In a country bifurcated between two languages, Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko has decided to focus his country’s attention on yet a third—English. The new year marks the launch of a presidential decree defining 2016 as “The Year of English Language in Ukraine,” calling for a series of actions to promote English across social, political, and educational fronts. Beyond simply its linguistic purpose, the decree is strongly aligned with Ukraine’s post-Euromaidan efforts to forge a new identity and sunder its longstanding association with the Russian Federation.
The decree was signed by Poroshenko in mid-November 2015, although he had previously taken measures to emphasize the importance of English for Ukraine’s integration into the European community. In June, Poroshenko announced that mastery of the English language had to become a priority for state politicians. By October 1st, he had put his statement into action, making English proficiency a mandatory prerequisite for appointment to senior positions in the Ukrainian presidential administration. Poroshenko further accentuated his focus on the English language in an address at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy’s 400th anniversary celebration, where he stated: “Mohyla pioneered two working languages—Ukrainian and English…I think it would be very good if in Ukraine, and not just at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, there appeared a second working language. And this language should rightly be English.”
Calling for Ukraine’s second working language to “rightly be English” is both deeply reformative and ambitious. Although Ukrainian is technically the country’s only official language, nearly 45 percent of Ukrainians use Russian in their daily lives. While this figure has likely shifted following the 2014 Euromaidan, which inspired a nationwide push to speak Ukrainian, Russian still dominates as Ukraine’s unofficial second working language, particularly in large cities and Ukraine’s east. In addition to fighting a linguistic shadow of the Soviet era, Ukraine lags behind its European neighbors in English proficiency, ranking 23rd of 27 European countries listed by the 2015 Education First English Proficiency Index (EF EPI).
Nevertheless, the 2015 EF EPI suggests Ukraine has made huge strides in its individual English proficiency trends since 2014. According to the Index, Ukraine was able to move up to a “Moderate Proficiency” rating from “Low Proficiency” in the span of a year. Furthermore, Ukraine has had the second largest increase in proficiency by a European nation, improving its score by 4.11 points.
“The Year of English Language in Ukraine” will likely continue this positive momentum in 2016. The decree seeks to invigorate English language learning primarily through supporting the national program “Go Global” and its multifaceted model for English instruction. Go Global characterizes itself as a “point of convergence of the president, the cabinet of ministers, embassies, cultural centers, language schools, and the public.” The organization aims to promote the study of foreign languages for social, political, and economic development in Ukraine. In addition to President Poroshenko, Go Global’s supporters include Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the British Council, and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.
Go Global launched a national action plan called “Україна Speaking” (Ukraine Speaking), which intends to implement English language education through three strategic channels. The first targets the government, with the hope of creating a new generation of English-speaking government employees. By 2020, Go Global wants all of Ukraine’s Class A civil servants to speak at least one of the two official languages of the Council of Europe: English and French.
The second realm of Україна Speaking is directed at reforming foreign language studies in Ukrainian grade schools and higher education institutions to be compliant with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) standards. This includes retesting foreign language teachers across Ukraine and implementing a series of nationwide summer language camps and linguistic “Olympiads” for students. The initiative also plans to promote English through films and television programs by broadcasting more content in English with subtitles instead of dubbing. This simple alteration in media adaptation has proven to be a highly effective step for many of Europe’s leaders in English proficiency. Finally, Go Global intends to attract native English speakers to teach in Ukraine by involving diaspora communities and simplifying the procedures for working in Ukraine.
This commitment to redefining Ukraine’s second working language in 2016 also creates a marked separation from Russia that is as much ideological and economic as it is linguistic. In an article discussing Go Global’s initiatives, Mustafa Nayyem, a Ukrainian journalist and member of parliament, characterized foreign languages as the “most important tool of integration into the European community.” Nayyem sees English as a way for Ukraine to free itself from an era of damaging association and identity with Russia. “Over the past decades, politicians have driven us into a banal conflict between the Ukrainian and Russian languages. I am convinced that the new generation of Ukrainians must get away from these humiliating comparisons that implicitly enforce an inferiority complex. It is time to move toward the big world in which language serves not only as a key in self-identification but also as a tool for acquiring knowledge and information.”
“This commitment to redefining Ukraine’s second working language in 2016 also creates a marked separation from Russia that is as much ideological and economic as it is linguistic.”
English language professor, Larisa Kalinina, of Zhytomyr Ivan Franko State University, echoed this sentiment: “Ukraine’s students, particularly those who are not part of linguistic faculties, lose out a lot. We have university students across all disciplines of study that are brilliant but cannot communicate with peers and scholars from around the world. English breaks down these barriers and allows them to learn and contribute to their fields from within.”
Cultivating English as a second working language will strengthen Ukraine’s position in global discourse and will likely stimulate economic growth. Increased English proficiency will bolster Ukraine’s potential for international outsourcing, particularly in the IT sector, as well as encourage a rise in tourism and business opportunity. As the world’s primary international language, English will allow Ukraine to realize many of its developmental goals by increasing national and individual employability and connectivity to the rest of the world.
Ultimately, the initiatives encompassed in “The Year of English” demonstrate a deliberate effort to reimagine the future of Ukraine and take a step closer toward its European counterparts in 2016.
Image: An English language classroom at Ivan Franko State University in Zhytomyr, Ukraine. Photograph by Amelia Oliver.
Amelia Oliver is a recent graduate of Bates College where she was a double major in English literature and Russian studies. Currently, Oliver lives in Zhytomyr, Ukraine where she works at a university as a U.S. Fulbright English Teaching Assistant. She has experience as a Wildlife Policy Intern for the Humane Society International, where her work focused on international legislation on shark finning and illicit ivory trade. In 2014 Oliver was an Impact Assessment Intern for the Lex Mundi Pro Bono Foundation, where she worked closely with Lex Mundi’s member firms and analyzed the impact of their pro bono legal services for social enterprises around the globe.