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Why I'm Learning Ukrainian

April 21, 2019

I've always known I've had mostly Ukrainian ancestry. As a child, I learned that my mother's side of the family had 100% roots from Ukraine, and my father's side was a mixed bag of Russian, German, Polish, and Ukrainian. I hate to sound like a trite Ancestry-dot-com commercial, but we really did embrace our heritage, even though we had nothing to do with Ukraine for a few generations.

 

It especially showed during the big family events. The linens on the tables, the buttery and onion-y food, the folk music, the drinks, the laughs...but wait a minute...no Ukrainian language spoken? For a family that retained so much Ukrainian culture (just short of wearing khustkas), why was there no Ukrainian language?

 

My mom, her brothers, and a few other extended-family relatives spoke what I'll call Kitchen Ukrainian. They had some food names figured out, and could say "thank you". But the language beyond that was disputed among non-native speakers, creating a wrangling of who might be correct based on what they thought they knew. Meanwhile, my grandmother who was fluent, offered little help because she wasn't a teacher -- she was a housewife. In her mind, it's not how you ask for the cabbage rolls, it's to make sure they're on the table.

 

So why did Ukrainian hit a dead-end after my grandparents? Well, we have to revisit our history to know this answer.

 

In the late 1800s, both sides of my family left Ukraine and Russia, respectively. When they (and other European immigrants) came to Canada, they were broke, tired, and desperate. They looked different, sounded different, and behaved differently than the Canadians who were of British and French ancestry who were already occupying the east and west. They were taken advantage of and left to their own devices after being promised a rich life in the Canadian prairies. Just being Ukrainian was considered disgusting, as the Nor'Wester newspaper in Winnipeg made it clear in a published article that they were "the scum of Europe". They were dirty from all the hard work. Their language was different, and many Canadians left them to remain misunderstood. By the time the immigrants established communities and schools, their own children were encouraged to speak English -- not Ukrainian. Parents didn't want their children to go through what they had. If a child was caught speaking Ukrainian at school, the teacher would discipline them immediately. If children were caught speaking Ukrainian outside of school, village folk would report that to their teacher or their parents.

 

These children would have been my great-grandparents, who grew up with the hard-working first immigrants on their newly established homesteads, and still had the fluency of the Ukrainian language throughout their lives. My grandparents would have been the next to live on the homesteads they created, learning fluent -- yet informal Ukrainian from home. This Ukrainian was not enough to keep up in an English speaking area of Canada. By the 1940s, people were leaving the farms and moving to larger markets to enjoy homes and careers in the modern world. In the cities, Ukrainian was simply not needed. My parents were born during these years. They went to English-speaking schools, and came home speaking English to their families. My grandparents also began phasing out their Ukrainian as speaking it was unnecessary.

 

When my generation was born, we had no other language than English to focus on. Going to my grandparents' homes for special occasions and meeting up with my uncles, aunts, and cousins were filled with Ukrainian tradition, but the language was missing simply because it came to a halt just two generations earlier. 

 

Once I asked my grandmother, "How do you say 'slippers' in Ukrainian." She thought about it, and frowned. "There is no word!" she said. I asked how that could possibly be. She repeated - there simply was no word and that was that. When she was a child she had outdoor shoes and special indoor shoes -- but not slippers. 

 

I've come to realize that just because my grandmother didn't own a pair of slippers herself, didn't mean there wasn't a word for them at all. There certainly is. But my grandmother's own Ukrainian was based on her own world, and not that of a wide scope to understand things that may not pertain to her. She excelled at light conversation, greetings, and words that would have been used on the farm. Ukrainian was already being lost on her generation. 

 

Then we have the misinterpreted words and phrases that my parents' generation learned and never corrected. I am now realizing that so many things I grew up hearing were simply wrong. And no, it's not because Russian or Polish influence on Ukrainian distorted the language. These are just plain language mistakes. 

 

Out west, we had no Ukrainian classes to take. I had looked in to them many times over the years as a teenager and then as a young adult, but the only lessons I could find were in a church basement over lunch with some parishioners on Sundays. I wanted a bit more sophisticated training. These were they days before the internet. After the internet, language learning was friendly for widely-spoken languages, but not Ukrainian.

 

I had searched periodically throughout the years for Ukrainian courses online, and was even willing to pay for an established digital course -- but there was never anything available. I finally just gave up. I spent my 30s and a portion of my 40s accepting the fact that the Ukrainian language is missing from my family and not coming back. 

 

That is, until recently.

 

I came across some old VHS tapes that I had been meaning to transfer, using a program to convert them to video files on my computer. After saving most of the videos, I told my dad about this, asking if my parents had old tapes they'd like converted too. He said yes, and gave me about six tapes to work with. One of those tapes was this one

 

I watched it and suddenly felt that desire to learn Ukrainian again. I had been about 20 years old when that tape was originally created by my great-uncles. I had no idea it was even made! As I write this, it's 25 years later, and I feel like I owe it to my relatives to learn this language.

 

I'm on my own during my quest to learn, and at this time, I do not have anyone else to speak this beautiful language with. I suppose it's like having a bit of closure with my own journey as a person who was looking for one last piece in my life-puzzle as far as ancestry goes. I needed to speak the language of my family's past.

 

Finally I found an online program that offers a Ukrainian course. I dove in and I have barely come up for air ever since. I feel like I'm making up for a lot of lost time as I cram in as much as I can. After 30 days of learning, I am feeling fairly confident that I can converse on light issues. I still have to work out the grammar and learn new vocabulary, but if I was lost in Ukraine, I am positive I'd be able to eat, pay for things, and find a toilet with no trouble.

 

My goal is to watch that recording from 1994 and try to understand what my great-grandmother is saying in her speech. I don't want it simply translated by someone else. I just want to know it. I feel that if I do, a part of me will be able to dip into the past and know a little bit more about her.

 

If she was alive today would she care? No. She would have just cared if I had a enough perogies on my plate. I suppose my life as a Ukrainian woman in a Canadian woman's body is also knowing what our priorities are.

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