Daily Archives: 19 March 2023

Losing Your First Language: Ukrainian

From Face[t]s of First Language Loss, by Sandra G. Kouritzin (Routledge, 1999), pp. 154-155:

Er that I ferther in this tale pace,
Me thinketh it accordant to resoun
To telle you al the condicioun
Of eech of hem, so as it seemed me,
And whiche they were, and of what degree,
And eek in what array that they were inne:
(Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales, General Prologue, lines 36-41)

Nadia was the first person to volunteer for this research project, completing her interviews before the call for subjects was published. A registered nurse, Nadia came to my home to collect urine samples when my husband and I purchased our life insurance. We talked a little bit about our respective professions, and, when I explained the subject of my research, Nadia became excited and said that she would love to parti­cipate, because her first language was Ukrainian. Nadia was, in essence, a pilot study. With her, I discussed not only the subject of language loss, but also the best ways to both ask questions and aid people in their struggles with narrating large sections of their lives.

Nadia was born in a small town in Manitoba into a unique linguistic situation, one which left her alone and often lonely. She and her family were Ukrainian-speaking Catholics in a town that was predominantly German and Mennonite. She therefore had to travel outside the town to go to church, and was isolated from many activities. She remembers some German teaching in her school, even though the linguistic norm was English. Nadia also remembers having several reserve First Nations’ schoolmates who spoke English as a second language, but she didn’t notice their cultural difference when she was very young, and they had largely dropped out of school by the time she was in high school.

Most of Nadia’s memories of speaking Ukrainian in childhood revolve around food and ceremonies. This was understandable, given that holidays and festivals were occasions for her family to travel and to visit with other members of their family and their church. As she also explained, “I jumped around and started talking about my culture and stuff. I see many languages associated to a culture, and so, also, when I did family things, that’s where Ukrainian was” (June 13th, 1995, p. 30).¬†At the time of our interviews, Nadia was enrolled in Ukrainian lessons through her church, hoping to recapture enough of the language to participate in family conversations, and to surprise her parents on her next visit home.

Ukrainians in Canada were interned as enemy aliens (from Austria-Hungary) and put to hard labor during World War I.

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