What to Know About the Ukrainian Language, According to Duolingo

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Duolingo shared a spike in their users' interest in learning Ukrainian and shares some history alongside helpful tips for learning the language.

Duolingo recently reported a 200% increase in users that were studying Ukrainian between the weeks of February 14 and February 21.

The language learning site attests this spike to not only a growth in interest in Ukraine and its official language, but a potential desire for solidarity with the country during these tumultuous times.

Duolingo created a need-to-know guide for learning Ukrainian that included some historical context and common mistakes.

According to Duolingo, Ukrainian is a Slavic language, meaning it's related to languages such as Russian, Czech, and Polish. Modern Ukrainian is very diverse but shares some commonalities with similar languages, including using a version of the Cyrillic alphabet that shares a lot of letters with the Russian writing system, but has a few unique letters to represent sounds specific to Ukrainian.

Even with these similarities, not all neighboring countries speak or understand Ukrainian, according to the site. Because the Soviet Union, in which the spoken language was Russian, occupied Ukraine for almost 70 years, Russian was the only official language of Ukraine. 

This meant that the government, schools, and businesses were all required to solely utilize Russian, leading to Ukrainian families speaking their native language at home and Russian in public spaces, subsequently leading to older Ukrainians growing up around Russian and younger generations still having Russian in their daily lives.

Ukrainian and Russian have some similarities, but also have many differences. “... because the languages come from a common ancestor, sometimes a speaker of one language could deduce the meaning of a word based on its roots — the same way an English speaker might be able to look at the word Hund in German, relate it to “hound,” and figure out, with some work, that it means ‘dog,’” the blog reads.

Duolingo’s blog says that learning Ukrainian as an English speaker for the first time could be tricky, especially because of what’s called the case system.

“This means that nouns change their form depending on what role they play in the sentence,” the blog reads.

According to Duolingo, many languages have case systems, including English, even though English speakers tend to mark case on a few words.

The blog also addresses vocabulary, accents, pronunciation, and spelling, in addition to covering how language can be political and connected to identity. 

Regarding the current war, the site speaks to a video of the Ukrainian President Zelenskyy switching between Ukrainian and Russian in the same speech depending on whether he is addressing his fellow Ukrainians or sending a message to the Russian forces within the country.

Duolingo says that where a Russian speaker puts emphasis on the word Ukraine can also determine identity or political alignment: "... it can sound more like the word for a borderland, or region at the edge of a larger area, or it can sound like a separate word entirely, emphasizing Ukrainian sovereignty,” they write.

“So Russian speakers who want to suggest that Ukraine is part of Russia will put the stress on the "a" in the Russian word украинский (Ukrainskiy), which makes it sound more like a borderland. Ukrainians and Russians who support Ukrainian sovereignty will pronounce "Ukrainian" with the stress on the "yi" in украинский (Ukrayinskiy).”

The blog posts ends with further acknowledging the importance of language within politics, and providing volunteer opportunities if you speak Ukrainian and other Slavic languages, such as Translators without Borders.

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