I’ve been put to shame by my fellow expats; they maintain their blogs while mine gathers dust, and though I’d like everyone to think that’s because I’m out living life to the glamorous fullest, my Netflix ‘Recently Watched’ list puts the lie to that. Truthfully, though, precious relaxation with the ‘flix aside, the last few weeks have been hectic; new students have enrolled in private tutoring sessions with me, I’ve been working as a stylistic English editor for a fashion magazine based in Kyiv, and as my university students have been putting together reports and presentations for a major Lviv inter- university English conference, I’ve been proofreading and editing their papers for publication. When only two students of the many whose work I edited decided it was worth their while to put the final formatting touches on their papers necessary for publication, I began to wish that I had spent some of that time on the blog… well, not really. In reality, I probably would have spent it lengthening the old Netflix queue.
On the more productive, personally enriching and all around practical side of things, I have also spent some time improving my Ukrainian. You’ve been there for nearly two and a half months, you say. You must be pretty good by now! you say.
I frequently lose hope that I will ever speak this language reasonably well. For starters, I do not spend nearly enough time studying. I thought that because in the past I’ve been able to pick up romance languages and German pretty quickly that Ukrainian would be the same- but it’s really a different beast altogether. If you’ve studied Latin to any extent, and I have, the grammar is not extraordinarily difficult- nouns have genders and cases (a lot of them) and verbs conjugate (here, also, sometimes by gender), but the rules seem to be consistent so far and they make sense. Once you get Cyrillic down, reading isn’t too difficult and although pronunciation can be a little tricky because there aren’t really any rules about where to put syllable stress, it is phonetic. No, it’s the vocabulary that kills me. There are a few friendly little cognates here and there, especially where modern technology is concerned, but since I don’t spend my entire day talking about computers and internet, it really only goes so far.
I’ve been told that my accent is improving; I certainly don’t sound like a Ukrainian, but depending on who you ask, I sound like an Italian, Estonian or Lithuanian speaking Ukrainian- I guess that’s better than American, right? And I’m getting much, much better at that tricky little letter “Щ”- this makes a “shch” sound, very quickly, and it’s difficult for Americans. Very difficult, but if you practice saying “fresh cheese, fresh cheese, freshcheese, freshcheesefreshcheesefreshcheese” enough, gradually it starts to come.
I understand approximately 2% of what I hear going on around me on a good day, which is an admitted improvement from the 0.00001% I understood upon arrival, but really. My frustration is immense.
Here’s a little city sign:
You got all that?
Can I string together a few coherent thoughts and express them in reasonably grammatically correct speech? Maybe. Can I emphatically say that I neither speak nor understand Ukrainian very well? Absolutely- in at least four different ways! If a native speaker is speaking as slowly and deliberately as they might to a very stupid, very drunk toddler, I may even be able to carry on a shallow conversation. But ask me to understand natural native speech and offer any detailed response and I am far, far out of my depth- which is why I’ve chosen to present here the top most useful expressions for getting by in Ukraine pretty добре without speaking the language, well… at all добре.
Key Phrases in Ukrainian
1. Можна…? (Mozhna…?)
This is absolutely the most important word to know. It literally means “is it possible”- but oh, what it can do! Say this word in line at the cafeteria while pointing to what you want, and it means, “Can I get this?” Say it while pointing to anything, really, and it means “Can I get/use this?” Follow it up with any verb (or, more reasonably for the Anglophone, the pantomime of some verb), and it means “Can I/we/you do this?” For example: I like to take the stairs rather than the elevator most of the time, and to walk rather than take the bus any freaking time it is ever freaking possible (more on this later), so if I’m with a friend who is not as enthused about movement as I, I may say, while pumping my arms back and forth and vaguely marching in place with an expectant look on my face, “Mozhna?” To which the somewhat exasperated but ever gracious friend will respond, “Mozhna.” Also say this with a pointing gesture and questioning inflection if you’d like someone on the bus to move their crap so you can sit down next to them, when you knock on an office door and have just poked your head in and would like permission to enter, or really absolutely any time you want anything at all.
I cannot live without this word. It is, however, much more effective, because it’s ever so much more polite, if you use it with…
2. Буд-ласка (bud– laska)
This means “please.” Use it. I’ve heard people (inebriated people) stick a little extra word in the middle, so it goes something like “bude- freaking- laska” (you know… almost like that), but I don’t recommend this to the sober Anglophone hoping for a positive response.
Now, if you get the positive response, ie what it is you want, you should respond with…
3. Дякую (dyakuyu)
Thanks. Say it often, with a smile on your face- not a big American smile, just a modest little curve of the lips- what we at home would probably consider a neutral expression.
You’ve politely asked for your meal. You’ve said thank you. If you want to tell your friends to enjoy their meal, you might say…
4. Смачного! (smachnoho!)
Once you’ve finished your meal, you may want to go out for little post- prandial stroll. As you mosey about the park, you notice some children playing helter- skelter on a steep hill, roughing about, tumbling, falling, and maybe tripping down the hill, causing you to clutch your heart and go…
To be fair, this is not really Ukrainian language. However, this is said in a way and with a frequency I’ve found rather particular to this country. Typically heard from men, it is usually uttered in deeper tones, and sounds more like “waw waw waw waw waw” if you say the ‘a’ like the ‘a’ in ‘awful.’ It’s almost equivalent to the French “Oh la la la…” (please note that, contrary to popular belief, ‘Oh la la!’ is NOT an expression of delight); somewhat disapproving, it says without words, “Hold your horses, there. Just slow down one ever- lovin’ minute.”
And, speaking of expressing disapproval without words, there’s always the unisex…
Americans often prefer the Spanish influenced “Ayayay.” Adjust your vowels just a smidgeon, however, and roll your eyes in exasperation ever so slightly, and you’ll delight your friends as you express annoyance just like a native.
I’ll get it one of these days. Until then…