Living in Ukraine and not knowing the language

I walk the walk but I don't talk the talk.

While walking the streets, ordering in restaurants, and buying groceries people have mistaken me and the other Canadians/Americans as locals. We just smile and shake our heads or offer a "Я не знаю" (I don't know) or "Я не розумію" (I don't understand).

I do my best to keep up at dance, and at times (very few times, that is) I even blend in with the other 40 dancers, if I do say so myself.

But the language, I'm not quite there yet.

I took language lessons with my mom for two years in Winnipeg on Saturday mornings. It was pretty casual, and it was a good start, but I wasn't able to keep up with practicing as much as I should have. So coming to Ukraine, I knew the alphabet well and a few odd words, but that's about it.

Anna, our instructor, encourages Hannah and Natalya during a language class.

Anna, our instructor, encourages Hannah and Natalya during a language class.

My initial plan was to learn Ukrainian for when I toured Ukraine with Troyanda, but when I found out I was doing the yearlong program and that I'd have language lessons twice per week, due to time I thought I'd leave it until then.

So now here I am, slowly learning the language. The seven of us dancers meet with our language instructor at a nearby coffeeshop for an hour and a half on Tuesdays and Thursdays. She encourages us to just speak and not worry about grammar (which we started and struggled with this week). We've learned a few short phrases, verbs, random nouns, and we're now able to have very short (and somewhat meaningless — we know the smallest of small talk) conversations. But it's a start! It's more than we knew when we came.

Plus, we're starting to piece together what our instructors say during rehearsal. They speak Russian (like many other people throughout Ukraine, especially Kyiv) but because of the similarities with Ukrainian, we can recognize words here and there.

So what's it like not being able to communicate with the 3 million people in the city around you?

It's mentally exhausting.

The moment before I'm about to order food, ask directions, or check out at a store, I can't help but think about what the interaction will be like. Will they speak English? Will I magically become fluent in Ukrainian? Will it be way less of a deal than I anticipate? (The latter is usually true.)

I'm someone who likes to make as small of a scene as possible, to slip in and out of a store or coffee shop without causing any sort of disorder to the flow of the day. But that's hard to do when you speak your broken Ukrainian and the employee has no idea what you're saying, or they say something to you in Ukrainian and you have to respond, "Sorry, only English."

And overall, no one really seems to care. It's not like people get angry when they figure out who we really are, people who don't speak their language. (Ok, but I'm sure they get frustrated at times.) And you can get by with speaking English, for the most part.

But to me, I won't truly feel like a local until I know the language. So I just have to accept that at times people won't understand me nor me them, practice Ukrainian as much as I can (since, you know, there are people to practice with everywhere), and move on.

You become fluent in politely pointing.

I like Puzata Hata, a buffet-style restaurant for not only the inexpensive prices (you can get a filling meal of chicken, vegetables, and potatoes for $3.50 CAD), but also because I can just point to what I want (and hope for the best the servers don't ask any further questions).

And with a polite point comes a smile and a дякую (thanks), so I don't feel like I'm being rude even though I say no more than a word.

You get laughed at when you speak Ukrainian.

But it's all in good fun. Even if I ace a phrase, there's no covering up my accent. The girls from Virsky say it's "cute" when we use a Ukrainian word here and there ... but what I think they mean is laughable. But we're trying.

You get stared at when you speak English.

This is likely for a couple reasons: 1. We seem to speak way louder than Ukrainians, so no matter the language we're talking we're going to get stares. 2. We're foreigners, and that automatically seems to make us intriguing.

What about at dance? How do we get by?

I sometimes wonder the same thing. A couple of our instructors speak English, but they usually speak in only Russian during class, since the 40 other dancers outnumber the seven of us.

The Ukrainian langauge pours down on us everywhere we go. Here's hoping we soak it all up. Photo by Hannah Picklyk at the  Кураж Базар .

The Ukrainian langauge pours down on us everywhere we go. Here's hoping we soak it all up. Photo by Hannah Picklyk at the Кураж Базар.

If we need it, like if the instructor has something he or she wants to make sure we understand, one of the dancers who know some English will translate for us. But for the most part we get by on our own, mainly by observation.

Observation is key to dance even when you speak the same language. The instructor often makes gestures to show what to correct or to show what's next. And if the instructor doesn't, you watch the dancers who know what they're doing and follow along. Plus, for dance lots of terms are French (at least the ballet terms) so we know them by the same name back home (though I've noticed different endings, like "chuk," added after phrases I recognize).

Again, this makes it mentally exhausting. We're trying to listen for words we know plus watch the instructor at all time while also following the other dancers.

But it's all worth it.

I'm definitely out of my comfort zone, but living in a country where your ancestors came from is a beautiful thing, as is learning the language, speaking the same words, that they did.