Ukrainians are voting with their tongues, and they appear to be voting for Europe. In a little-noticed statistic just released by Ukraine’s Ministry of Education and Science, 52 percent of the country’s fifth-graders chose German as their second foreign language in the forthcoming school year. With another 14 percent of fifth-graders opting for French, 1.6 for Polish, and 1.2 for Spanish, non-Russian European languages accounted for 69 percent of their choices, while Russian accounted for 23—a ratio of three to one in favor of the former.

Since 92 percent of all grade-schoolers already study English as their first foreign language, it’s clear that a linguistic sea change is taking place in Ukraine.

Twenty-five years ago, before independence, the only Ukrainians with a proficient knowledge of Western languages were those who studied them at university or attended elite schools (or worked for the KGB), while all Ukrainians had to be fluent in Russian. Unsurprisingly, their worldview was largely defined by their relationship, whether positive or negative, with Russian culture. Within a few years, it’s quite possible that the vast majority of Ukraine’s young people will be conversant, and possibly fluent, in English and German. Most of them will still speak Russian with varying degrees of facility, but their civilizational and cultural choices will now be a function of their encounter with and understanding of a different world.  

Knowledge of English and German is no guarantee of liberalism and democracy, of course, but the ability to easily navigate among a multiplicity of cultures and countries can only enhance young people’s disdain for hierarchy, authoritarianism, intolerance, and provincialism. The effects won’t be felt immediately, but, within 10 to 15 years, expect this cohort of globally savvy Ukrainians to have very different values, norms, hopes, and expectations from their still-Sovietized elders.

Knowledge of Western languages is also likely to have a far-reaching impact on Ukrainian society. At present, about 70 percent of Ukrainian children study in schools with Ukrainian as the language of instruction. The statistic conceals important regional variations. In western Ukraine, the percentage is in the high 90s. In eastern and southern Ukraine, it’s significantly smaller, with village schools being primarily in Ukrainian and urban schools primarily in Russian. In Donetsk, for instance, 28 percent study in Ukrainian-language schools. In Odessa, it’s 52 percent. In Luhansk, it’s only 13 percent.

Notwithstanding what the language of instruction is at school, the fact of the matter is that, with print media, television, pop music, and cinema so overwhelmingly Russian—Russia’s cultural products have completely saturated the Ukrainian market, so much so that you’ll be hard-pressed to find a Ukrainian-language publication at a newsstand anywhere in Ukraine—it’s virtually impossible not to develop, by osmosis, a working knowledge of street Russian.

Ukrainian parents know that. They know that their fifth-grade kids will learn to speak some form of Russian anyway, even without trying. Acting as perfectly rational agents out to “maximize” their children’s “utility,” parents understand that knowledge of English and a second European language such as German, French, Polish, or Spanish will give their children a leg up over the kids who study Russian as a second foreign language. A middle-school graduate able to converse in Ukrainian, English, German, and street Russian will have far greater economic opportunities, whether at home or abroad, than a student with literary Russian, English, and Ukrainian. The former will be able to travel to and study in the West, work for Western multinationals in Ukraine, or get a job in a Russian company. The latter may be better qualified to teach Russian in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Odessa, but, other things being equal, will be a less attractive job candidate than the former in a rapidly globalizing world.

Expect the 23 percent of the parents who opted for Russian progressively to recognize their mistake. If so, the drift toward Western European languages should accelerate over time and street Russian will increasingly dominate literary Russian. Will parents in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Odessa follow suit and enroll their children in schools that give them greater linguistic flexibility or will they stick to literary Russian? The rational choice would be to opt for linguistic flexibility.

Consider, then, what the overall result might be in, say, a decade. As young Ukrainians become fluent in literary Ukrainian and street Russian as well as proficient in English and some other major European language, their country will finally be ready to join the world—while the tongue-tied Regionnaires currently running the country will be left behind.

Alexander J. Motyl

Ukrayinska Dumka


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