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"Palianytsia" is not the most difficult thing: how Ukrainians teach Ukrainian to foreigners

*This article was created by the Happy Monday platform and is reproduced in English below by ENGin. The original article is available here.


Teachers of ENGin: Speak Ukrainian

According to just one language learning platform, in 2022 the number of people learning Ukrainian reached more than 1.3 million. Foreigners do this as a sign of solidarity, out of curiosity about our culture, exploring their roots, etc. How do they learn Ukrainian and what could be more difficult than pronouncing "palyanytsia"? Ukrainians who teach Ukrainian to foreigners in the ENGin: Speak Ukrainian program talk about this.



"I thought, This is a chance to popularize our language and we shouldn't miss it."

Teacher of the ENGin: Speak Ukrainian program Kateryna Kekish

Kateryna Kekish


My name is Kateryna Kekish, and I was born in the Lviv region. I am a translator and English teacher by education. During my studies, I said that I would never become a teacher: either a translator or a doctor. But the love of my students won me over: for almost four years now, I have been giving online English lessons to my young students around the world.


On the decision to teach foreigners and the specifics of the lessons


I learned about the program from ENGin news because I am also involved in another project of the organization. I was impressed that foreigners want to learn Ukrainian, and I thought: this is a chance to popularize our language and it should not be missed. I am proud that I can teach foreigners my native language, the language of a free and strong people. 


Many of the best sons and daughters of Ukraine gave their lives to keep the Ukrainian language alive, and I believe that we should do everything possible to ensure that it is never forgotten.  

The selection process for the program took place in several stages: first, I had to fill out a form, tell a short story about myself and prepare a sample lesson. Despite the fact that I teach English, I had never taught Ukrainian to foreigners, so I was very nervous. But my experience helped me a lot. 


I spend an hour preparing one lesson and another hour preparing homework. I try to listen to the needs of my students. If they have a high level of language proficiency, then conversational practice is important for them: we talk a lot, analyze texts or songs that they don't understand, I write down new words for them in flash cards, and then create exercises to reinforce them. If the students are at the elementary or intermediate level, we do various interactive exercises and watch videos-they love it. 


On the motivation to learn Ukrainian


I have seven students, all of them from the United States, most of them live in New York. I am amazed at how and with what perseverance they are learning Ukrainian. My oldest student is 74 years old, and my youngest student is 26. All of them have very interesting professions: someone has their own startup, someone works in cybersecurity, someone translates from Chinese, someone is a psychotherapist, and someone is a former English teacher. 


The reasons for learning a language are quite diverse. All of my students participate in another ENGin program where they teach Ukrainians English, so they would like to understand their partner better. They also like how beautiful and melodic our language is. Some of them want to learn the language of their great-grandparents better, others need it for work. 


One student has a very touching story: her great-grandparents are from Ukraine, she has a relative, a boy from Kharkiv, who was left alone here because of the war, and she does everything she can to help him. So it is very important for her to understand him and speak Ukrainian with him.

About the most difficult and easiest things in the Ukrainian language for foreigners


The hardest part is pronouncing sounds that don't exist in English: [g], [shch], as well as consonant blends, such as in the word "teacher". It is also difficult for them to feel the difference between [l] and [l']. We use articulation exercises to pronounce the sounds, but I always say that it's unrealistic for a beginner to sound like a native speaker, so it will get better with practice. And, of course, word declension is also difficult, since foreigners do not have so many different cases.


The easiest ones are anglicisms in Ukrainian: my students are very happy when they see them because they know that such a word is easy to learn 🙂


Classes with foreigners also influenced my Ukrainian. For example, I now know why we use the word "forty" for ten 40, because other numbers have certain endings, and this is a completely different word. I also learned the origin of many words, because my students know other languages, and I often give them different associations to make it easier to remember.


On cultural exchange with students 


In general, cultural exchange is ongoing. To practice reading, in addition to texts, we read poems by Vasyl Symonenko and Lina Kostenko, listen to Ukrainian music, and discover prominent Ukrainians such as Ivan Puluy and Igor Sikorsky. We share our traditions: they tell me theirs, and I tell them how we do it. 


My students are very supportive of Ukraine and help Ukrainians, they volunteer a lot. I have never heard any russian narratives from them. When my brother Vasyl, an incredible man who was a senior combat medic in the 81st Air Assault Brigade and who voluntarily joined the Armed Forces in the first days of the full-scale invasion, died in the war, my students supported me morally and did not let me fade away, it was very touching. 


About the most pleasant and difficult things in the classroom


The best part is how the students share their successes outside of class: how they start dialogues with Ukrainians in the United States, how they get out of trouble when they don't know a word or the correct ending. Or when they get creative with their homework. At such moments, their eyes light up, and I realize that we are on the right track. 


The hardest part is explaining exceptions in Ukrainian and the fact that for every exception there is another exception. Sometimes it's hard to explain why something works the way it does. 


I met some incredible people during the program. It is very inspiring when you see how they, at the age of 74, want to learn Ukrainian from scratch and that there are no barriers or borders for them. 


I am very happy that I can spread the Ukrainian language and culture, that people are interested in it, tell their friends, and more and more people know what Ukraine is.


"Ukrainian is more difficult than English, so there is no time to relax"

 

Teacher of the ENGin: Speak Ukrainian program Iryna Kumanovska

Iryna Kumanovska


My name is Iryna Kumanovska, and I teach English to Ukrainians and Ukrainian to foreigners. I have a degree in teaching, but after graduation, I didn't feel much desire to work in this field. I returned to teaching last year and realized that this is my niche.


On the decision to teach foreigners and the specifics of the lessons


I've been learning Ukrainian since childhood and I love it on the level of language as well: since I'm a philologist by training, I like to study, for example, sentence structure and word structure. 


I am pleased when the people around me share the same interests as me, so I am happy to help others learn Ukrainian. 

Before the program, I had about a year of teaching experience, but I was teaching English to Ukrainians, not the other way around. So, of course, I was worried about whether I would understand everything, even though I had a fairly high level of English, whether the student would like my class, etc.  Some actors or singers say that even with 10 years of experience, they are nervous every time they go on stage, and I understand them. I still get nervous before every lesson, even though we are on the same page with many students. 


In general, the structure of the lessons has similarities to teaching English, but here you need to remember some of the peculiarities of Ukrainian grammar: we have a lot of rules and even more exceptions. Preparation for a lesson can take different amounts of time: from 30 minutes to 2 hours, depending on your mood. When the students have a fairly high level of Ukrainian, we talk about the topic of the lesson, during which they learn new words, constructions, and deepen their knowledge of grammar. With beginner students, it doesn't work like that because we can only speak English. So we gradually learn new words and do various exercises.


On the motivation to learn Ukrainian


In total, I had 7 students, all from different parts of the United States. The oldest was 60 years old: he decided to learn a completely different language just for himself and to express his support for Ukrainians. The desire to support Ukrainians is the most common reason for learning a language, which is very nice. Other reasons include the desire to read books, watch movies, and listen to music in Ukrainian.


We work with students for an hour a week. Of course, such a pace cannot be called very productive, but on the other hand, everyone has their own life and work, so let's make learning Ukrainian a pleasure. 

About the most difficult and easiest things in Ukrainian for foreigners


Everything is the most difficult at the beginning. Soft consonants, the [r] sound, and words with more than six letters are especially difficult. Many Ukrainian sounds (if not almost all) have different pronunciations. With some, an entire lesson can be devoted to pronunciation. 


It becomes easier when students already know how to do it correctly. For example, when we teach grammar and they can write a basic sentence themselves.


As a native speaker myself, I may not notice some of its peculiarities and not ask questions: "Why is it this way and not that way?". But when you teach a language, you can understand what's what. And, of course, you can also improve your skills, especially grammar (my students and I haven't yet gotten to punctuation).


On cultural exchange with students


In class, we have no time to discuss anything other than the language. Ukrainian is more difficult than English, so there is no time to relax. In class, we usually work on grammar, pronunciation, and listening. Sometimes we touch on Ukrainian culture, but there are special interest groups for political discussions. 


About the most pleasant and difficult things in the classroom


The hardest thing for me is the moral burden at the end of the day. Not from foreigners, but from teaching in general. It's also hard when a student is not motivated, but I've never had that with foreigners. It's also a bit difficult to explain grammar, especially when there is nothing to compare it to in English. For example, in Ukrainian we have cases, but in English there is no such thing. The most enjoyable thing is when I see students' progress and when they notice their results themselves. 



"My students are often fascinated by the logic of the Ukrainian language" 

Teacher of the ENGin: Speak Ukrainian program Ihor Ilntskyi

Ihor Ilnytskyi


My name is Ihor Ilnytskyi, I live in Ivano-Frankivsk, I'm studying to be a philologist and translator, and I love music - I play a musical instrument and generally enjoy listening (especially Taylor Swift:).


On the decision to teach foreigners and the specifics of the lessons


When the ENGin: Speak Ukrainian program, I was already an ENGin student and felt the need to somehow thank the program that was able to pull me from a minus level of English to B2-C1 in a year and a half.


I already had teaching experience, but it was not in Ukrainian. So, of course, at first I had some doubts about whether I would be able to teach. When I received the test assignment, I was even surprised because it was quite simple.


In general, the communicative method is one of the most popular in my classes, but it all depends on the needs of the student. Preparing for lessons takes about half an hour: checking online materials and making a Quizlet set. 


On the motivation to learn Ukrainian


My students are very cool. We are on the same page, and that is probably what I like the most. Since the beginning of the program, I have had 6 students, most of them Americans, but there is one student from Turkey.


For some, the reason for learning Ukrainian is the full-scale invasion of russia, for others it is their own Ukrainian roots, for others it is the desire to make friends from Ukraine, and for others it is university studies, which require some knowledge of the culture of the Slavic peoples. However, the impetus for all was clearly the full-scale invasion. 


About the most difficult and easiest things in the Ukrainian language for foreigners


Probably everyone knows the joke about "loaf" and "strawberries". But in my opinion, the most difficult thing is pronouncing the [g] sound and declining nouns, because cases are a pain for people who don't understand this concept. For example, we went over this topic with one student at the very beginning of the course (she's now in her third month), but she still has trouble understanding which case to use.


But understanding the genders and agreeing adjectives with nouns is quite easy. Also, my students are often fascinated by the logicality of the Ukrainian language. 


For example, in one class, we were going over the months and seasons, and a student was very surprised that "November" comes from "leaves fall" and "April" comes from "to bloom."

As for myself, I noticed that I was much more comfortable speaking in English. This encouraged me to read more in Ukrainian. Now I have decided to re-read the works that were once excluded from the school curriculum on Ukrainian literature, such as Ivan Bahrianyi's Garden of Gethsemane, Oleksandr Dovzhenko's Ukraine on Fire, and Yuriy Yanovsky's Hollywood on the Black Sea.


On cultural exchange with students


The vast majority want to learn to talk about everyday topics: clothes, weather, movies, music. Of course, many questions about culture and history arise in the process of learning some specific topics, such as why it is correct to say "soft cheese" and not "cottage cheese" (mostly all such word parsing boils down to russification, which lasted for over 400 years and, unfortunately, is still going on). Of course, when you start telling the story of the oppression of the Ukrainian language, you can't miss what is happening right now. 


I am very glad that my students are conscious and do not succumb to russian propaganda and pro-russian narratives.

About the most pleasant and difficult things in the classroom


The most rewarding thing for any teacher is to see a student's progress. The hardest thing is not to confuse the rules of both languages (which sometimes happens). Overall, I am delighted with the program because the people I met here have become more than just students. They are my friends because they are very easy to get along with, and the energy and enthusiasm they share with me is just crazy.



"It is very unusual and pleasant to realize that Ukrainian is of interest" 

Teacher of the ENGin: Speak Ukrainian program Alina Petrenko

Alina Petrenko


My name is Alina Petrenko, I live in Kharkiv and spread the Ukrainian language, in particular by teaching foreign students.    


On the decision to teach foreigners and the specifics of the lessons


I have been a student of ENGin since I learned about their opportunities to improve the level of spoken English for Ukrainians. When they announced the opportunity to teach Ukrainian to foreigners, I immediately sent my resume. It's very unusual and pleasant to realize that Ukrainian is of interest to people around the world. 


If I can help people learn Ukrainian or spread our values and culture, then why not try. 

I had no specific teaching experience before, but I had an idea of what the lessons should be like, which helped me pass all the selection stages. I remember how embarrassing the first lesson with a student was. But with each subsequent lesson, all doubts and worries dissipated and turned into teaching experience.

 

Each lesson consists of an explanation of theoretical material, exercises to consolidate it, and new vocabulary. And although you need to know a lot to start speaking Ukrainian, we practice basic small talk from the very first lessons. I spend about 1-2 hours on preparation. I have certain templates that I personalize for each student, and I also add information about current events in Ukraine. It is important for foreigners to hear news not from a screen, but from an ordinary person.


On the motivation to learn Ukrainian

 

My students are people of different nationalities, professions, and interests. All of them now live in the United States. The youngest student was 27 years old, the oldest was 75. Some of them have been working with me for a long time, while others are just starting to learn the Ukrainian alphabet. 

          

Most of the students are ENGin volunteers who teach Ukrainians English. In the process of cultural exchange, they become interested in our language and even want to visit Ukraine. Some of them know 4-5 languages and add Ukrainian to their linguistic toolkit. For others, on the contrary, it is their first experience of learning another language. But all the students are united by the support and understanding of Ukrainians, as they also learn about our culture and history. 


I like to tell students: "Ukrainian is the language of victory."

About the most difficult and easiest things in the Ukrainian language for foreigners


In the beginning, it is very difficult to understand how the Ukrainian language is organized and its structure, to memorize how to pronounce letters and read words. You also need special patience with the cases. But I would say that the most difficult thing is not to lose motivation to continue learning Ukrainian, because with each lesson, your linguistic horizons expand.

 

Students like the vocabulary, especially if it can be used immediately to make sentences or short dialogues. I also like the fact that in Ukrainian, words are pronounced the same way as they are written. It's easy to remember what I make associations to. For example, when learning the letter "y", I tell them about Ivan Malkovych's poem "The Candle of the Letter "Y"" and why it needs to be protected. 

    

I believe that the teaching experience has had a positive impact on my level of Ukrainian. From now on, I notice more and more interesting grammatical or lexical constructions that I want to use in everyday life, and I try to replace foreign words with Ukrainian ones. 


I believe that you first need to enrich your vocabulary and level of language comprehension in order to share it with students.

On cultural exchange with students


Through the lens of language, we discuss our history and culture, as well as current events. The first lesson begins with dispelling myths about Ukraine, where I ask students to choose which fact is true. And some of them, such as the Ukrainian app Diia or the possibility of convenient online banking, really impress them. And in some cases, we have to change their minds, because there are still so many political stereotypes around our country. That's why I try to convey the truth about our life and the war. Thanks to their support and understanding, we have not had any disputes or misunderstandings. I think that anyone who is motivated to learn the Ukrainian language can distinguish between the truth and russian propaganda.


About the most pleasant and difficult things in the classroom


I'm pleased when the number of students grows for me and my colleagues. I am pleased with the first successes when students begin to pronounce words correctly and then make sentences. It's also nice when they are eager to learn something new, when they send photos of how they printed a sticker with the text "Glory to Ukraine" on it for their car, or try Petrykivka painting as art therapy.


I can't say that I find it difficult to teach foreigners. I like to share my knowledge with those who want to get it, and every time I finish a lesson, I feel inspired and energized to keep working. 


I am happy to teach because it is not only about language, but also about our values, culture and history. 

We have a lot to show the world, and it will be pleasantly surprised by Ukrainians more than once. I think foreigners are also aware of this, so the smartest ones have already started learning Ukrainian.


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