of these (thank goodness) actually sound how you think they should. A, K, M, T, and O look how they sound. Others, unfortunately, are what are called “false friends.” They look like English letters but make an entirely different sound. For example: “B” makes the “V” sound, “H” makes an “N” sound, “P” makes an “R” sound, and “X” kind of makes an “H” sound. To make matters even more complicated, there are numerous other letters and some that sort of look like English letters as can be seen below.
All of this, and the precarious situation of adapting to a new cultural and environment, make the training particularly challenging. However, the other trainees and I have confronted these obstacles head on. I am slowly beginning to pick up on certain words during conversations and am able to ask for simple food items and ask rudimentary questions. For the time being, all successful communications are considered monumental wins. Whether it be ordering food, asking how someone’s day was, or knowing how to tell someone my name, they are all considered huge steps forward. Hopefully, in time, I will be able to speak with ease in Ukrainian and/or Russian. Until such time, I will continue to say yes, (TAK) Good (Добрий) and No (Hi) more then I probably should and continue to play charades while attempting to communicate.
***PS: Hi (No) sounds like knee just to throw an extra wrench in the communication.