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  • Writer's pictureShelley Purchon

How to support speakers of Ukrainian and Russian equally

Updated: Oct 11, 2022

Do you provide services to Ukrainian refugees? This article explains the changing relationship between Ukrainian people and the two languages spoken in their country - Ukrainian and Russian. Is Russian becoming stigmatised? What do you need to know in order to handle this sensitively?

A common problem

People who have fled prejudice or conflict in order to settle here in the UK often have a complicated relationship with their language, culture, religion or neighbours. This is something I encountered when I was teaching English to people from all over the world - in the classroom I learned that it was safer not to ask opinions on certain topics and that people from some regions preferred to be seated apart.

I learned the hard way

Sometimes I was insensitive and made mistakes out of ignorance, and I wanted to help my clients avoid this. My clients are mostly public service providers, and some are receiving large numbers of people from Ukraine. If that's you, I hope you find this post useful. My main job is to help staff communicate skillfully (by unlocking their English, or working with an interpreter, or using Google Translate.) Cultural awareness is a very small part of what I do and I'm no expert, but I did a little research to help you manage this sensitively.

Many proud Ukrainians speak Russian

As a service provider you can't assume all the refugees you meet are primarily Ukrainian speakers - for many Russian is their first language. How do they feel about that fact now that Russia has invaded their country?

How do Ukrainians feel now about Russian?

I wondered if the war has resulted in stigma or inequality for Ukrainians who speak Russian. What do we need to be aware of in order to manage this sensitively? Huge thanks to Nataliya Vizir and Tetiana Lesyk for replying to my LinkedIn post asking about this, and for allowing me to share their insights. Nataliya has lived around the world but is currently in Kyiv, while Tetiana has fled to the UK.

What What Nataliya and Tetiana told me

  • All Ukrainians understand Ukrainian but that doesn't mean they can speak or write it confidently.

  • Use of Russian was very widespread before the conflict, but now many people are trying to move away from that.

  • Especially in public spaces, some Ukrainians who used to speak Russian in their daily lives are switching to Ukrainian

  • Many people in Ukraine now prefer to hear their compatriots speak 'bad' Ukrainian than to listen to fluent Russian, and can view Russian speakers negatively. Equally they may prefer to read materials in English than in Russian if those are their only options.

  • Nataliya, who remains in Ukraine, has seen negative reactions but hasn't seen aggression or violence directed towards Russian-speaking Ukrainians.

  • It's especially hard to switch to Ukrainian for the over 50s because they grew up during the Soviet era when Ukrainian was repressed.

How can you help?

  • If you can provide language services in Ukrainian this will be much appreciated, because many refugees now have negative and traumatic associations with Russian.

  • Don't assume that everyone from Ukraine is switching to Ukrainian, or make it seem that you favour Ukrainian - continue to offer translations in Russian too, just not as their only option. The more choice your client has the better.

  • Just because your client has requested Ukrainian language support, or can read Ukrainian, it doesn't mean it's their first language. Bear this possibility in mind.

  • It isn't easy to switch to a new language, especially if you are tired or distressed or feeling overwhelmed. Help by reducing distractions and taking things slowly.

  • Be patient if you have clients who have asked for translated materials in Ukrainian but then struggle to process them.

  • If someone requests a Ukrainian interpreter but then struggles with the conversation, consider the possibility that Ukrainian is their second language.

  • Don't be judgmental about people who are speaking Russian - let's try not to demonise the language or those who speak it. Just because someone speaks Russian does not mean they support the war. Many Russians oppose the war too, and some have been displaced by it.

"I was asked to interpret into Ukrainian for some new refugees in front of a full room. I had already been speaking to them and knew that they were native Russian speakers but I was given disgusted looks from British people there when I explained I would be translating into Russian, not Ukrainian." Ros Walker, volunteer interpreter and English teacher.

What about Hong Kong?

The people who are currently moving here from Hong Kong generally speak Cantonese. They don't wish to have Mandarin imposed upon them or their children - a fear of this is one of the reasons they are leaving. So if you offer an interpreter in the wrong language, this would be insensitive.

Please comment

As I said, I am a communication trainer not a cultural expert or political pundit. If you feel the tone or content of this article is wrong, please would you tell me? I'm active on LinkedIn, or send an email. Also get in touch if you would like to receive coaching or advice on how to overcome language barriers (without learning the other person's language.)

An additional resource

If you are supporting Ukrainians, or if you are a Ukrainian who has moved to the UK, you will love this guide to cultural differences. Especially useful for hosts of refugees. Thanks to cultural experts Sietar UK for producing this free guide.

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