As a young Ukrainian girl living on the Canadian prairies, I was immersed in an English-speaking community. I grew up in a Ukrainian family where everyone spoke Ukrainian all the time. By the age of 5 years, I was fluent and could easily understand what was being said to me and I could easily join in a conversation. But all of that changed when I started to attend elementary school.
“If you have anything to say, you must say it in English” !
I can still hear my Grade One teacher telling us to “speak English”. If we said anything in Ukrainian, we got sent into the cloak room. The cloak room was an unlit, small back room where we hung our coats, scarves and toques and changed in and out of our boots. I am remembering boots because we did have winter for six months out of the school year. The smell of wet soggy fur-lined or felt insoles lingers and does leave a distinctive smell. Amazing how one can remember a smell! But I digress.
I think that some of my more vocal classmates even received the strap but I never did. The strap had not yet been ruled out of the education system back then.
Now you have to remember that I didn’t just speak Ukrainian, I also thought my ideas and words in Ukrainian.
Here’s an example of how this got me into trouble in Grade One.
One day we were learning about the beginning sounds of words. I think I was in the Bluebird group (I wonder if that was the advanced group or the slow learner group?).
First, the teacher put up two letters, “s and p” and showed us that they could be pushed together to form “sp”. She asked if anyone knew any words that began with “sp”? Well, I did, and I quickly raised my hand. “Petrosha, what’s your word?” she asked. I said that I had two… “Spic and Span”. With a pleasantly surprised looked, she said that I was right. I was so proud of myself.
Then she put up a “q and u”, pushed them together. Hmm, no one knew. So she showed us a picture. I quickly threw up my hand again and said, “I know! It’s a перо галочка”.
Everyone including the teacher burst out laughing. Then she recovered and yelled “No ! Go to the cloakroom”. I was so upset. I cried sitting on that floor in the dark cloakroom. I knew that I was right. It was the teacher who didn’t understand. I knew the answer. It was a feather tick, my quilt that I had on my bed.
A lot of years have passed since then and I still retain some of my fluency in understanding Ukrainian! But I do not speak fluently in Ukrainian. I speak the Ukrainian language of a 5-year-old living in Manitoba in the 1950s. I had to learn English and like many Canadian Ukrainians, did not advance beyond the primary stages. So with this being said, I have now signed up and attend the Taras Shevchenko Ukrainian School once a week.
Come back and I’ll let you know how it’s going !
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