Have you ever heard of Surzhyk?
Neither had I four months ago, but now it is one of the biggest struggles in my daily life. Surzhyk is a dialect that combines the Ukrainian and Russian languages. (Almost equivalent to the more popular Spanglish or Portunol in the Americas) It is spoken in my town of Romny, Ukraine.
When I originally received my placement in Romny, I was excited because Sumy Oblast is typically very Russian speaking, no doubt because of its border with Russia. However, I seemed to have landed in a little bubble of Ukrainian speakers. I shouldn’t say Romny is a town of non-Russian speakers, because every one can actually speak both Russian and Ukrainian if they choose, but the town prefers to speak in Surzhyk. I am not sure how this dialect developed, maybe it is a result of family heritage or a developing sense of Ukrainian National Identity, but it is here to stay.
Now, after studying pure Russian for three months and waking up in a town that only speaks half Russian, I feel like my language skills have also been cut in half. I believe much of the benefit of learning a language in a foreign country that speaks that language is that you can both speak and listen to it 24/7. However, if my town speaks Surzhyk, half of that benefit is missing. People can understand me when I speak, but everyday I sit in my school completely ignorant of my surroundings and the chatter of the other teachers. To add to the fire, my school teaches its classes in pure Ukrainian.
You might logically ask, “Why did the Peace Corps make you study Russian only to send you to a Ukrainian speaking school?” Well, the truth is that bilingual and sometimes multilingual societies are nearly unavoidable in Ukraine. Russian speaking schools are becoming less and less common, and the young population is growing up with and more and more of an emphasis on speaking in Ukrainian. All I know is that I am here now and must make the best out of this situation that could really be a lot worse.
Now, my dilema is that I must make the decision of what language to study and how. Shall I tackle both languages at once? (They are very similar, but are also different enough to be classified as two different languages.) Shall I pursue Russian at full speed and hope to learn Ukrainian by osmosis? Or shall I put Russian on hold and start Ukrainian? After all. I am in Ukraine.
The Peace Corps recommends sticking with one language for at least nine months before changing or adding another one. This ensures a good level of comprehension in one language to use as the basis for the second. At this point, I agree that this is the best course of action.