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Between abrogation and appropriation: Language strategies of Ukrainian forced migrants in Germany

By Nadiya Kiss | OMC 2024

This poster was displayed at the central train station in Frankfurt/Main. It promoted psychological help for refugees from Ukraine. The headlines were in English and Ukrainian, additional information also in German. In such a way this poster demonstrated multilingual strategies in helping people on the move and reflected the transformative power of languages in the identity of migrants. The photo was taken by the author of the article.

Migration, especially if it is forced, changes our perception of society and transforms our identity and language behaviour. Europe is now again experiencing a refugee crisis, with the influx of newcomers from Ukraine to different European countries being comparable with the situation of World War II. Germany is currently number one in Europe in the number of accepted refugees from Ukraine (1.65 million). 

The research data for this article includes 20 language biography interviews with refugees of different gender, age, social class, and nationality (Ukrainians, Crimean Tatars, Greeks) who fled from Ukraine to Germany during the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine; the interviews were conducted during the first half of 2023. 

The research applies a postcolonial lens, considering language behaviour of forced migrants from Ukraine in Germany as an abrogation from the Russian coloniser’s culture and imperial discourse. The term abrogation was introduced in the late 1980s in the context of postcolonial literature research and is present in several dictionaries of postcolonial studies, including recently published Ukrainian Decolonial Glossary. It is mostly defined as rejection of the (standardised and normalised) language of the coloniser and in a broader sense a denial of imperialist discourse. The changes in language behaviour have started with the Ukrainian independence and were reinforced with Ukrainian revolutions (Orange Revolution in 2004 and Euromaidan 2013-4), and are considered a linguistic conversion.

After Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, sociological surveys observed a process of language shift from Russian to Ukrainian. Furthermore, in public discourse Russian is often conceptualised as a language of the aggressor. These processes of decolonising selves are also vivid in the language communities of the forced migrants from Ukraine. Most fled from the zones of hot conflict, such Ukrainian cities as Mariupol, Zaporizhzhia, Odessa, Chernihiv, Kyiv and Kherson. Experiencing occupation, unsafety, loss, and grief, they feel that speaking Ukrainian means for them, first of all, safety, as one female respondent, 44 years old, from Chernihiv described it: 

The children went to school, I spoke Russian, they returned – I spoke Ukrainian. From that time on, I didn’t care in what language they addressed me, in Russian – I answered in Ukrainian. I was not comfortable answering in Russian. That is, it was a personal decision. And even not my personal decision, but my head, my brain. It clicked. Well, in 2022, it was just a head, my head said, do you know what it said? I don’t want Russian! Here’s what it said. If I had communicated in some kind of French, this might not have happened. But it was the language of those who are pressuring us now, including my children. My children have gone to school and I don’t know how they will return.

Being forced migrants in Germany, many of them continue to reject speaking Russian, especially in public spaces. This way they enhance their Ukrainian identity and feeling of belonging to the Ukrainian migrant community and at the same time separate themselves  from the Russian-speaking migrants from the Russian Federation, and other countries of the former Soviet Union. While the majority of the respondents use the strategy of abrogation, some of them prefer appropriation, arguing that Russian is their native language and cannot be stolen by the aggressor. As one female respondent from Odessa, 33 years old, formulated it, answering a question on how the full-scale war changed language behaviour of people: 

I saw that many people started switching to Ukrainian in their posts on social media. I didn't want to at first, it was my position, they are trying to take our land… to take away our land… and I don't think they have the right to take away our language. I think that Russian is also our language, because since childhood and only in our town, it so happened that we speak Russian.

Summing up, in the situation of forced migration, language can be considered as a symbolical capital and power, as a bridge for reaching and understanding new societies (also Ukrainian became a part of German cities’ linguistic landscape), as well as an instrument for identity transformation and response to social challenges. 

Dr. Nadiya Kiss is a postdoctoral researcher at the Justus Liebig University of Giessen. Her research interests include language policy, minority languages, and migration linguistics. She gained her master’s degree (2005) at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy and defended her PhD thesis (2009) at the Yuri Fed’kovych National University of Chernivtsi. In 2017 she moved from Ukraine to Germany, experiencing herself processes of migration and translanguaging. Her papers were published in Cognitive Studies, European Yearbook on Minority Issues, and Journal of Belonging, Identity, Language, and Diversity. She developed interest in migration linguistics after the full-scale invasion, when around 1 million of Ukrainians fled to Germany. Nadiya is co-founder of the research network Vision Ukraine: Education, Language, and Migration (since 2022).


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