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**