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IU bridges language barrier between US military and Ukraine

Aug 3, 2023
Ukrainian Phrase Books

The Language Training Center at Indiana University answered the call when the United States military contacted them for communications assistance during the war in Ukraine.

Within a month of the Russian invasion in February 2022, about one-quarter of Ukraine’s population had fled the country. They were displaced throughout the world, with the majority relocating to eastern and western Europe. Bridging the language barrier between members of the U.S. military and Ukrainian military partners and refugees became increasingly important, driving the military’s request for IU to create a Ukrainian phrase book.

Refugees and volunteers are seen at the Medyka, Poland, border crossing as people pass through from war-torn Ukraine on March 31, 2022. Refugees and volunteers are seen at the Medyka, Poland, border crossing as people pass through from war-torn Ukraine on March 31, 2022. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell, Getty Images

“Phrase books provide a range of conversational basics that can be used between soldiers and our Ukrainian allies,” said Nathan Lanaghan, director of the IU Language Training Center, an initiative of the U.S. Defense Language and National Security Education Office that offers language and culture training for active-duty military and reserve personnel.

The Language Training Center has completed similar projects for military partners before, including a Pashto-Dari phrase book for Camp Atterbury that was provided to first responders and refugees to simplify communication.

“We call it ‘pointy-talky,’” Lanaghan said. “If they want to know where something is, if they need medicine, if they need to find a doctor, or use any terminology ranging from military to medical, they can use the phrase book and point to what they’re trying to get across.”

The 32-page Ukrainian phrase book includes roughly 20 sections on different topics, including conversational basics, greetings and farewells, food and drink, transportation and directions, and medical and military terminology. Each section contains three columns showing phrases in English, followed by translation into Ukrainian and phonetic pronunciations in Latin characters.

Just as Lanaghan was looking for someone to create the phrase book, Ukrainian linguist Yuliia Dybka, a new resident of Columbus, Indiana, was seeking meaningful work.

After Russian tanks rolled into her Ukrainian hometown in the Luhansk region in 2022, Dybka and her parents felt they had no other choice than to leave. With only a few bags and the family dog, they set out on a journey for Columbus where Dybka’s sister has resided for more than a decade.

Ukrainian linguist Yuliia Dybka with her dog, Betta, who traveled with her and her family after they fled the Luhansk region of Ukraine, ... Ukrainian linguist Yuliia Dybka with her dog, Betta, who traveled with her and her family after they fled the Luhansk region of Ukraine, moving to Columbus, Indiana, in 2022. Photo courtesy of Yuliia Dybka

Before leaving Ukraine, she had earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Ukrainian linguistics from the Luhansk Taras Shevchenko National University. Her goal before the war was to teach Ukrainian at the university level. Dybka said she wasn’t sure she would be able to use her degrees in the U.S. until she learned about Indiana University, where more than 80 languages are taught — the most of any university in America.

Dybka reached out to Svitlana Melnyk, senior lecturer in the Department of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures and an active member of the Ukrainian community at IU and the greater Bloomington area.

“Our Ukrainian community at IU is small but active,” Melnyk said. “Students, faculty and staff have organized events in support of Ukraine: fundraisers, vigils, exhibitions, film screenings, workshops and lectures. It is very important to talk about Ukraine, its history, its culture, and the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people who are fighting for their freedom.”

Melnyk recommended Dybka interview for a temporary role creating the phrase books at the IU Language Training Center. Dybka said she was grateful for the opportunity, which took less than two months to complete and ship out.

“I was so excited and inspired because, for me, it wasn’t just work,” Dybka said. “It has such significance for me and deeper meaning. I honestly believe that by learning and understanding each other’s language, people can build trust and support, and prevent disinformation and misunderstanding.”

Following the completion of the phrase book, Dybka became a part-time instructor in the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies Summer Language Workshop as a Russian tutor.

Dybka said that while she and her family feel welcome in the United States, she still has dreams about returning home — a reminder of the significance of projects like these.

“I dream of my hometown’s liberation from Russian occupation. I just want to walk into my house, sleep in my bed, and hug my grandma and all my friends who are still there,” Dybka said. “It’s something that hurts every day, but I still have to move on with my life, make plans for the future, and be grateful for every day that I live with my family in safety here.”

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Julia Hodson

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