On learning Ukrainian before Russian, and the politics of foreign language study

Regular readers will know that language learning is one of my lifelong pursuits and hobbies.

I’ve received some emails of late about the prospect of learning Ukrainian. Do I plan to study it? Should you be studying it?

First, the obvious disclaimers. If you’re learning Ukrainian for reasons of love, or heritage, or a desire to move to Kharkiv at some point in the future, then by all means learn Ukrainian.

And if you just really like the idea of learning Ukrainian, that’s okay, too. But if you’re reading this (or asking me about it), you probably have a more practical turn of mind.

Ukrainian has a base of about 27 million speakers. Numerically, that places it on the same level as Thai, Tagalog, or Dutch. Ukrainian isn’t Latvian (1.5 million speakers). But it isn’t Spanish, French, or Russian, either.

Speaking of Russian: Most Ukrainian speakers also speak Russian—for now, at least. Prior to the current conflict, many Ukrainians used Russian as their language of daily life, a remnant of Soviet times.

There is an active campaign within Ukraine to extirpate the Russian language and replace it with Ukrainian. The outcome of those efforts will likely hinge on the outcome of the war. 

But what about you, an English-speaker who (presumably) wants to learn a Slavic language? Going by the numbers, Russian—with 258 million speakers worldwide—makes a lot more sense.

Not all of those speakers are in Russia. I recently met a young woman from Uzbekistan. Her English was minimal, but she spoke fluent Russian. (Uzbekistan is a former Soviet Republic.)

Another consideration is the availability of learning materials. Russian language pedagogy in the West goes back decades. When I was a college student in the 1980s, you could find textbooks and cassette courses to help you learn Russian. Every major language learning app (Pimsleur, Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, etc.) has developed Russian language learning materials in considerable depth and breadth.

Ukrainian, on the other hand, was an almost-never-studied language in the West until 2022. That too, may change. But such a change will take years.

I have the impression that some language learners in the West are choosing Ukrainian over Russian as a self-congratulatory political statement. Kind of like putting the Ukrainian flag on your social media profile.

Once again: you be you. As for me, though: “Russia” has been many things in my lifetime. When I was a kid, Russia was the center of the USSR. Then it was Boris Yeltsin’s Russia. Now it’s Putin’s Russia.

In ten years, Russia will probably be something else. But my guess is: there will still be more Russian speakers than speakers of any other Slavic language. (Even Polish only has 41 million speakers.)

I’ve lived long enough to have learned that while politics change, languages don’t. (At least, they don’t change that much within any human lifespan.)

If I were going to learn a Middle Eastern language, I would pick Arabic (373 million speakers) over Hebrew (9 million speakers). This has nothing to do with my feelings about the Arab-Israeli conflict, which—like Russia—has changed significantly within my lifetime. I would pick Arabic because Arabic is spoken in at least twenty countries, while Modern Hebrew is spoken in only one.

After I learned Arabic, then I might take on Hebrew. I have nothing against Hebrew, mind you. But when approaching a language family, I say: all things being equal, learn the major ones first. Spanish before Italian. Mandarin before Cantonese. German before Norwegian, Swedish, or Dutch.

And yes, Russian before Ukrainian, without strong motivating factors to the contrary. You won’t be drafted into the Russian Army as a result. I promise.


**Quick link to Ukrainian language-learning resources on Amazon**

**Quick link to Russian language-learning resources on Amazon**

Margaret McLeod and the challenge of Hindi

The language situation in India is complicated. Indians speak many different languages and dialects. Imagine driving from one state to another, and the language being different. That’s the way it often is in India, depending on where you are.

India has 22 official languages. One of these is English, that being a remnant of India’s years as the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. English is usually sufficient if you only want to communicate with the Indian programmers in your company’s IT department. Beware, however. According to India’s 2011 census, only 10 percent of the Indian population claims to speak English, and almost all of these speak English as a second language, with varying degrees of fluency.

Major languages in India include Punjabi, Tamil, and Gujarati. But if you’re going to learn an indigenous Indian language, Hindi is definitely the one to start with. 57 percent of India speaks Hindi. 43 percent of Indians claim Hindi as their native language. No other Indian language really comes close in raw percentages.

As some of you may know, foreign languages are one of my hobbies and passions. For many years, I used several languages in my corporate work.

Almost all languages interest me, to one degree or another, but I don’t dare attempt to take on all of them. Some I actively avoid, because they’re difficult and the numerical incentives simply aren’t there.

Take Finnish, for example. Finnish is a very challenging language for native English speakers to learn, and no one really speaks it outside of Finland, a country with a population roughly equivalent to that of Wisconsin.

Spanish makes a lot more sense. Spanish is much easier, and is spoken in 20 different countries around the world, with 475 million native speakers.

Hindi is a major language, even though it’s only spoken in India. But Hindi is not an easy language. And until recently, there weren’t many resources for learning it.

Some Americans are rising to the challenge, nonetheless. Margaret MacLeod, a US State Department official, speaks Hindi and has recently become something of a sensation in the Indian media.

According to her State Department biography, MacLeod speaks and reads both Hindi and Urdu. Since I don’t speak Hindi, I can’t personally assess her skill level. But she seems to be fluent, as she fields questions from Indian government officials and journalists with visible ease. Indian commenters in the YouTube videos in which she appears give her high marks, too. I’m therefore willing to assume that she knows Hindi very well.

Yet further evidence that mastery of a foreign language is neither impractical nor infeasible just because one’s native language is English.


**Hindi learning resources on Amazon**