Being in another country is like having my birthday every day of the year.  I wake up and find that I’m much more excited about it than everyone else.  And that excitement comes from seeing something new every time I step out the front door.  What’s going to come next?  A run-in with the Ukrainian Mafia, an opportunity to lift a burning car off of a group of small children, or maybe I’ll even muster up the courage to order something in a café where they don’t speak English! 

Now that you’re practically an expert in the Ukrainian language, you can clearly see that this signs says, “My dog is very friendly, feel free to come play with him anytime!”

I just never know what sort of excitement life is going to hand me.  And that café experience really was an exciting adventure because I had to leave behind what was most familiar to me, language, and walk on uncertain ground (I’m just glad their menu had pictures!).  Which is the epitome of what travelling represents, tackling the mass of mystery surrounding everything from grocery stores to street names. 

See, most people don’t like the unknown.  I think that’s why so few people are willing to travel.

But never fear for your good friend Chris is here to help you on your way to becoming a world class language learner through the Ukrainian context.  So put on your star-spangled coat and pants, strap yourself in, and let’s jump this shark!

Wait a second, why do I need to learn their language?

Good question.  I myself was surprised to find that English isn’t the only language on Earth.  In fact, almost every country has their own!  I guess it all started because of some Tower of Babel nonsense.  Boy did those guys make a mess of things!  Since most Ukrainians don’t speak English it’s a good idea to take an interest in learning their language.  This is beneficial because it shows people that you’re working hard to engage with them.  Meet people halfway when it comes to the language stuff and you’ll be amazed at how many great conversations will inevitably ensue.

But let’s get down to brass tacks.

This little girl might not look that intimidating, but let me tell you what, she is a language ninja!

This little girl might not look that intimidating, but let me tell you what, she is a language ninja!

Don’t waste your time trying to learn languages ahead of time.  Like everything else in life, put it off until the last possible minute because it’s usually a pretty easy task.  Oh, and since you’re headed to Ukraine, you’ve got two languages to learn; Russian and Ukrainian.  I guess the whole soviet occupation thing was kind of a big deal or something because now everyone speaks an odd amalgam of the two.  Once you arrive, spend a few minutes picking up both languages and figuring them out.  I’ll give you a minute to get them straight…alright, that should be enough time.  Now just speak like a local.

What’s that?  You need MORE help?  Gosh, slow learners or something.  Alright fine, I’ve got a few more tips for you.

1.  Ask questions, all the time!  Seriously, it’s better to sound ignorant initially by over-asking than to stay quiet and prove that fact later.

2.  Immediately start using any basic phrases you learn.  You would be amazed at how many opportunities there are to say Please, Thank you, and You’re welcome.

3.  Always triple check pronunciation because odds are the accent is really going to trip you up.  I’m not kidding, you’re going to have to learn how to make somewhere in the neighborhood of fifty different “e” sounds and, as my choir teacher always said, “Practice makes permanent.”

4.  Learn a two or three sentence introduction.  This is key because, as a visitor, you’re going to have to introduce yourself to someone new almost every day.  This is a great way to impress your hosts and will spark countless conversations.  Though sometimes those conversations will be with children who speak infinitely better than you do and all you can manage is a feeble, “I don’t understand” in reply.

5.  Learn the alphabet as soon as possible (It’s as easy as А, Б, В…) and start sounding out signs.  True, you’ll feel like a fool the fourth time you sound out the word “airport” as “ae-row-pour-et-ah” but the familiarity with basic words will be worth it in the end.

6.  Swallow your pride (but try not to choke on it like I did) because you’re going to make a whole lot of mistakes.  Remember that this is an integral part of the learning process.  It takes years to learn a new language fully and if you’re only going to be there for a few days or week or months then people will cut you some slack.


This was one hard won cup of coffee.  I savored every drop.

This was one hard won cup of coffee. I savored every drop.

There you have it, a foolproof guide to being an aggressive learner of language while travelling in Ukraine.  If you follow all of these tips, you’ll be just fine.  If you don’t…well you may wind up going on an accidental dinner date when all you wanted was to use the toilet (yes, it happened to me). 

And always remember that you’ve got to be proactive in learning language.  If you don’t take risks then you’ll never get anywhere but McDonalds (it’s the only restaurant here where the employees speak English) and while it’s nice, it gets old after a few days. 

So get out there and start learning the language.  In the words of Mr. Knievel,  “Carpe diem, yeehaw!”

Enjoy this post? Get future updates sent to you for free! Join by email or RSS

About the Author: Christopher N. Cambell was a summer intern with World Next Door in 2010. He is a graduate of the Moody Bible Institute and an avid reader. He has an endless appetite for stories both true and otherwise and loves using those to better know and understand people.

More posts by Follow Chris on Twitter

Tags: ,


  1. Jim.M said... 


    June 19th, 2010 at 8:15 am  

    Chris… what a fun story.

    I lived in Mexico for two years a lifetime ago, and your story brought back a lot of memories of stumbling through the transition from Gringo to Norteamericano, in the eyes of the locals.

    Language, can separate us or bring us together. Like many things in culture, it is how we approach it, with arms up, or palms open. I also got to know a “language ninja”…Rocio was her name. She was a Panamanian student who politely tolerated my my Midwestern approach to learning her language. More than all the classes and formal instruction I had, I learned most about the language and culture from someone who God dropped into my life for a brief time.

    We must be hard wired in some way to be “relational creatures”, and to help one another.

    Enjoy the fabulous Journey God has you traveling friend. Someone reading your reports may want a slice of this life you write of in God’s Kingdom. Best wishes to all of you! Pax. J+

  2. Tanya said... 


    June 19th, 2010 at 10:33 am  

    An accidental dinner date – nice comment… you are absolutely right … :)

  3. Virginia Baldwin said... 


    June 19th, 2010 at 2:15 pm  

    When I was in the Ukraine, we were given a list of everyday phrases, but when we heard them spoken by our hostess , her pronunciation was different than ours. We had a good laugh over that. We did a lot of pointing and other hand gestures. She was very patient with us. What will the language be in heaven? Heavenly language?

  4. Rob Yonan said... 


    June 20th, 2010 at 11:09 am  

    Great stuff Chris! Oh my goodness did this take me back to each trip. I can’t remember how often, while trying to learn a new language, I’d blurt out something that ended up being a horrible mix of English, Spanish, German, Swahili, Assyrian and more. Yep, it was often hilarious for my hosts.
    Oh to be a language Ninja!

  5. Bill Shewan said... 


    June 20th, 2010 at 4:07 pm  

    I guess it takes a ninja to appreciate a ninja. I think you have the ninja gene.


  6. Kris Schneider said... 


    June 23rd, 2010 at 12:11 am  

    Chris, I need to hear the accidental dinner date story. Spasiba.

Leave a Reply