Language Shift in Ukraine: A Bilingual Society in Transition

The present study reports on research based on two extended periods of on site data collection dealing with language use in Ukrainian- and Russian-base language schools in Kyjiv, Ukraine. The study represents the first empirically based analysis of language shift and utilization patterns since the promulgation of language policy guidelines for education in Ukraine of 1992–1993, written by a commission from the Ministry of Education, and the 1996 Constitution.

This research examines whether language shift from Russian to Ukrainian currently takes place in Ukraine, specifically Kyjiv. In January 1998 a survey was given to Ukrainian school students and Russian school students in grades 2–11. This survey focused on student background, student native language (language student’s mother first taught), student home language (language spoken at home with grandparents and parents), student interactive language (language used to address friends, to address a salesperson, and to ask for directions on the street), as well as student interpretative language (language used to watch television and to read). Based on the concept that language shift occurs over three generations (Fishman, 1966), responses from 988 students were analyzed to determine whether language shift to Ukrainian or language maintenance of Russian and/or Ukrainian occurs in Kyjiv today.

In Ukraine, prior to the break up of the Soviet Union, language use entailed the maintenance and promotion of Russian, causing a decline in Ukrainian. (Prizel, 1994) However, in 1989 the Ukrainian Supreme Soviet declared Ukrainian as the official language of Ukraine. In addition, the 1996 Ukrainian Constitution established educational policies intended to bring about the return of the Ukrainian language by increasing the use of Ukrainian in schools, by decreasing the number of Russian schools and increasing the number of Ukrainian schools, by increasing the amount of contact hours for Ukrainian language as a subject, and by requiring students to be proficient in Ukrainian upon graduation. Now, language policies establish an environment in which native Ukrainian speakers maintain their mother tongue; Russian utilization is most strongly preserved among those who have Russian across the three generations. Findings are analyzed by age/grade level cohorts, base-language schools, and home language.