Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Ukraine and its self defeating behaviors

I was recently told by the director of the English school I work at that I should not tell my students that I am of Ukrainian descent and that I speak Ukrainian. She explained to me that some students are less interested in being taught by ethnic Ukrainians and English teachers who speak Ukrainian. Although their reasoning was not made very clear, I gathered that they consider people like me to not be true native English speakers.

Unfortunately, this is not an isolated incident. When I was interviewing for jobs here in Ukraine I was asked by another school how I felt about "lying" to my students. They also found that many students were turned off by Ukrainian speaking English teachers and teachers of Ukrainian descent.

I was initially not bothered by this request. I assured the directors of these schools that I understood that the customer is always right (And I do believe this and generally leave my personal opinions at the door when working as a representative for a company such as a school). I didn't think that this would bother me either. After all, I speak English much better than I do Ukrainian, so it is easier for me to teach using only English anyway.

However, after having tried this out in practice, I have different thoughts on the issue. On my first day, the director walked me into the class to introduce me and said that I speak a little Ukrainian because I am married to a Ukrainian woman. It was harmless enough and, in truth, the class was fine. I didn't suffer trauma or anything like that.

But there's something that doesn't quite sit right with me after the experience, and I suspect that it might be a seemingly innocuous part of a deeper problem.

To start with, I'm not sure what the problem is with an English teacher who has relatives (in my case, grandparents) from Ukraine. I'm a white person from the United States, so it should be obvious that if you go back far enough, I must have family from Europe. Aside from prejudice, why is it preferable that I be of, say, German descent over Ukrainian?

I could understand why a student might want to have a teacher who is a native English speaker. Native speakers have a "feel" for their language that is hard to learn. Of course, there are minuses to native speakers as well. Their feel for correct language usage often makes them oblivious to certain language rules and norms. For example, why is it correct to say "drive in a car," but "fly on a plane?" Why isn't it correct to say, "drive on a car?" In both cases you are inside the vehicle. I listen to the radio show, A Way With Words, and a caller brought up this question to the show's hosts. He was teaching English in Japan, and his students asked him this very question, which he had no idea how to answer because he never noticed this inconsistency before.

And to be honest, I think that the idea that only native speakers can have a feel for a language can sometimes be wrong. Yulia, for example, grew up in Ukraine, but moved to the United States when she was fourteen and spent eleven years there. I consider her to be just as good a speaker of English as I am. She often even prefers to speak, write, or read in English because it is more comfortable for her. She lived most of her adult life in America, so naturally had to learn how to speak professionally in English at work, write complicated thoughts and opinions at the university, and read everything in English. Until she met me she only rarely spoke Ukrainian with friends.

In our everyday conversations with one another we mix Ukrainian and English liberally. We'll say something like, "The cats are sleeping near the pichka." Pichka, as you may or may not know, is the word for masonry heater. Although we both know the word, "masonry heater" we prefer the Ukrainian version. We like the sound of it--peechka--and we consider the things to be Ukrainian (probably because many more homes in Ukraine have them than in the US). Either way, we don't use the two languages as a crutch, but as a way to enhance the way we communicate to one another.

And that is the way I feel about an English teacher knowing a local language. When necessary they can translate something on a dime, but most of the time they naturally stick to teaching in English only. If anything, this should be an asset, not a drawback. Plus, an English teacher who is learning another language understands what it is like to learn a foreign language. They can use the strategies and methods they use for themselves to help mentor their students through their own learning processes.

These are the reasons for why I think it is positive for English teachers to speak the vernacular of the foreign country they live in. I think most people can understand this and probably already agree with me. However, I think the deeper issue involves Ukrainian society and its distrust of itself. Since Yulia and I moved to Ukraine in 2011 we have noticed this issue manifest itself in different places. The most obvious place I saw it was on food and other products. I have seen packaging written partially or sometimes entirely in English. I can only speculate as to why this is the case, but, like my experience in the classroom, I think it may be because of a perceived notion of anything Ukrainian (even the language) being a signal of inferior quality. Perhaps the term, "Premium Quality," is just enough to persuade a customer that they are not being swindled.

Yulia and I experience comments that confirm this as well. We've had neighbors see us on the street near where Yulia's family lives. Most of the time they talk and look exclusively at me. When we ask why they're not talking to Yulia they say that she's Ukrainian and not as interesting. The same goes for when we meet new people. The question we most frequently get asked is, "Life is much better abroad, isn't it?"

Most of this behavior is probably due to just not knowing better. One of my students, for example, just traveled to Poland for an academic conference. She doesn't speak Polish, but expected to use English as a common language while over there. She came back and was surprised that only a few people knew English. She had the impression that, as she put it, everybody in the European Union spoke English. This was very interesting to me. Here in Lviv, we are only an hour drive from the Polish border. This whole part of Ukraine was part of Poland before World War Two and, before the war, Poles and Ukrainians lived together here. Because of shared history and simple proximity I would think that most locals would know the ins and outs of Polish culture well.

I hope this is the beginning of a new learning experience for her. I hope she sees that many of her preconceptions about the fabled progressive EU are not true. I hope she understands that, if one considers English as a sign of worldliness and progress, that maybe she, and even Ukraine, can be more worldly and more progressive than other countries--even from the EU. I got the impression that this was the case during the Euromaidan protests of the past year, and I hope this awareness continues.

Before I conclude I should say that not all English teachers, schools, or students think this way. I have talked with many people who value teachers who know another language. I am also in the process of leaving the school I referenced earlier, so my hypersensitivity to being asked to lie about my heritage may have been triggered by other, more substantial problems I had with the school. Once a few things annoy you about something, it is easy to find other faults that you may not have noticed before. Still, I think this issue is important to write about here, even though I may never bring this up with the school. As someone who genuinely cares about Ukraine and its future I think that the suspicion of all things Ukrainian is ultimately self defeating and needs to be addressed in some way, and I'd like to be a part of that larger conversation.

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