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I am traveling from the US, and the only language I really know is American English. I will be visiting cities in various districts of Ukraine: Kiev, Chornobyl, Cherkassy, Kherson, etc. I will be traveling with a native Ukrainian who is fluent in English.

I probably have 5-10 hours a week for the next few weeks before I leave to learn some basics of the languages. Should I focus only on Ukrainian, Russian, or some of each?

I understand Ukrainian is the official language and the most common native language of the population, and that Russian is the second most common language. I realize I won't learn much in just a few weeks, but I figure any bit I learn will help me understand more than I otherwise would.

Edit: @Karlson: Maybe I am kidding myself to think I will be able to learn enough even to be better than nothing. Am I just wasting my time? I wouldn't mind learning some greetings and maybe some basics of the writing and distinguishing one language from the other.

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    You want to try to understand what is being told to you? Or you want to be able to ask for something? Few weeks isn't enough for either. – Karlson Oct 17 '14 at 2:59
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    To be quite honest with you a few weeks would be enough to learn a few phrases that you can say. Problem will be comprehension. The Russian and Ukrainian languages are similar in a lot of respects and dissimilar in quite a bit of others on top of this at least 3 distinct dialects of Ukrainian in use as well as Surzhyk, which is a blend of both languages. So my suggestion is still use Russian. – Karlson Oct 17 '14 at 3:16
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    Ordinarily, "everyone" in Ukraine speaks Russian. But at this particular time, it may be easier to make a more favorable impression on the locals if you went with Ukrainian. – Superbest Oct 17 '14 at 9:23
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    @Superbest I wouldn't say "everyone" speaks. Understands - maybe, speaks - definitely not. – user1264176 Oct 17 '14 at 15:14
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Don't focus on either language because you are unlikely to achieve reasonable proficiency in either considering a few hours per week for a few weeks. What you should focus on is reading, especially place names.

Both the Russian and Ukrainian alphabets are similar to each other and not very different from the Latin script that you are familiar with. Learn the letters and learn spellings of the place names where you will be visiting. Learn also to read simple signs such as "restroom", "entrance", and "exit".

The ability to read the signs will bring you immense enjoyment and let you feel that you are in a place where you can experience the reality of the place without needing a translator for everything. It really removes a layer of insulation between you and the place, and puts a small part of the place in you.

EDIT: You might want to employ Anki and Ankidroid to help you study. Anki completely changed the way that I learn languages and other subjects. The truth is, with Anki you just might gain reasonable proficiency in the few weeks that you have.

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    Just want to add that letters that look similar to latin letters are not always act like latin letters: вхід (entrance), even so it has B and X that you are familiar from English, will not be pronounced as you expect – igor milla Oct 17 '14 at 12:14
  • Igor is right, but notice that the word is almost identical in Russian. I was not attesting that all your Latin/English experience would carry over, rather that there is significant carryover between the languages. This in comparison to my native language Hebrew, which has absolutely obvious carryover to English and only two letters carryover to Cyrillic (ш and ц). – dotancohen Oct 17 '14 at 13:43
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Russian, no contest. Not quite where you mention (presumably thankfully!) but not far off:

The Russian language in Ukraine is the most common first language in the Donbass and Crimea regions, and the predominant language in large cities in the East and South of the country.

In Ukraine the ratio may be nearer 50/50 but there are approximately five times as many Russian speakers as Ukrainian, so could be more likely to be useful later.

From here, p85:

While there is greater freedom in public encounters, in many contexts there is pressure to adhere to a particular language. In Kyiv, the country's capital, Ukrainian is the language of written official communications, public political communications, and formal interactions in institutions such as schools, courts, and the media; meanwhile Russian is the predominant language of informal written and spoken exchanges, and of economic power (Zazulya, 2003: 138). While the language of the public political sphere is increasingly Ukrainian, the language of business remains predominantly Russian. Ukrainian functions as the language of instruction used during lessons and in official meetings in most Ukrainian schools. However, in most urban schools in central and eastern Ukraine, Russian is the dominant language outside of formal classroom interactions. Schoolchildren generally shift to Russian during breaks and unofficial events. In many cases, principals and teachers do not encourage the pupils to use Ukrainian, try not to pay attention to the language shift, and respond to pupils in Russian as well. Ukrainophone parents in Kyiv have reported that their children feel uncomfortable speaking Ukrainian in school for fear of being ostracized (Bilaniuk, 2005: 4748, 63-64). Children who withstand the pressures of linguistic conformism and use Ukrainian in such russophone language environments are rare. In this context, according to Masenko (2004), Russian can be defined as a language of accommodation (prystosuvannia) while Ukrainian is a language of opposition (protystoyannia). Meanwhile, the prevalence of Russian in informal contexts does not allay the concerns of those russophone parents whose children are taught in Ukrainian and receive little or no formal education in Russian, and as a result, cannot write correctly in Russian.

That research is a little dated but since much is about schooling may relate to those who are now adults.

Being able to convert Cyrillic script into something more familiar could be very useful but that applies to both languages. Календарь may look “Greek” but mere character substitution (to kalendar) would give a good clue to its meaning. The alphabet should be easy to learn in the time available.

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Russian and Ukranian are not so very close languages. But the locals used to practice funny type of conversations when one interlocutor speaks Russian (Ukranian) and receives and understands an answer in Ukranian (Russian). May be this not the case now... If I were you, I would concentrate on Cyrillic alphabet, so that I would be able to understand simple written texts in both languages (on signboards, for example). In any case, I do not think it is a good idea for an American to address people in Ukraine in Russian or Ukranian after such a restricted study. You can boldly speak your American English, I think they will understand you better ;-). Good luck!

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pnuts' answer is mostly correct but he uses a bit outdated sources.

There were never U/R 50/50 ratio in Ukraine. I would say 70/30 and Russian usage is decreasing since most of the young population learns only Ukrainian.

Unfortunately I have to agree with pnuts that if you want to travel to post soviet countries frequently you should better learn Russian as it is understood in more places.

If your goal is to make an impression on locals I would definitely go with Ukrainian. At the moment Russian language is associated with Russian invasion even though a lot of people still speak Russian. For me speaking Russian in Ukraine is like trying to go to WWII occupied France trying to speak German with french people. I am not telling that you will get in trouble with Russian but you could be more considerate to the local population.

Ukrainian basics are pretty easy and in most places simple phrases like "Thank you", "Please" would be appreciated.

Definitely learn how to transcribe Cyrillic into Latin as it will be very useful for you.

Do stay close with your Ukrainian friend/guide as it is a bit dangerous in the country at the moment. Especially in more eastern regions.

  • @pnuts Well, as I wrote I do not try to contradict to your answer. Although I would like to point out that the situation is changing from year to year in favor of Ukrainian. I would also doubt any statistics regarding languages during 2010-2013 due to political reasons(ties of former president to Russia) which is including giving wrong data in order to justify laws about language and other stuff. – user1264176 Oct 20 '14 at 9:51
  • "... most of the young population learns only Ukrainian" is apparently incorrect, even though ratios vary throughout the country. – Roman R. Oct 21 '14 at 11:40
  • "Russian language is associated with Russian invasion" has nothing to do with real life as well. – Roman R. Oct 21 '14 at 11:44
  • @RomanR. I would say that 90% of young population doesn't learn Russian even if they speak it at home. Most of school education is in Ukrainian. By checking your profile and seeing the region you live in I would say that your opinion might be a bit biased. – user1264176 Oct 22 '14 at 13:21
  • @user1264176: you are educating me about schools in Ukraine, or it's a false impression? The truth is that I am living in 2nd big city in Ukraine and EVERYTHING around is in Russian, except formal and legal stuff. Russian is the language my son is using as primary at school. So go figure where you got your biased opinion from. You might want to fill your profile in so that it is clear where exactly this pro-Ukrainian propaganda is coming from. – Roman R. Oct 22 '14 at 13:40
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It actually varies by region.

Most people you will encounter will understand Russian but not necessarily respond to you in the same language for various reasons. So depending on where you will be visiting you may need to be able to do both and a few weeks crash course in either one will be insufficient unless you are familiar with other languages in the Slavic group (Czech, Slovak, Polish, etc).

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    "but not necessarily respond to you in the same language" - disagree. They may not respond if they think you're local, but if it's clear that you're a foreighner then there is no problem at all, perhaps except far-far-away willages. – Putnik Oct 18 '14 at 19:54
  • @Putnik In order to answer in Russian one has to speak the language. There are people who understand but don't speak the language. They are not in major cities or regional centers but they do exist. – Karlson Oct 19 '14 at 4:07
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    Never seen people in Ukraine who unable (not don't like but exactly unable) to answer to simple questions in Russian. Perhaps they cannot keep complex conversation, but they definitely able to answer to basic questions, perhaps with a few ukrainian words, and definitely will be understandable. – Putnik Oct 20 '14 at 9:16
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Five to ten hours a week for a for weeks is enough to understand a little bit of the basics of either Ukrainian or Russian. The languages are very similar, so in that sense it doesn't matter too much which language you pick. That said, if you're going to western Ukraine, it'd be more sensible to try your luck with Ukrainian as Russian is more common in the east.

With a few hours of practice, you'll be able to read Cyrillic and with a few hours more, you'll be able to learn a few basic phrases by heart. These together will allow you to read a bit of a menu and order a beer.

With, say, 50 hours, you could manage a few basic interactions. Which is pretty cool, I'd say.

(I use duolingo for learning Portuguese, which is great. Sadly, Russian and Ukrainian are not yet available. It seems they are not... rushin' enough.)

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I think learning some courtesies like hello, goodbye, thank you, please etc. does always makes sense when traveling to a foreign country. I am always pleased when I recognize someone visiting my country took effort to learn some basic words in my native language.

Since both, ukranian and russian use the kyrillic alphabet and signs are often written in kyrillic only it would definitely make sense learning the alphabet. In my opinion it always makes sense to catch at least a glimpse of the native language of the country you are going to.

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