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From Stalking the Atomic City,

The police might be lying in wait, ready to ambush you, or they might not. I might notice the glow of a cigarette or the silhouette of their car. I might hear them speaking quietly in broken Ukrainian in the dark and change my route.

Why would a Ukrainian police officer only speak broken Ukrainian?

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    When I visited Ukraine (Kiev and Odessa) a few years ago, most people spoke Russian. Airport personnel asked me if I spoke Russian. I also overheard many heated conversations (few of us had to spend an unexpected night in transit), and I specifically asked whether they spoke Russian or Ukrainian. Notably, it was the capital city, not the the famously Russian-speaking east or south. So, I imagine it's not uncommon for some people in Ukraine to speak Ukrainian rather poorly, as they do not use it on a daily basis.
    – Riwen
    Apr 15 at 16:26
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    Imagine a (perfectly loyal) Irish policeman speaking only broken Irish. Is that so implausible? Languages are more complex than something you put on to choose your loyalty as if they were a national dress or flag: they're a complex combination of history, allegiance, education, economic and political reality, and so on. The way "Russian speaking" and "Ukrainian speaking" in this conflict are being used in the West is extremely Basic. Apr 15 at 22:32
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    I would say 80% of the population of Wales does not speak Welsh, even though Welsh is an official language.
    – Tom
    Apr 16 at 9:15
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    @DanSheppard or, my great-grandfather was a Scots speaker. I never learned to speak it (but only to listen and read), but I still consider myself Scottish. Apr 16 at 12:31
  • @Riwen That could probably be an answer. Apr 16 at 21:39

2 Answers 2

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In Ukraine, Ukrainian and Russian are both spoken, but neither language is universal. It’s not unreasonable that a Ukrainian police officer’s native tongue might be Russian¹ and his command of Ukrainian would be imperfect.


  1. In fact, Ukrainian president Volodymir Zelenskyy's native language is Russian and not Ukrainian.
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    This is quite common, BTW. Switzerland has four official languages, but almost nobody speaks all four. Spain has three official languages, but practically nobody speaks all three. Finland has two. There is a region between Germany and Denmark where a Danish-speaking minority lives within German borders and vice-versa, and according to a treaty between the two countries, both languages are official languages in those regions. So, depending on which group they grew up in, government employees will likely speak one of the two languages as a second language. And so on. Apr 15 at 11:57
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    In fact, in the German district of Nordfriesland, where the Danish minorities lives, no less than five different languages are spoken, every single one of which may or may not be an official language in a certain area within certain contexts on certain levels of government. (Except for German, which is an official language in all of Germany on every level of government.) Apr 15 at 12:09
  • The only official language of Spain is Spanish but there are at least three other co-official languages which can be official in certain territories: Galician, Catalan, Basque. I recently learned that my friend from Spain learned Galician as a first language before Spanish and had not always considered themselves a confident Spanish speaker!
    – Tom
    Apr 16 at 9:14
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    @Robert: Or as a Québécois might say, you can travel around Canada and find towns where a significant percentage of the population don't speak French well, and would prefer to speak to you in English (which is an official language) ;-) Apr 16 at 15:20
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    @Tom There are are some that would say that Galician, Catalan, and Basque are all "Spanish", and the fourth language that you are referring to as "Spanish" is Castilian. Apr 16 at 22:21
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For the same reason why most Irish police officers do not speak Irish at all. In a lot of cases, current national affiliation and its official language have little to do with what is being actually spoken. This situation is especially prominent in former Soviet Union.

Examples of countries where significant amount of residents do not speak the "official" language: Ireland, Kazakhstan, Estonia, Belarus.

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    I would say 80% of the population of Wales does not speak Welsh, even though Welsh is an official language.
    – Tom
    Apr 16 at 9:15

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