Lesser-known language in the spotlight: Ukrainian

13 April 2023

Since the war in Ukraine in 2022, Foyer’s Intercultural Mediation Service in Care and Welfare has employed a Ukrainian-speaking mediator. By the end of 2022, 99 mediations in Ukrainian had already taken place in Brussels hospitals, schools and social services. 

Ukrainian is an Eastern Slavic language closely related to Belarusian. Just over 60% of the Ukrainian lexicon corresponds to Russian, making the two languages partly mutually intelligible. Ukrainian is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, like Russian, but there are some differences. Among other things, Ukrainian has its own letter, the ‘ï’. 

A large majority of the Ukrainian population is bilingual: they master Russian in addition to Ukrainian, which was the language with the highest status before independence. Russian is still the mother tongue of most inhabitants of the Donbas and Crimea and in the major cities of the east and southeast of the country. 

Ever since the time of the Russian tsars, Ukrainian was often banned by law, either entirely or in certain contexts such as school, press or religion. Many Ukrainians ran school in Russian, including our intercultural mediator. Since Ukraine’s independence in 1991, Ukrainian was recognised as an official language, which did significantly increase its status. However, Russian still plays a major role in Ukraine’s popular culture, education and business life. 

Because Russian and Ukrainian have been commonly used side by side for so long, mixing has also occurred. For example, a lot of people use a sociolect that is a mixture of Russian and Ukrainian and is called Surzhyk as their everyday language. 

Besides Russian, Ukraine has a considerable number of minority languages spoken in certain regions, including Crimean Tatar, Romanian and Hungarian. Therefore, apart from the 99 interventions in Ukrainian from the Intercultural Mediation Service, many interventions have been made for Ukrainian patients and clients by our Russian- and Romanian-speaking mediators. 

For Ukrainians currently residing in Belgium, it is quite a challenge to properly maintain their language. Because Russian is a much larger language, it is easier to find a Russian-speaking teacher or support person.

And in the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine, the oppression of the Ukrainian language is all the way back: it is not uncommon to be fined for playing a Ukrainian song at a wedding party… Watch this video to learn some basic Ukrainian phrases!