Kiev, or Kyiv, which is more correct, is the capital city of Ukraine. It’s located in the northern, central part of the country closest to the borders of Belarus, and it’s a city that regroups many of Ukraine’s different minority groups.
Ukraine is known for being a multilingual country where both Russian and Ukrainian are spoken as mother tongues by the majority of people. But what does the linguistic landscape look like for Kyiv? And will you be able to get by in the Ukrainian capital with English?
In Ukraine, generally people in the eastern, and especially south-eastern regions speak Russian, and some don’t speak the Ukrainian language very well. In the western parts of the country, Ukrainian is more commonly spoken as a first language, but while Russian speakers are sometimes monolingual, almost all Ukrainian speakers also speak Russian.
Until recently, the most commonly spoken language in Kyiv was Russian, which was seen as a more educated and “fashionable” language, but since the Crimean crisis of 2014, Ukrainian nationalist sentiments all over the country has seen more people using the Ukrainian language which is very commonly used in the capital today, despite Russian still being the first choice of many. English, on the other hand isn’t widespread in Kyiv.
Russian And Ukrainian Is Perceived Differently
Even though the Ukrainian language has seen a rise in popularity during the later years, there still seems to be a clear difference in how Russian and Ukrainian are perceived in Ukraine and especially in Kyiv.
Most people prefer to speak the Russian language in public. For many Ukrainians, Russian is the language of educated cosmopolitans, whereas Ukrainian is considered by many to be the contrary, much like rural dialects are perceived in many countries.
This has meant that people have a certain preference for Russian in the public sphere, even if both interlocutors are perfectly able to speak Ukrainian. Only if one of the two people speaking have troubles expressing him or herself in Russian, or if it becomes clear that both are from regions in the West where Ukrainian is more common, will they make the switch.
In some cases, you’ll also hear two people having a conversation, each one speaking a different language. This is possible only if each person know both languages, which if often the case, but with each person having a different preference. While Russian and Ukrainian are related, they’re not mutually intelligible, meaning that both persons do need to know the language that the other part is speaking for this to work.
As mentioned, however, since the recent Russian-Ukrainian conflict in Crimea, more Ukrainians have started speaking Ukrainian in their everyday life, and more people tend to speak Ukrainian as a home-language in these days than it was the case before, which means that the Ukrainian language might be more commonly used in the future.
How Many Ukrainian Speakers Are There In Kyiv?
Kyiv has seen a drastic change in how its population see itself. In 2001, 75% of the capital’s population considered themselves ethnic “Ukrainian” whereas in 2015, the number was 94%. (Source). Whether the capital saw an influx of people who consider themselves Ukrainian in this period, or if the existing population merely changed their opinion on their own identity is hard to say.
According to other statistics, however, in 2006 23% of Kievans spoke Ukrainian at home whereas in 2015, 27% spoke Ukrainian at home, which is only a slight increase. This might indicate that the linguistic situation of the city remained more or less unchanged, whereas people’s perception of their own identity was the thing that changed.
But even though most of the population of Kyiv don’t speak Ukrainian at home (or as their mother language), almost everyone is able to communicate in the language.
Speaking Ukrainian in Kyiv will certainly allow you to speak with almost everyone.
How Many Russian Speakers Are There In Kyiv?
In 2001, 25% of Kievans considered themselves to be ethnic “Russians”. In 2015, that number had fallen to 5%.
Despite of this, Russian remains a very important language in the Ukrainian capital and it even remains the preferred language of most when speaking in public and conversing in the streets.
Russian also remains the preferred language spoken in Kievan households, with 32% of the population speaking primarily Russian at home as opposed to the 27% who speak mostly Ukrainian. (40% switch between speaking Russian and Ukrainian at home).
While most of the capital’s population do speak Russian, the amount of Russian speakers isn’t as high as it’s the case with Ukrainian speakers. Even though Russian is extremely common in Ukraine and Kyiv, it is mostly spoken by people who have at least a minimum of schooling.
This means that Kyiv finds itself in the strange situation where more people are able to speak Ukrainian, the national language, but where most people still prefer to speak Russian.
Other Languages Spoken In Kyiv
The main languages spoken in the Ukranian capital are without a doubt Ukrainian and Russian.
There are, however a number of minority languages present in the city spoken by some of the smaller ethnic groups. According to to statistics from 2001, the following minority groups, which we’ll assume speak their own language were present in Kyiv:
- Belarusian (16,500 or 0.6%)
- Polish (6,900 or 0.3%)
- Armenian (4,900 or 0.2%)
- Azerbaijani (2,600 or 0.1%)
- Tartar (2,500 or 0.1%)
- Georgian (2,400 or (0.1%)
- Moldovian (1,900 or 0.1%)
While the numbers of these linguistic minorities aren’t high, they represent quite the variety in that they represent no less than 5 different language branches.
Belarusian and Polish are Slavic languages, both related to Ukrainian and Russian.
Armenian, however, belongs to its own branch of the Indo-European language tree. Moldovian, which is a form of Romanian belongs to the Romance branch of Indo-European languages like French, Spanish and Italian. Azerbaijani and Tartar are both Turkic languages related to Turkish, whereas Georgian is a Kartvelian language.
Is English Widely Spoken In The Ukrainian Capital, Kyiv?
If you’re planning to go to Kyiv and rely on English, you might have to either hire a guide or to learn a few phrases before you go there – and don’t be too adventurous.
In Ukraine, English isn’t widely spoken, and even though Kyiv, the capital has more English speakers than the rest of the country, you shouldn’t expect to be able to ask directions from people in the streets or shop clerks and vendors. According to this source, Ukraine has one of the lowest English proficiency levels in Europe.
Many people employed in the tourist industry do, however, speak English, and Ukrainians are always very helpful, and even if they don’t speak the same language as you do, they’ll try and help you, or find someone who can.