Cultural differences can enthral – language barriers on the other hand can prove to be a source of frustration. Sébastien Gobert is a journalist representing the French press and radio in Ukraine. For Gobert, Ukraine is “another Europe...So close, yet so far”. Gobert is idealistic in his journalistic beliefs and ideals, as is so often the case with newly-minted reporters: “Journalism is about wanting to check, analyse, spread and share information as well as try to provoke a reaction from the audience.”
I came to journalism to be a small but, hopefully, important link between people and events, and like Gobert, I too am learning the craft of journalism. But, if journalism is about communicating, what happens when you can’t? I put some questions to Gobert, before turning the mirror on myself to answer based on my French foray.
Sébastien Gobert – French Journalist
When I first moved to Ukraine, I was speaking Polish and a tiny bit of Russian. Numbers, food, and directions are essential. Strangely enough, words such as dobriy den, dyakuyu, spasibo, bud laska, pozhaluysta are not that used on the street...There is not a strong culture of being polite on the streets. Yet it’s important to know these words.
My first talks were of survival. Get a SIM card. Find proper food. Pay my 2.50 hryvnias from the end of a marshrutka to the driver. Buy a train ticket. So it was a lot of body language, and frustration. After failing, survival instinct takes over. No one was going to do it for me and not many people on the street speak English.
I believe it is essential to master local languages as much as possible. It truly helps you to understand what is going on, who is who, who does what, what does who, and so on. One never really knows a foreign language to the full, and constant learning is quite enriching. Also, learning languages while living in a country is thrilling – like complete immersion. To learn a language while abroad may challenge the clichés about a country, while in the country and communicating with its people it is more possible to confront theory and reality.
I am learning Ukrainian. The language is closer to Polish than Russian, which helps. I am more specialised in politics than in business, and Ukrainian is increasingly a language of politics.
Olga German – Ukrainian Journalist
My trip to France was a great opportunity for me. I enjoy participating in volunteer projects and of course dreamed of going. I had also wished to learn a bit of French some day. This “day” came earlier than I expected. Just like that, hoping my knowledge of other foreign languages would assist me, I went on my adventure. I tried to learn basic greetings, introducing myself, counting, and asking directions. Though my most-used expression was “Parlez-vous anglais?”
My first conversation happened in the airport where I could easily speak English. Apart from that, I was warned the French don’t speak much English. I needed to catch a certain train, so the representatives of the volunteer organisation could meet me. I had a phone number, that’s all. I cannot say that the Paris metro system is very complicated, but fatigue quickly set in. Fortunately, people were eager to help. One word in English, one in French and I soon found my way. One of favourite moments is when a lovely French man from the volunteer organisation met me at the train station. He said he didn’t speak English and on the car journey we took turns to use a dictionary, which made for a pretty funny conversation.
I think it is crucial to understand the mentality of people. I think there is something magical about language, so much history and tradition lies behind it. How can you explain that in a different language? Also, not all people master other languages enough to express the full spectrum of their emotions.
I do want to learn French now. French simply sounded melodic to me and it is an instrument I would like to learn to play and go to France with knowledge of the language. It seems then I would have a completely different impression. Some of my French-speaking friends would laugh at me for not pronouncing French properly. They would ask me to say “tur-lu-tu-tu” – turns out it means nothing, yet shows you are not a native speaker.
Most Important Phrases in Ukrainian according to What’s On
I want to know who the guilty party is – Ja khochu znaty, jaka partia v tsiomu vynna?
More beer please – Shche pyva, bud’ laska!
Where is the toilet – De znakhodytsia tualet?
That’s a lovely leopard-print outfit – Faini leopardovi lakhy!
Where can I get a black leather jacket like yours? – De mozhna prydbaty taku chornu shkirianu kurtku, jak u vas?
Of course, your regular pleases and thank yous are good to learn too:
Please – Bud’ laska
Thank you – Diakuiu
Excuse me – Pereproshuiu
I’m sorry – Meni shkoda! Vybachte!
How much? – Skilky?
The Expat View
If you don’t get acquainted with the language before you arrive in another country, the learning process is launched as soon as your first conversation takes place. But watch out, there are no short cuts (unless you meet a pretty Ukrainian girl), as this expat, who has asked to remain unidentified, reveals: “My first attempt to speak Russian was when I was trying to buy a telephone card for a public payphone. The woman at the kiosk refused to understand me, but I just blocked her window until a queue built up and she finally had to sell me one.”
Regardless of day-to-day requirements, if communication with locals is not a priority, the majority of foreigners will learn basic phrases to get by. Sometimes, however, it is not only about one language: “When I came to Kyiv I wanted to learn Ukrainian but everyone told me I should try to learn Russian because if I tried to speak Ukrainian people would answer in Russian and it was confusing. I started to learn Russian but my heart wasn’t in it. And so I have learnt some expressions, such as pivo, pozhaluysta (beer, please), yeshche piva pozhaluysta (another beer please), and povtorit pivo pozhaluysta (repeat beer, please).”
By not making attempts at learning the language of the country you are in, you end up, literally, putting yourself in a box. Fortunately, most expats know this themselves: “I think it is very important to learn the local language. I want to learn Ukrainian, and I hope one day I will.”
by Olga German