Learning Ukrainian: ‘We’re just trying to make it more friendly for them’

A language class in Castleknock is drawing people interested in linguistic interaction with our Ukrainian friends

Classroom seven in Castleknock Community College in Dublin is decorated with national flags from all over the world.

Seosamh Ó Braonáin is sitting at a desk beneath the bunting on Monday evening, reading dialogue in front of his classmates.

“I speak French, Italian and a little bit of Spanish,” he says slowly in Ukrainian, sounding out the unfamiliar words and sounds.

His peers holler and clap when he completes the sentence.


“I like your и [pronounced ‘ee’]. It’s very proper Ukrainian-sounding,” says teacher Nadiya Sulyma.

“Woohoo!” Ó Braonáin laughs. “I got one letter right.”

Ó Braonáin, a teacher who has Ukrainian students, is one of eight people undertaking a class to learn the language.

The college in Castleknock began offering a 10-week night-time Ukrainian course last September, with an improvers’ class resuming in mid-January.

The class is currently attempting to learn how to conjugate verbs, beginning with “to speak”. The lesson starts listening to dialogue played from a computer, students then try to speak it themselves and eventually attempt to write the sentences.

“How do you know if a verb is one conjugation or another?” one student asks, before sheepishly adding, “and don’t say you have to just know.”

The class laughs and mutters in agreement.

“It’s just about practising. Don’t be worrying about that too much now. It’s too hard to get straight away,” Sulyma replies. “You need to stop saying in your head ‘No, I can’t do that. No, I can’t speak it.’ You can speak it now.”

Sulyma, a Ukrainian national who has lived in Ireland for 19 years and works in childcare, says she had never taught adults before the course began.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able for an adult class because it’s slightly different, but I went for the interview and said I’d just try it,” she says. “I’m really enjoying it. I’m so appreciative of the huge interest the guys show in my country, my language. I’m so proud of my history, my culture, with everybody here. I would like to give my small help.”

Dr Fiona Donnelly is one of the people taking part in the course. She is a general practitioner in Castleknock and chose to try to learn the language, with her colleague Dr Aideen Gough, to make communicating with her Ukrainian patients easier.

“We both look after Ukrainian patients and it’s almost impossible to bridge that [language barrier]. We use a lot of iTranslate and I put up signs to try to make them feel welcome,” Donnelly says.

People she has spoken to about the classes are very interested in what she can say in the language, but she says she is only in the very early stages of picking it up.

“Somebody asked me what I can say in Ukrainian. So I made up some rubbish,” Donnelly laughs.

Some students are seeking to learn the language to help in the regular interactions they have with the more than 70,000 Ukrainian people who have come to Ireland since Russia invaded their country almost a year ago. Others have longer-standing links to the country and are trying to catch up.

Colm Kelly’s wife of eight years is Ukrainian. He says he has been looking for ways to learn the language for a “really, really long time”.

“I got a flyer in the door and I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It was a great idea because, for my wife, it’s very hard to teach your own husband. It is what I wanted because I wanted to learn more of the language so I was able to speak with my relatives in Ukraine.”

Julie Carvill, who is based in Bray, Co Wicklow, decided to try to learn some Ukrainian due to the influx of refugees arriving into her local community over the last year.

“In mid-March about 300 Ukrainians arrived into the Royal Hotel and I’m involved with the church that’s directly across from the hotel and we opened what’s known as a hub,” she says. “We were initially providing clothes, toiletries, nappies, etc, but it’s morphed and we’ve done other things as the needs have changed.

“The Ukrainians have tried very hard, to different levels of success, to learn English so I felt I should at least try to learn Ukrainian.”

Carvill says she thought she was quite good at languages before taking up the class, but that Ukrainian is “quite difficult”.

“It’s great. It’s lovely to do something completely different,” she says of the classes.

For 65-year-old Noel Caffrey, the decision to enrol was motivated by the Ukrainian mother and child he welcomed into his home five months ago.

“I like languages anyway, but you like to be able to speak to them,” he says. “It’s not so much a barrier, because with Google and things like that, you get over the barrier. But it means you can’t have a spontaneous conversation. If I say something in a very Irish way of saying it, I will get a total blank face. At this stage, it’s just to have a few words.”

Before he attended the class on Monday, he was in the dining room in his home studying Ukrainian, while his refugee guests were learning English and Irish in the kitchen.

“The hardest part is getting over the alphabet,” Caffrey says. “It’s completely different. When you’re reading a word, you don’t parse it out, you just read it, so we’re trying to get to that stage. We’re just trying to make it more friendly for them.”