How to Bring Up a Ukrainian-Speaking Child

2 February 2012, 12:25

Volodymyr and Olha Honchar live in Kryvyi Rih, a predominantly Russian-speaking city in Eastern Ukraine. As have many other young people all over the country, they have made a choice in favour of their native Ukrainian as adults. For Danylko and Darynka, their son and daughter, Ukrainian is the language their mother and father speak. “We always speak Ukrainian at home,” Volodymyr says. “So, when our kids were born they learned to speak Ukrainian as well.”

This proves that bringing up Ukrainian-speaking children in Kryvyi Rih, where most people speak Russian, just like in Dnipropetrovsk or Kyiv is possible. Yet, kids will never grow up to be Ukrainian speakers on their own in surroundings that are predominantly Russian-speaking, or bilingual, with Russian dominating most aspects of public life and mass media. This forces their parents to create Ukrainian-speaking communities for their children and choose Ukrainian-language media products.

“We only buy children’s books in Ukrainian,” Mr. Honchar says. “The same thing with CDs and DVDs: they are now available in high quality and are dubbed fantastically. Also, we watch all hit movies and cartoons dubbed in Ukrainian in the cinema.” Little Darynka brings a book to show us. “I have this nice Yasochka’s Book in Ukrainian,” she boasts. The family is proud to have fished out a toy laptop programmed in Ukrainian; finding something like that in the nearest shopping mall is a big challenge. The novelty sparked a craze in the kids’ kindergarten.


When Olha’s and Volodymyr’s kids went to a Ukrainian-language kindergarten in Kryvyi Rih, most of their friends spoke Russian. Although the teachers spoke Ukrainian in classes, they switched to Russian or surzhyk[1] during breaks. “We heard our son and daughter use Russian words from time to time,” Volodymyr says. “Later we noticed our kids switched to Russian while talking to the kids they played with in the street. Of course, we don’t ban our kids from doing that. Instead, we ask them why they do it. We tell them that we always speak Ukrainian to Russian-speaking people and never switch to their language. So, why do they switch to Russian with other kids? ‘He doesn’t understand everything’ or ‘He told me he didn’t like Ukrainian’ our kids reply. This creates a barrier as most kids speak Russian and Ukrainian-speaking children don’t feel comfortable standing out of the crowd.”    

Volodymyr Honchar believes children should not be enclosed in one language only and blocked from all others. Instead, he is trying to give them enough arguments in favour of Ukrainian. The decision is theirs though. “We try to not be too hard on them,” Olha explains. “Most grown-ups brought up in Ukrainian-speaking families who later switch to Russian were forced to speak Ukrainian by their parents, or their parents told them one thing and did the opposite themselves.”


Iryna and Andriy Prendetsky, a family in Bucha, a small town next to Kyiv, have two daughters called Maryana and Yaroslava. They began to prepare their girls for kindergarten well in advance. “We chose names that could not be twisted into Russian in a Russian-speaking kindergarten,” Iryna recalls. “My husband would really have liked Khrystyna instead of Maryana, but I told him people would call her Kristina instead, which is the Russian pronunciation. And who could possibly twist Maryana? A month later, we went to a doctor and heard her say ‘Oh, hi Mariashechka!’”   

Four-year old Maryana began to use some Russian words after she first went to kindergarten and heard them there. “We decided to talk to our daughter,” Iryna says. “We told her there are so many different languages. We’re trying to learn English with her, and Italian as her grandma lives in Italy. We want our child to know that Russian is not the only alternative to Ukrainian.”

When Maryana brings Russian counting rhymes home from kindergarten, Iryna teaches her Ukrainian ones instead and tells her those are also fun to play with. “Of course, I can let it all go and maybe we’ll be lucky enough to have our kids grow up as Ukrainian speakers in a Russian-speaking environment,” the parents say. “But we believe we should work on this too. Obviously, it takes more effort for parents like us to raise Ukrainian-speaking kids somewhere other than purely Ukrainian-speaking regions.”  


Primary education in Ukraine is mostly provided in Ukrainian de jure: over 13,000 out of slightly less than 15,000 kindergartens are officially listed as Ukrainian-language ones. Still, children themselves speak both languages in cities like Kyiv or Kriviy Rih. Even if the children are educated in Ukrainian, a lot of their friends and teachers will still speak Russian.

Aliona Zapadniuk sends all of her three children to one kindergarten as she knows no other similar facility in town. “My kids go to the group called the Lion Cub,” Aliona says. “It was set up by the Lviv Community in Kyiv. They take the kids of their members and supporters. We are just supporters because we don’t come from Lviv. This is just a group in an average kindergarten where kids speak Ukrainian only. Right now, it has 18 children of different ages. It cannot be enlarged due to the sanitary and epidemiological station’s requirements. This is how kids are self-raised in a Ukrainian environment.”

Aliona’s friends in Kyiv who have children have been thinking of setting up a kindergarten for Ukrainian-speaking kids for quite some time. Establishing and equipping one is a challenge though. Obtaining a license for a kindergarten is even more difficult. According to the parents’ estimates, this sort of kindergarten would cost them US $250 a month. A Ukrainian-language group which opened in an ordinary kindergarten in Obolon, a residential district in Kyiv, was a relatively easy solution to the challenge of finding a native language community for the children.

Four families made the effort to implement the initiative. Marta Vynnytska, one of the initiators behind the Lion Cub group, says too many parents would like to give their children to the group but the candidates have to wait until other kids graduate from it. “We’ve started our own charter in the group,” Aliona says. “For instance, we don’t celebrate New Year with Ded Moroz, the soviet and Russian version of Santa Claus, or March 8, international Women’s Day. Now, we celebrate St. Nicholas’ Day instead of New Year and Mother’s Day in spring.”

Aliona and Viacheslav Zapadniuk raise their three kids based on three rules of upbringing: in addition to the Ukrainian-language kindergarten, they choose a Ukrainian-speaking environment to hang out in and Plast, the national Scouting organization in Ukraine. “We graduated from Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and keep in touch with other graduates,” Aliona says. “Also, we celebrate all kinds of holidays together. Our kids are friends with the children of our friends rather than the neighbours in our building.” Six-year old Mariyka has just been promoted to the New Scouts. Also, Plast accepts younger kids as ptashata, nestlings in Ukrainian, or Pre-Scouts.     

“I took my son to see an Eastern art exhibition at the Khanenko Museum the other day,” Mrs. Zapadniuk says. “It was an excursion for 2-6 year old pre-scouts. Guides in costumes were supposed to tell the children about the East so that they could understand it. As we waited for our guide, the lady from the museum failed to tell the kids even the basic stuff, even if she was very well-educated. She hardly spoke any Ukrainian too.” “Normally, families who realize how important it is to raise their kids in a Ukrainian-speaking environment stick to such communities and institutions,” says Yaryna Yatsun, a Plast member who works with pre-scouts.

In truth, parents have a hard time finding a Ukrainian-speaking environment, especially when they move from Ukrainian-speaking regions. So they create their own communities, including virtual ones.   “Those Ukrainians who want to stay so unite around churches, schools, associations and communities,” Ms. Yatsun claims. “This is perfectly normal for any ethnic group willing to preserve their identity when surrounded by a foreign language or culture. Ukrainians all over the world, including USA, Canada, Germany and Australia, do the same thing.”

Maybe it is a sad fact, but the above list can easily include Ukraine itself where Ukrainians have to unite and create communication hubs for their kids to preserve their language and culture.

[1] Surzhyk is a mix of Ukrainian and Russian largely spoken in the countryside in Central, Eastern, Southern and Northern Ukraine.

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