A week of Ukrainian with Marta

These seven hours of Ukrainian with Marta Jenkala were the best language classes I have ever had. She managed to give us an insight into a language that seems so complicated at first in a such a little amount of time. She brought us on a journey around Ukraine, presented us the words, the food and some festivals and, in the end, a bit of the Ukrainian culture. The first difficulty that we students had to overcome was the alphabet and therefore that was the topic of our first session. To be honest, I found it really frightening at first : “a whole new alphabet, that I know almost nothing about and that I cannot even read !” What a challenge ! I went home and practised it, using the huge frustration that I had – because I could not read – to practise it as much as I could. Once you stopped struggling with the alphabet difficulties, understanding Ukrainian becomes much more accessible, as Marta kept repeating. Ukrainian Slavonic roots, but with a significant number of loan words from other languages, including Latin, and in the end, once you can read, there are a lot of words for which you can guess the meaning. Now, at the end of the week I can introduce myself, say what I am doing in life, where I come from and ask someone about those things. I can also tell the date and count, but also order in a restaurant or ask for the price of things. I was so surprised with all I learnt that I wondered how Marta managed to teach us so many things so quickly especially in that particular context where we do not have the pressure of exams ! So the real question is: how is she conveying her passion for Ukrainian? I had the chance to conduct an interview with her that could give some answers to that question.

Marta started to teach Ukrainian at SSEES in 1999. But how did she come to Ukrainian? It is important to underline that it is her mother-tongue : it is her roots and her story. She grew up in England and so English became the language of her environment. She then decided to learn French at UCL. For her, who was already bilingual, it was a thrilling experience. At the same time she started to teach Ukrainian at the Ukrainian Saturday School of Ukrainian in London. After she graduated, she became a French teacher and was then recruited by UCL as a Ukrainian teacher. She realised that teaching a language made her love it even more. It must be the main reason why it is so interesting for us to learn it from her! Her teaching philosophy can be summarised in three main points. First, she likes to remind students how things can be easy. Instead of focusing on how things can be difficult, she prefers to point out the easy side of things. For example, instead of explaining to us that the alphabet was really hard, she kept insisting on how easy it was to understand so many words once the alphabet is mastered. Her second belief is that a class needs to be challenging for everyone. In order for everyone to stay focused and interested, it is important that different students who have different levels in a language work on something that requires a bit of reflection. Everyone does not arrive in a class with the same background, and therefore not the same level in a language. It is actually a thing that she really likes : working with international students creates this diversity of backgrounds which allows to appreciate different ways of approaching the same language. In our Ukrainian group, some people already had a Slavonic background, some already knew the cyrillic alphabet or also knew a Romance language. Finally, she likes to regularly check with them if they are following well and making progress individually.

In the end, one of the major reasons she is such an amazing teacher is her passion for our work and for Ukrainian itself. As she said, she loves it even more now that she needs to make other people love it and learn it, but her strongest feelings come from the fact that Ukrainian is the language of her mother. When I asked her what was her favourite word in Ukrainian, she hesitated for a long time. She explained to me that there are so many that are so interesting that she could not really pick a single one which would reflect her linguistic passion. But if she really needed to pick one, she would go for ‘mama’ or babusia’, the words mother and granny.

By Noémie Gaulier