How To Learn Ukrainian By Yourself (From Beginner To Advanced)
- Mille Larsen •20 mins read
Ukrainian is a fascinating language with growing importance in the world on multiple fronts. There are many great reasons to become fluent in the language. There's not a lot of helpful info out there on how to learn Ukrainian, however. That's why I've decided to write this article which I'm hoping can help you make a plan for self-studying Ukrainian.
Ukrainian is not an easy language to learn! But you CAN become fluent in it if you lay out a plan from the beginning to the end. You need to work at it with consistency and dedication and eventually your hard work will pay off. This doesn't happen overnight, but if you follow this guide and stick to it, you will eventually speak Ukrainian!
TIP: The single best resource I've found for learning Ukrainian at present is Pimsleur Ukrainian. It's by far the most helpful starting point for learning the language.
Also, their "All Access" package includes both Ukrainian and Russian, which is helpful for comparing the two languages.
Is Ukrainian worth learning?
Ukrainian is an Eastern Slavic language related to Russian, Belorussian and Polish. It is spoken by over 40 million people in Ukraine, but there are great numbers of Ukrainian immigrants and expats in many parts of the world.
Ukrainian is an important language in the world in terms of art, history, economy and international politics. Recent events in Ukraine and former Soviet countries also make the language extremely relevant.
It's worth noting, however, that you can largely get by in Ukraine with the Russian language too. Most Ukrainians are bilingual and despite Ukraine being a country of growing influence, it doesn't beat Russia.
Yet, speaking Russian in Ukraine might not be that well received. Even though the Russian language is well understood and spoken, most people prefer Ukrainian and some even dislike Russian because of historic and current factors in world politics.
So my advice would be to learn Ukrainian if you focus specifically on Ukraine. Russian could work, but Ukrainian is just that much more well revived.
Is Ukrainian hard to learn?
No languages are difficult to learn. Babies learn languages, and you're more intelligent, diligent and dedicated than a baby, right?
Okay, take that with a grain of salt. While children do learn languages naturally, the process is very slow and practically ineffective for an adult to replicate. Learning a language like a child does it would entail living in complete language immersion for a decade or two. That's not what I recommend.
Taking charge of your learning takes dedication and consistence. You need to put in the work and do it every day. That goes for Ukrainian as well as any other language. Now, is Ukrainian more difficult than other languages? Sure, it's got 7 grammatical cases like Polish. German, than many consider difficult has 4. Then there's the pronunciation that's a little complicated. The vocabulary is more or less exotic and doesn't have that many words in common with English and French for example.
But even though these points might make Ukrainian a little tougher than say, Spanish, it's just a question of putting in a little more work.
So let's get into it! What do you need to do first, to learn Ukrainian?
Learn the Ukrainian alphabet
Ukrainian is written with the Cyrillic alphabet. It's similar to Russian, but with a few letters being a little different. In order to get going with your Ukrainian studies, you need to start familiarizing yourself with the alphabet. It's actually not that complicated, and many letters look like the ones you know from the Latin alphabet.
Ukrainian is pretty consistent in its spelling. As soon as you know how each individual letter is pronounced, you can read out loud in Ukrainian. The above video is a walk-though of the Ukrainian alphabet along with some word examples and some explanations and demonstrations of the pronunciation. Have a look, but don't worry about mastering the content at this point!
To learn the Ukrainian alphabet, I recommend that you sit down and do a little handwriting exercise. Here's a Ukrainian alphabet worksheet that you can print out and use as a guide to writing the individual letters. (And a follow-up for words)
Write each letter carefully, pronouncing it out loud. Do this three times for each letter. If you go through the alphabet a couple of times per day for 2-3 days, it'll suffice to learn the alphabet. It's not that hard! Try having a look at this video as well to get a better example of how the handwriting works.
Getting started with basic pronunciation
As a complete beginner in Ukrainian, you might want to start with an audio course like Pimsleur. (link to amazon) Pimsleur is a very slow-paced course that focuses on correct pronunciation and simple, intuitive grammar. If you're completely new to learning languages by yourself, it can be helpful to start by doing this course. It has the advantage of taking you by the hand and introducing you to the bases of the language. The fact that it is slow-paced is an advantage for the complete beginner. It won't intimidate you, and you'll feel at ease with your first few words in Ukrainian.
I don't recommend that you buy the whole course, however. Once you've got the bases down, leave Pimsleur behind. It's simply too slow, and if you're going to get anywhere, you're going to have to continue with a course that's slightly more challenging.
How to get started with learning Ukrainian with a beginner's course. Or two.
After having touched upon the pronunciation and the alphabet, it's time to get serious!
You need to pick up a beginner's course for Ukrainian and get into a daily study routine. A course I often recommend is Teach Yourself Ukrainian (see it on Amazon) Teach Yourself is a course built up with dialogues, exercises and grammar explanations. It also comes with audio, which is extremely important when you learn Ukrainian by yourself.
I recommend that you do one lesson per day in your Teach Yourself book. Sit down while drinking your morning coffee and work through a lesson. Try making a habit out of doing it every morning. First, read the English translation to get an idea what the dialogue is about. Then listen to the audio, while you follow along the Ukrainian text. Lastly, go through the Ukrainian phrases one by one, pausing the recording to repeat out loud. You might want to repeat this a couple of times. Try to make sense of the Ukrainian writing. How does the letters correspond to the pronunciation? Which is which?
Then read the grammar explanations and try to take note of the things that are explained. But don't stress this part. If grammar gives you headache, you'll get much more out of focusing on the dialogues.
I recommend that you revise 5-10 of your previously finished lessons for each new lesson you do. Just listen to the recording and repeat out loud.
Do a a second beginner's course in parallel with Teach Yourself
I'm a great advocate of always doing multiple courses or approaches at the same time when studying foreign languages. Even through you do your revisions, you study a lot and you are diligent - there's just nothing like seeing stuff you've already touched upon in another context. Doing another course in parallel will make you notice and recognize stuff that you've already studied in a whole other way.
So why is this so effective? The moment you recognize a word or a grammar point, it'll make you remember it better because you'll be creating a positive association to that word. Learning words from a book is neutral to the brain. It's information, but it doesn't stand out. Seeing it somewhere else is a little victory. Your brain gets happy, and it'll just love that word a little more, and it'll be so much harder to forget.
Which course to pick?
So which other course should you do in parallel with Teach Yourself Ukrainian? One of my favorite beginner's courses is Assimil. It's a great course that's heavily focused on dialogues and not so much on exercises and grammar, and I really like that. In addition to that, Assimil is just an enjoyable course to work with. They just don't have a course for Ukrainian! Not in English anyway. If you speak French, however, I can't recommend enough checking out Assimil L'Ukrainien. (Link to Amazon)
I am going to assume, however, that you don't speak French.
If that's the case, try having a look at Colloquial Ukrainian. (Also an Amazon link) Colloquial is a course in the same style as Teach Yourself. It's got dialogues, audio, grammar explanations and drills and you can use it in pretty much the same way. If you do the Teach Yourself course every morning, why not try making a habit out of studying with Colloquial every evening?
Learn Ukrainian phrases through Glossika
As you progress and you've done around a third of the lessons in your Teach Yourself and Colloquial books, it's time to start branching out to something else.
Glossika is a language learning program that I recently discovered. It has quickly become one of my favorite courses for the lower intermediate stage and upwards. (Read why I like Glossika)
Glossika has a huge archive of Ukrainian sentences that you can study. The system is laid out in such a way that you're gradually introduced to vocabulary and grammar through context. You're learning the grammar through recognizing patterns rather than explanations. This is hugely effective for remembering words and getting used to grammar.
With Glossika, instead of analytically dissecting sentences and intellectually studying their grammar, you learn it by habit. This resembles the way we learn our mother tongues as children. Yet it has the advantage of being structured and laid out in such a way that all new sentences are related to one another. A child learns through hearing random examples of the language again and again for several years. But with Glossika, these sentences are not random.
How to use Glossika for learning Ukrainian
This is what Glossika's study screen looks like
When you start your first study session with Glossika, you will be faced with an English sentence and the equivalent in Ukrainian. The English sentence will be played out loud followed by a pause, then the Ukrainian translation is played two times followed by a pause. When you first hear the English sentence, try reading the Ukrainian sentence out loud during the short pause. Do this rather quickly, because you don't have a lot of time. Then you'll hear the Ukrainian sentence two times.
Try mimicking the speaker exactly is it's spoken. Do it out loud, with the same intonation, speed and rhythm! Don't worry if you mumble at first of if it's difficult. You'll hear the sentence again later. There's also the option of slowing down the speed of the audio. I don't advice you to do this. It's much better to get used to the speed of spoken Ukrainian at the get-go!
Each new Glossika lesson is a batch of five new sentences repeated five times, so 25 times in total. These are quickly done. I recommend that you do something between 5-20 new sentences a day. It might seem like you could easily do more. But you need to know that these sentences will be scheduled for review several times! So if you do a lot now, you'll be creating a mountain of revisions for later!
Doing reps or revisions with Glossika
So, as I mentioned, Glossika will schedule the sentences you study to be reviewed. After around 12-24 hours, you should see the sentences you studied earlier up for review already! Do these before adding any new sentences.
Each time you do your reviews, Glossika will schedule the sentence a little further into the future. This is done with a mathematical algorithm based on something called the forgetting curve. The algorithm tries to predict for how long you'll remember a word you just studied. Then it'll schedule the sentence for review just before that. For each time you review the sentence, it will be scheduled a little further into the future.
If the sentence is particularly difficult, you have the option of tagging it with a little icon. This makes Glossika know that it should schedule the sentence for review a little more often, because you're more likely to forget it than usual. Likewise, if a sentence is very easy to you, you can tag it as such, and Glossika will space out the repetitions of this sentence a little more.
Doing these revisions or "reps" is one of the key aspects of how Glossika works. Reps are actually used as a way to measure your progress in Ukrainian. The milestones are 25.000, 50.000 and 75.000 reps. In other words - you need to do a lot of reps with Glossika, but they'll take you a long way. Read more about Glossika on my article on the subject.
Or check out Glossika Ukrainian's website
Start reading every day to improve your Ukrainian
Reading is one of the most important activities when learning a new language. Ukrainian is not an exception. It can, however, be quite intimidating to get started. How should you go about finding texts at the appropriate level? Do you need to read Ukrainian children stories for months before being able to advance to interesting content?
There are a lot of different strategies to reading in a foreign language. One that many new learners might be tempted to try, is reading a Ukrainian book while looking up unknown words in a dictionary.
I don't recommend this. Constantly looking up things in a dictionary is extremely frustrating. You never get the chance to get into the plot and you'll forget what the story was about in no time. And two minutes after looking up a word, you'll forget it anyways. Reading with a dictionary can be done as an exercise in intensive reading, where you do it for one page per session for example. But using it for reading any significant amount of text is sure to drain your motivation.
Reading online texts with a pop-up dictionary
Using a pop-up dictionary like Google Dictionary is a great way to make online texts in Ukrainian easier to understand. Google Dictionary is a browser extension that you can download for the Chrome browser, but there are alternatives for other browsers as well. With Google Dictionary, you simply click any word, anywhere on the internet in order to get an instant translation of that word in English. This is immensely helpful when trying to read interesting content in Ukrainian. You won't necessarily learn every word you look up off the bat, but it helps you understand the text as a whole, and allows for a pleasurable read.
If you're into fishing, you could read about the sturgeon in Ukrainian. Perhaps you could even go to Ukraine and catch one?
If you don't know how to find articles in Ukrainian, try simply writing what you're interested in into Google Translate, and search for your keyword in Ukrainian. Are you interested in pets? Go look for something about pets. Gardening? Then go look for articles on gardening. Read in Ukrainian whatever you'd enjoy as a light read in English.
So what shouldn't you read in Ukrainian? Generally if a subject or theme is difficult to grasp when you read it in English, not because of vocabulary, but because of the subject matter being difficult; Don't bother reading it in Ukrainian. I'm interested in philosophy and history, but if I were to read that kind of thing in a language I was learning, I'd be having to deal with understanding the concepts as well as the foreign language. So don't do that!
Reading Ukrainian on LingQ
Since I first stumbled across LingQ years ago, it's become one of my staples when it comes to reading tools in language learning. LingQ offers a lot of different things, but in my opinion, one of its strongest assets is the app and the built in reader. You can either import your own texts into LingQ or you can study the material that is already available in their archive.
Studying an Ukrainian text through LingQ
When you first start studying with LingQ, you'll be faced with a whole page of words marked in blue. As you click on the words, a popup with popular translations will show up. You can either pick one, or you can click "I know this word" if you already know it. If you pick a translation, the word color will change to yellow. Yellow words are words you don't know yet, but aren't unknown either. They're the words you're in the process of learning. Work your way through the text in that manner until all blue words are gone.
Make your own hints instead of using translations with LingQ
As soon as you've finished the text, I recommend that you go have a look at your collection of yellow words (or "LingQ's" as they're called). For each one, go look at the translation again. Here, I recommend that you change the translation to some kind of "hint". It could be a synonym in Ukrainian or an explanation in your own words. Anything is better than a Google Translation.
If you do this for each word you're learning, you'll create a memory about that word. When you see it again, you'll be faced with your own formulation or the synonym that you've found yourself rather than an automatic translation. This is actually really important! In a way, you'll have created a relationship with that word, and that makes for many more synapses in your brain, which helps you learn the word much better than a "neutral" dictionary-lookup would.
If you'd like to learn more about LingQ, go read my LingQ review. Or go directly to the LingQ website.
Read Ukrainian books in parallel with their English translations
If you're more into old-fashioned paper books than reading text on a screen, there are options too. A great way of going about this is to read the Ukrainian book alongside an English version of the same text.
First read a sentence, a paragraph or a chapter in English, then read the same thing in Ukrainian. This won't automatically make you know all words in the Ukrainian book you're learning, but it'll help you actually read in Ukrainian completely fluently. The plot and the finer details, as well as what should be "read between the lines" are clear because you just read the same thing in English.
I've used this approach several times in multiple languages. There are many books out there that exist in both languages, so you only have to keep your eye out for them. I've read Harry Potter in quite a few languages for example. It's available in Ukrainian on Amazon. So is a great many popular books. I can recommend looking up translations of the books by Earnest Hemingway, Agatha Christie or perhaps Lord of the Rings, but it's up to you.
And then there's Ukrainian literature of course. Ukraine has a great literary tradition and there are many great books worth reading. Note, however, that a lot of the books that take part in "Ukrainian literature" are written in Russian - so be sure to select the ones that are in Ukrainian.
Have a look at Voroshilovgrad, a crazy road novel by Serhiy Zhadan that plays with different genres and makes for an exciting read. (English, Ukrainian Amazon links). Or The Museum of Abandoned Secrets, a multi-generational drama by one of Ukraine's great modern feminist writers Oksana Zabuzhko. (English, Ukainian - also links to Amazon.)
Start conversing and writing in Ukrainian
When you've just about finished your beginner's books, you've made a habit out of reading Ukrainian daily and you're a few thousand reps into Glossika; It's time to start focusing on speaking and writing.
I recommend that you start by looking for an Ukrainian language tutor. There are many places online where tutors offer their services for a fee. One is Italki. Look through their list of Ukrainian tutors, and pick one out you think you'd be able to work with. Make contact and discuss how you'd like to work together.
I recommend that you take charge of your tutoring sessions. Many tutors have their own programs, books, exercises and so on. You decide how you'd like to proceed, but I suggest that you focus on conversation. You should agree on a subject beforehand, then schedule a conversation of 30-45 minutes. Spend this time speaking in Ukrainian only! And ask your tutor to keep corrections to an absolute minimum. He or she can write down the suggestions and send it to you afterwards.
If you're not entirely satisfied with how things are going with your tutor, or if you disagree on the approach or something else, never hesitate to find someone else! You're paying after all!
After the end of a conversation, sit down and write a short text on the subject you just discussed. In the beginning, aim for 100-300 words. Send the text to your tutor and have it corrected. Don't forget to read through the corrections afterwards and take note of all of the corrections.
Do conversation sessions and writing exercises like this 2-3 times per week and you'll be well on your way to reaching an advanced level of Ukrainian.
Hiring a language tutor can be costly! If you worry about this, you might want to go look for alternatives. There's nothing as effective as a dedicated tutor, but there's the possibility of finding a language exchange partner.
A language buddy is someone who speaks your target language, and who's learning a language that you know well. You then act as a tutor for one another. This can ideally work really well, and you can use the same approach as the one I described above with a paid tutor. It can however be difficult to find a language partner who has the same ambition, dedication and approach as you do. And even if you find a great language buddy, you'll need to spend a lot of time being a tutor yourself. It feels great to help someone out, but if you're trying to fit your Ukrainian studies in to a busy schedule, it may seem like a lot of wasted efforts.
Whether you choose to find a language partner or a tutor, with a dedicated approach and consistency, you're sure to reach a high level of Ukrainian. At this point only the sky is the limit. Carry on what you're already doing. Read books, watch television and listen to podcasts, news and Ukrainian radio. And you'll become fluent in Ukrainian.