June 30, 2008

Greetings from Vinnytsia!     We are still trying to get settled, and it appears that may take us a while.   But in the meantime we also appear to be back at an original discussion we had before we left, which is about language and which one we should learn.   (This e-mail may be more information than you are interested in about language here, but it is what we are dealing with now so here we are....)   This really is a two language country, and we now officially have a “mixed” marriage.   

We were told by the Peace Corps before we came that half of the country speaks Russian and half speaks Ukrainian, with the eastern part of the country (near Russia) speaking more Russian, and the western part (near Poland and the rest of Europe) speaking more Ukrainian.   That is sort of true, and it is also true that the villages everywhere in Ukraine speak more Ukrainian and the larger cities speak more Russian.  But we have learned that it is also true that most people in the country speak and understand both languages.   Ukrainian is an old language, similar to Russian in many ways, but in many ways different.   Some words are the same, but many are not.  And there are letters in the Ukrainian alphabet that are not in the Russian alphabet, and vice versa, and there are some letters in both alphabets that are pronounced differently depending on whether it is Ukrainian or Russian.    So it actually takes some work and effort to know and understand both, and we have a great respect for the ability of the people to do this.    

But language here also has political overtones.   During Soviet times (1918 to 1991/1992) it was forbidden to speak Ukrainian, and Russian was the official language.   This made Russian the language of the government and all government documents, the language spoken and taught in schools, and the language of signs on the streets and the language of newspapers.   Ukrainian continued though, albeit mostly in the villages, where the people could try to continue life as they had always known it.   But then in 1991/1992, when Ukraine became an independent country, Ukrainian was re-established as the national language.     

So it becomes interesting.   Ukrainian is now the language of government, all government documents, all street signs, maps, etc., and is the language spoken and taught in all schools.  Most of the television is Ukrainian.  But the people all grew up speaking Russian, so Russian is the language they speak in their homes and is the language you hear spoken on the streets and in the bazaars and stores.   This is true in both Chernihiv and Vinnytsia, and in both cities the language spoken at home by our host families is Russian.   We asked Nastia (our 10 year old in Chernihiv) about this, and she said she speaks Ukrainian in the classroom, but Russian on the playground and after school when playing with her friends.  This is of course an over-simplification, and as you travel west in this country there is more Ukrainian and less Russian, but we are in the middle of the country and it is certainly true here.  Which leads to the point of all this.   Don’s “job” is working for a business center that works at the oblast level (their equivalent of our state level) to support and attract businesses.  We thought at first that he would need to learn Ukrainian, since all documents, business information, etc. are in Ukrainian, but the people he is working with are all his age (ie older), and they speak Russian even though everything around them is written in Ukrainian.   (Definitely makes life interesting – imagine the loan department at Fremont National Bank, with all the employees speaking English, but the loan documents are all in Spanish.)   So they decided he should continue with his Russian studies so he could talk to them.    Karen’s “job” is to work with an NGO that works “to improve civil society” in Ukraine, so their bias is toward Ukrainian culture and language.   We will write more about our “jobs” later (actually we need some time to figure out what they are actually are), but in the meantime, you guessed it, Karen is now studying Ukrainian instead of Russian and we are back to the beginning of this, with our “mixed” marriage.  We have found a tutor, and Peace Corps gives us some $$ to pay his fee, so Don will work with him on Russian and Karen on Ukrainian.    We’ll let you know how it goes….

We have asked many people about the two languages / one country situation, and no one here seems to think it is a problem.   (Which amazes us.)  What may actually happen however, is that as the older people (our generation) who grew up studying Russian die off and are replaced by the younger generation who spoke Ukrainian in school, Ukrainian will probably become more prevalent.   The language of business may be what is interesting though.   One of you asked us about this, and yes, there is a definite push to learn English here and many who think that learning English is their path to becoming more involved in the world.  One of Don’s projects will probably be to help teach a class (in English) in business to students who want to go “abroad” to study;   interesting that in this case “abroad” is  the Netherlands, where there is a pretty good business school, with all the classes in English since no one really wants to learn Dutch.   English is also considered here to be the language of the internet, and there are computers and internet access of one kind or another in most businesses who have an “office”.      So we would definitely like to come back in about 40 years and see what language they are speaking then -  at this point we don’t even think they know !

So enough for now.   We sort of digressed on the language subject, and we apologize if this one was boring.   In the meantime, we will try and figure out what it is we are supposed to be doing here and will write more later.

Don and Karen


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