Welp, we’ve been living in Ukraine for nine months now. NINE MONTHS. When I think about it, in some ways it feels like we just got here, but then again it feels like a lifetime ago that we lived in Salem…so, all the feelings are a bit of a jumble.
The biggest struggle, by far, is the language. No surprise there! We always knew language would be a big deal, but I think the more time we spend here the more we realize how big of a deal it actually is. Learning language isn’t just about knowing enough to call a taxi, or get the right food at the store, or pay our rent, or to understand and barter prices at the bazaar, or to communicate with the boys at Romaniv (“Come here, sit down, let’s wash hands, I love you…”). It’s about truly knowing and being known.
Although our time at camp was absolutely AMAZING and life-altering, it also highlighted how much we are missing by our lack of language skills. Don’t get me wrong, we are working hard and we have been working since we arrived, but we still have so far to go. At camp we loved and we were showered with love as well, but still remained a tad on the fringes. Why? Because we can’t truly know or be known at our current level of language acquisition. The only people who we can really know are people who speak English. We love our English speaking friends- no doubt, but we’re missing out on a whole HUGE population of potential friends and loved ones because we can’t get past small talk. To have to rely on translators when it comes to matters of the heart is a HUGE deal that requires huge trust. I mean, if you go somewhere on a short-term missions trip you must use the help of translators and it’s expected. No big deal. But then when you’re done you go back to friends and family who know you and love you for who you really are and all is well. We don’t have that luxury! I’ve traveled all over the world on short-term trips and I never ever realized what a big issue language is for the long-term worker. It’s one of those things you just have to live to understand. The Ukrainian people are the friends and family in our life. I want them to know ME, not a translator’s version of me. The thing we miss most about the US is knowing and being known by dear friends. I am so so so soooooooooo thankful for translators. Oh my word, what a hard job. I don’t want to take that lightly or seem ungrateful. It’s just that their version of me can’t be the real, true me because it’s their take on me and my words. That is just a truth that can’t be helped. Therefore, we simply MUST learn to speak for ourselves- and the sooner the better.
Enter, Language School Intensive! We’ve been studying language since we first touched down in Ukraine in November. We started out studying Russian because in Zhytomyr people speak Russian and Ukrainian and there’s no right or wrong choice. Both languages are useful and accepted. Most of Zhytomyr’s population speaks a mix of Russian and Ukrainian, so it’s actually a bit of a zoo to navigate for newbies like us. Booohoooooo. Anyway, we started learning Russian simply because there are far more resources available to foreigners for learning Russian and we had started with Russian vocab when we were still in the US. Starting in December we had a lovely language tutor who came to our home twice a week to help us with Russian. All was fine, but because of the holidays and a teeny tiny REVOLUTION! we didn’t make a ton of progress.
Then in February Addy and Ezra started school. Well, school is taught 100% in Ukrainian and all the homework is in Ukrainian. A lot of good our Russian did us then. Oh my. Not fun. So, after about a month of school we decided we needed to ditch Russian and start learning Ukrainian. It’s probably a good idea for the whole fam to be learning the same language, am I right? The problem then arose of who would teach us? Our teacher didn’t feel comfortable teaching Ukrainian because she is primarily Russian-speaking. No, the two languages are not the same. We asked and searched but couldn’t find anyone who could/wanted to teach Ukrainian. It’s hard to teach your own language to foreigners! Then we found our God-send: Ukrainian Catholic University here in Lviv. *cue Hallelujah Chorus! They have been the answer to our prayers. They have a program for foreigners to learn Ukrainian as a second language. YESSSSSSS!
We started distance learning via Skype in May. (Yes, that means we went from March to May with no lessons. I know, not good. But, we do have 4 kids…and we are working and figuring out public school…and, and, and…oy.) Each week Jed and I would each have two, hour-long individual lessons with our Skype tutor. Irina is great. She knows very little English, and during our lessons she speaks no English. So during May and June we learned a lot! We didn’t have lessons in July because we were gone at camp. July was one big, neverending lesson. Ha! We can understand much more than we can say. We actually understand a ton and in many situations we can get our point across- in a very toddler-like way. 🙂 We can read and we can write…but oh man, we have so very far to go.
And that all brings us to the present. We are currently in the middle of a 3 week language intensive here in Lviv at the Catholic University. Jed and I are alone in a classroom with a tutor and we have 4 lessons per day. It has been fantastic. Truly, I think this was one of our best decisions yet. I am so thankful that God led us to this program. They took us right at our level and we are learning so much. I so wish we could hit pause on our life and study language full-time for a few months. Really. Of course it’s not possible, but I can still wish for it! 🙂
1. We will resume individual Skype lessons twice a week, and maybe add a third lesson each week if we can afford it.
2. We will arrange our life schedule in such a way that language study is given more of a priority. We will each study independently for a minimum of 1 hour per day (hopefully 2 hours on most days)- alone, isolated, without children, without interruption.
3. And the biggie: We will NOT speak English to any of our Ukrainian friends. Hold me.
Here’s the deal. We speak English too much. Our closest Ukrainian friendships are with English speakers. We all want to go beyond toddler conversation, so we speak English together. Well guess what? We sure aren’t going to improve our Ukrainian that way. So, we choose to humble ourselves and embarrass ourselves for the sake of long-term benefit. Of course we’ll speak English to each other and to our kids, but if you are Ukrainian you aren’t gonna get any English from us (of course we’ll use the help of translators for work meetings and Romaniv staff communication). Oh my, it’s going to be quite painful. I don’t relish the idea at all. But, it’s simply got to be done. We’re pulling the English plug.
So there you have it, The Big Fat Language Post. It’s getting kind of long so I’ll write about the kids and language a little later. If you have any questions, ask away!
Thank you so much putting to words what I have always felt about my language skills when spending my summers in Ukraine. So well said….and so understand and appreciate the language decisions you and your family have made. May God continue to bless you and your family as you serve together to meet the needs of those precious boys of Romanov! Praying for your language transition.
Even though we live in England, where English is obviously spoken, I feel like I know a little of how you feel. Because no matter how silly it seems, Brits and Americans do NOT speak the same language! And the cultures are complete opposites. And so in our 9 months there I have felt truly “known” by only one or two people, and so despite having a ton of friends, I am heart-lonely. I want to be understood! So you and I will keep pressing on together. 🙂
This is so great! I’m really of the opinion that the first year (at least!) in a new country should really be fully devoted to language study. That’s probably hypocritical of me, because it’s not the way we did it. I realize that it’s not always realistic, too. But, I have come to think that it’s the ideal. Language is SO IMPORTANT, and it really is hard to pick up на ходу.
By the way, I’m sure you know that it’s really hard to change a language pattern with someone, once you’ve started. It has to be possible, though. I’ll pray for you especially on that third point of your plans.
Love your updates. Your devotion, passion, hearts, are so encouraging to me. praying for God’s blessing on you and your family.
Language learning is always hard but you guys are doing it & doing it right – immersion is the best way to go… i really only learnt to speak German (a mixture of high German and Swiss German) when T went to school here & i had to speak to the teachers & other mums. i still don’t discuss politics & religion in German… :p