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An answer to a different question pointed out that the vast majority of search engine queries coming from Ukraine, before the invasion, seemed to be in Russian. That was despite the fact that the queries shown seemed to be asking for local results.

If this means that most Ukrainians are more proficient in Russian than Ukrainian, that is very surprising, since Ukrainian is the official language of Ukraine.

However, I can think of other possible explanations for this observation:

  • Perhaps those who are more proficient in Ukrainian, use an alternative search engine?
  • Perhaps the users are just choosing the language that will give more or better results, and continue using Russian out of habit even while searching for local results?
  • Perhaps familiarity with the Russian keyboard layout forces their choice? That is, what if someone speaks Ukrainian in everyday life, but touch types only in Russian?

So I'm curious if there is other evidence that tells us whether the majority of Ukrainians are more proficient in Russian than Ukrainian, or not.

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    The second option seems likely. I live in a non-English-speaking country, but most people generally Google in English, simply because it gives far more results. The same will undoubtedly be the case for Ukrainian vs Russian. Sep 11, 2023 at 18:21
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    Or maybe there's a correlation between "speaks Ukrainian" and "knows where to get cheap ticket in Kyiv without asking Google"? Sep 12, 2023 at 3:49
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    @accumulation clarification, since I wrote that answer. The comparisons were separate, for Kyiv vs Kiev and "cheap tickets" in both languages, not "Cheap tickets Kyiv". Btw, I clicked the links and checked again with the latest data and the gap has noticeably narrowed since the beginning of the war when I wrote that.
    – Eugene
    Sep 12, 2023 at 21:24
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    You say 'the vast majority of search engine queries', but your linked answer only mentions Google. Yandex is far more popular in Russia and Ukraine.
    – user42559
    Sep 14, 2023 at 2:34
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    "And you already posted this question" -- You are linking an answer, posted by someone else, after my question, saying it's mine, calling it a question and saying that via some kind of causation back in time it should have prevented my question? Needless to say, you are not making a whole lot of sense.
    – MWB
    Sep 15, 2023 at 20:40

3 Answers 3

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After researching this a bit, I'm posting an answer to my own question, but I want to say that I welcome more answers, especially if they bring other pieces of evidence.


A 2008 Gallup poll asked Ukrainians, face-to-face, in what language they preferred to conduct the Gallup interview, and only 17% of the respondents chose Ukrainian. This seems to be in close agreement with the search query stats.

In contrast, in the 2001 census, 67.5% of Ukraine's population stated that Ukrainian was their native language, and only 29.6% picked Russian.

This apparent contradiction might be due to the higher social prestige of Ukrainian, or due to the respondents interpreting the term "native language" as something distinct from "the language you learned from your parents" or "the language you know best".

This distinction seems to be echoed by an article in The Atlantic titled "Ukrainian is my native language, but I had to learn it".

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    It’s one theory, but there are other ways this situation can emerge. For example, if people actually speak Ukrainian but read and write more in Russian (similar to what happens in other diglossia situations, like German, Arabic, French Creoles…) then search queries and UI languages could end up in the dominant written language. Sep 12, 2023 at 19:29
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    @AdamBittlingmayer The Gallup poll was face-to-face. So diglossia (with Ukrainian being the language of formal speech, public education, and Russian being the language of the local Internet, books and newspapers) would not explain the apparent discrepancy between the Gallup results and the census answers.
    – MWB
    Sep 12, 2023 at 22:45
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    @dosvarog That's a bit much. I'm a native speaker of three languages, even though I only got exposed to two of those languages starting from ages 2 and 4/5.
    – user42559
    Sep 14, 2023 at 2:37
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    @dosvarog - Careful about what conclusions one draws from this kind of research. Some minimal learning occurs in utero, but then the plastic infant brain is subject to strong and numerous stimuli and infantile amnesia. It is unclear whether any of these associations are retained, and it is the learning that occurs after birth that is far more important: a person whose mother spent her pregnancy in Japan, but who was adopted by a British family and grew up in Britain, will speak English and understand not a word of Japanese, unless they learn it later on.
    – Obie 2.0
    Sep 14, 2023 at 22:53
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    @dosvarog As Obie 2.0 mentioned, be careful how you interpret a short internet article about a study. Carefully read the actual study in full. To my knowledge, there is no scientific evidence concluding that babies acquire language from their parents while they were developing in the womb. The study you cited certainly does not draw that unsubstantiated conclusion. Sep 15, 2023 at 5:21
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Looking at this from a software developer's perspective, there's a significant factor here that you may have overlooked. Translating a program or a website is a significant amount of work, testing, and upkeep, and that work has to be repeated for each and every language that the site supports. When you look at the Internet as a whole, few websites support more than one language and exceedingly few websites support more than 2-3 languages.

Russian is the world's 7th most common language, with roughly 6x as many native speakers as there are of Ukrainian. Therefore, the odds that any specific website supports Russian are significantly higher than they are for the website to support Ukrainian.

A Ukrainian citizen interacting with a website in Russian should not be assumed to imply that they're more proficient in or prefer using Russian. Instead, Russian may have been used simply because Ukrainian was either not supported or support for it was poor. There is a large portion of the Internet where Russian is the primary language and Russian technology companies like Vk and Yandex are popular and influential. Internet users in those areas may use Russian out of necessity, similar to how there are many Stackexchange users that post in English despite it not being their language of choice. Even if sites like Google do technically support Ukrainian, Internet users may simply interact using Russian out of habit. They have their browser locale set to Russian for compatibility with the rest of the Internet, and using that setting everywhere becomes easier than changing it back and forth for specific websites.

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    "using that setting everywhere becomes easier than changing it back and forth for specific websites" I think this could be emphasized more, if the search engine is set to Russian because you can get more general results in Russian (cookie recipes, etc.) and you also get good enough results for local queries in Russian, there's not any pressure to switch languages for local queries. If anything it would be self-reinforcing, if local users habitually use Russian to search (regardless of why) then local websites will prioritize supporting Russian. Sep 13, 2023 at 16:10
  • There's one caveat, though. That is, "local sites", web sites aimed at specific (parts of) Ukrainian population. E.g. the local swimming pool club of a small city, a grocery store or supermarket, perhaps government offices [but that may be in Russian for other reasons], schools, etc.
    – Pablo H
    Sep 14, 2023 at 13:56
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The answer is certainly no. We cannot say that this is true for the "vast" majority (say 80%), but maybe this is 50/50. In the south and east, people speak better russian due to their roots (naturally, without ideology). In the cities people might also speak more in russian (before the war) with sometimes the thought that the ukrainian language is for rednecks. This might be because of propaganda/attacks from Russia, or because the russian language is a lingua franca spoken by a lot more people than the ukrainian one.

Again due to the fact that russian is a lingua franca, it might be true that a higher proportion of expatriated ukrainians might speak better russian.

For remainder, ukrainian is the only official language in Ukraine. As a minimum, everybody understand well ukrainian, though sometimes don't speak it (or mix it with russian, суржик). This is unlike Belarus, where russian is also an official language and people really don't need belarusian.

As a comment to Eugene Morozov: it seems exagerated to say that people are beaten up for speaking russian. They might be if they express pro-Pountine ideas. My mother-is-law is ukrainian and speak only russian. She has never been beaten up... Also, the existence of a state (human convention) can be decorrelated from that of a people. The existence of the ukrainian language is the proof that the ukrainian people has existed long enough for a language to form.

Moreover, the ukrainian language sometimes differs greatly from the russian language, and sometimes is more genuinely slavian than russian. For people interested, just look at the months (January, February, March...) in russian, and in ukrainian. In russian, it is just a copy of our "western" months, with russian pronounciation. In ukrainian, it is something completely different, with references to the cycle of nature (and similar to Polish)

disclosure: french, fluent in russian, learning ukrainian, married to a ukrainian woman who speaks better russian than ukrainian

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    While it’s true that states do not correlate with peoples, nor do languages necessarily. The existence of the Ukrainian language is proof that there has been a speech community long enough for a distinct language to form – whether or not that speech community made up a ‘people’ or not. Sep 12, 2023 at 10:59
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    ‘People’ is generally more of a cultural and/or political concept than a linguistic one. Languages can spread or die when peoples migrate, but they can also spread or die without any migration. A good example is what we normally call the ‘Jewish people’ – they’re considered a people, even though they are spread across the globe and do not share a single language (some speak Hebrew, some speak Yiddish, some speak neither). Conversely, a fairly large proportion of Arabic speakers (much of the Maghreb) do not belong to the ‘Arab people’, being instead Berbers, Touaregs and many others. Sep 12, 2023 at 12:02
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    "married to a ukrainian woman who speaks better russian than ukrainian" -- How does she answer the question "What is your native language?"
    – MWB
    Sep 12, 2023 at 19:29
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    "The answer is certainly no." -- You don't seem to support this assertion at all. Of the 2 Ukrainians you mention (small sample!), 100% speak better Russian than Ukrainian?!
    – MWB
    Sep 13, 2023 at 18:31
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    Here is some truly possible situation. Let's assume I'm ukrainian: the parents of my father both speak ukrainian as mother-tongue ==> my father has therefore ukrainian as a mother tongue, and good russian because of Soviet Union. The mother of my mother speaks ukrainian as mother-tongue and russian (lingua franca), but her father only speaks russian. As a consequence, my mother was speaking russian at home. Say she also went to a russian speaking school ==> my mother very badly knows ukrainian. What language will we speak home ? Of course russian. Yet 3 out of 4 grandparents spoke ukrainian..
    – Gospadi
    Sep 14, 2023 at 6:42

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