Zelenskyj’s challenge: English is the official language in Ukraine, between cultural opportunities and risks

June 26, 2024 marks a historic date for Ukraine, with President Volodymyr Zelensky signing a law formalizing the status of the English language as one of the country’s languages ​​of international communication. Published on the website of the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s unicameral parliament), the law places English at the center of Ukraine’s modernization and international opening strategies, representing a significant turning point in the country’s linguistic policy. The government prepared the bill in the summer of 2023, and the Verkhovna Rada approved it on June 4, 2024. According to Zelensky, “This measure strengthens the country’s openness to the world and improves opportunities for Ukrainian citizens in both professional and personal spheres.”

The law requires that English language teaching be made compulsory from kindergarten onwards. This state commitment to English language teaching involves all educational institutions, from kindergartens to universities. In addition, knowledge of English becomes a basic requirement for a number of key positions, including heads of local government departments, military officers, prosecutors, tax and customs officials, and managers and teachers of educational and scientific institutions. Civil servants who master English will be given a 10% bonus on their salary, thus incentivizing learning and using the language.

English will also be extended to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and the National Guard, making it an international communication language in the military sector. The government will also provide financial support to cinemas for screening English-language films, thus promoting Anglophone culture in the country. However, an earlier version of the law calling for mandatory screening of films in English with Ukrainian subtitles by 2027 sparked strong public protests, with a petition gathering 25,000 signatures resulting in the article being removed from the final text.

Despite the obvious benefits of learning English, it is crucial to preserve and enhance the Ukrainian language. The promotion of English should not come at the expense of the national language. If knowledge of a language allows access to better jobs, there is a risk that people will be more motivated to learn it, neglecting Ukrainian and Russian, which risk becoming minority languages. Globalization offers many opportunities, but it is crucial to preserve the national linguistic heritage as a symbol of identity and autonomy. Otherwise, what would be the point of this war?

The language issue in Ukraine has always been complex and central to current events. 40 minority languages ​​and dialects are spoken in Ukraine. In 2003, the country ratified the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, pledging to protect them. However, over the years, things have changed. The most widespread languages ​​are Ukrainian, the official language, and Russian, the language of the country that is attacking Kiev today.

Looking back in history, it is crucial to remember the policies of Joseph Stalin, who imposed the use of Russian in Ukraine during the Soviet period. This policy aimed to culturally and linguistically homogenize the Soviet Union, often to the detriment of local languages ​​and cultures. The imposition of Russian was perceived as an act of oppression and control, causing deep wounds in the Ukrainian cultural fabric.

Volodymyr Zelenskyj should be especially cautious in promoting English, ensuring that it is not perceived as a new form of linguistic imposition. It is crucial that the initiative to spread English is seen as an additional opportunity rather than a replacement or obliteration of the Ukrainian language and culture. The risk is that a poorly calibrated policy could remind Ukrainians of the dark era of forced Russification, reopening historical and cultural wounds that have not yet completely healed.

Ukrainian linguist Volodymyr Kulyk has often spoken about the need to preserve and promote the Ukrainian language as an integral part of national identity. According to Kulyk, “The Ukrainian language is not only a means of communication, but a symbol of sovereignty and cultural independence.” The expert stressed the importance of language policies that promote the use of Ukrainian in all spheres of public life to counteract the influence of Russian, which has historically played a dominant role in Ukraine. We must ask ourselves: are we not in danger of doing the same thing with English instead of Russian?

Zelensky’s initiative to consolidate the status of English in Ukraine is an ambitious step towards international integration and the development of the country. However, this path must be balanced with the preservation of the Ukrainian language and culture, to ensure a future in which modernity and tradition can harmoniously coexist.