In Ukraine, 2016 has been declared “The Year of English”.
Personally, I don’t know if this presidential decree has much affected people’s everyday lives. In fact, for people who do not regularly visit the website of the Ministry of Education and Science, it’s very existence may come as a surprise.
There was some attempt to let people know about the initiative. Billboards around the city carried “motivational” phrases – but often they sounded rather offensive and sarcastic: “It’s possible to live a decent life, even on a minimal wage”; “I’m going to study English later – right after I get fired”; “I don’t need to study English – Sergiy, 35 years old, bus driver”.
But though the campaign may have been tactless, it’s true that today, for better or worse, knowledge of English is often a necessity when you’re looking for a job.
Most people in Ukraine can’t afford to go abroad to study at a language school and immerse themselves in English. But there’s another way to surround yourself with English at minimal cost, or even for nothing, and that is to watch English-language movies in their original version.
Yulia Chuzha, communications manager at the British Council in Ukraine, explains that “the learning of any foreign language includes the development of four skills: reading, writing, speaking and listening”. She says that “If you don’t have an opportunity to communicate regularly with native speakers, then watching a movie or a play in English is the best option to develop good listening skills”.
Though learners are likely to rely on subtitles at first, she emphasises that it’s important not to read them all the time. “You’ll miss what’s happening on the screen, and won’t be able to appreciate the atmosphere and actors’ performances. The sounds of English will become just a background noise, and your brain will be completely concentrated on reading”, she warns.
The good news is that, from my own experience, it really works! For me, it was only after watching my favorite series in the original that my ability to understand spoken English really began to improve. At first I used Russian subtitles, and then English ones. Now I mostly don’t use subtitles at all. The most important thing is to constantly push out of your comfort zone.
I’m no great cinephile – I’m just a regular person who enjoys a trip to the cinema. A big screen, comfortable armchairs, drinks, the smell of popcorn – these simple things do wonders for even an average movie.
Most of the cinemas in Ukraine screen dubbed movies. The advantage of this is obvious – it enables anyone to understand. But even if you’re not interested in developing your skills in the film’s original language, there are some disadvantages to dubbed films.
First, jokes and idioms are often hard to translate, and lose the particularity of their meaning. Then there’s the time lag; the English speech comes earlier than the translation, meaning you hear two sets of words. This is distracting and annoying. And, no matter how talented the dubbing voiceover artists, I still prefer to hear the real voices of the cast.
So, each time I get together with friends to watch the usual dubbed version of a new British or American movie, I think to myself, “I wish it was in the original”.
I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one – so where do people in Kharkiv go to watch foreign films in their raw, unadulterated form? With this question and the wider issue in mind, I decided to conduct a little survey, containing the following questions:
– Does your English level allow you to watch movies in original?
– How often do you watch movies in English?
– Where and how do you usually watch movies in English?
147 people aged 15 to 45 gave me their answers via a Google form, out of which 47 said they could watch an English movie with no translation at all, 48 that they could manage with English subtitles, 47 that they would need Russian subtitles, and 17 that they could not manage to watch English films that had not been dubbed.
Admittedly, the result are unlikely to show the real state of things. I sent the survey to my friends on Facebook and VKontakte, most of whom have a higher education or use English in their work.
Even taking this into account, the answers I received showed that people usually did not watch movies in the original English very often.
And even among this relatively anglophone sample, most did not watch English-language movies in their original very often. The largest group (48 respondents) reported a frequency of “a few times per year”, and 36 said they never watched the originals of English-language films at all (suggesting that the answers about ability could have related more to what people thought they could manage than on what they had actually tried). But a few (29) gave a frequency of “a few times per month”, and 12 said “a few times per week”.
That’s all useful background, but what about the third question? This, after all, is the one that might help us to move forward. 105 respondents said they watch movies online – probably unsurprising given the ease with which this can be done and the fact that it is generally free (if not strictly legal). Five used cable or satellite TV, and only one said they went to the cinema.
Reading the last of those figures, I supposed the explanation could be that we just don’t have many cinemas in Kharkiv that screen un-dubbed foreign movies. A little research showed there was some truth to this – but there is also some hope. Here are a few of the options I discovered.
Palladium Cinema offers occasional public screenings of English movies in their original versions, but the real attraction here is the “VIP hall” in which you can select the film of your choice from a catalog. The catch is that you have to hire the whole hall – but while it obviously works out as quite an expensive way for just one or two people to watch a film, the cost is reasonable when divided between a larger group of friends.
Planeta Kino offers newly-released English-language movies – though unfortunately, the choice is still usually small. Looking through their listings a short time ago, I found that of the six films on offer, only one – Suicide Squad – was in English. But, it’s better than nothing. The cinema has in the past written on their VKontakte page that they find it hard to get hold of the original versions of foreign films, because Ukrainians don’t attend screenings of them in very large numbers.
Movie theatres, I found out, are now not just for movies. Theatre HD at Multiplex Cinema is part of a project that broadcasts the plays of prominent British and American theaters to cinemas around the world.
Anna Karnaukh, arts manager at the British Council in Ukraine, told me that the project began in 2008, when a group of leading British theater organizations, including the National Theatre, Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company, were looking for ways to bring new audiences to their productions. They realised that new technologies had appeared that allowed them to record and broadcast their productions to cinemas around the world. “There is no more a need to go to London or to other cities in the UK to enjoy a play – you can just go to the cinema in your city!”, Karnaukh enthused.
The project was brought to Ukraine in the spring of 2014 with the support of the British Council and CoolConnections Art Group. The first screenings, which took place in Kharkiv and Kyiv, were of Nick Dear’s stage adaptation of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller playing the main characters.
The project has since expanded to three more cities: Chernihiv, Dnipro and Kherson. Thanks to productions ranging from Shakespeare to more contemporary work by people like Arthur Miller, David Hare and Martin McDonagh, and Ukrainian subtitles for those who need them, it has managed to establish a diverse audience.
Of course, cinemas are not the only public places where you can see films in their original. Kharkiv has a variety of speaking clubs and movie days and nights held by charities, universities, language schools, cafes and bars. The former are often free, with those wishing to attend just having to fill in and submit a Google form. I’ve visited a few such events recently.
At one, organized by Flex graduates and Fri members, movies were combined with discussions and lectures on important social themes such as tolerance.
Another, at the offices of Kharkiv Red Cross, promised to help people overcome their fear of watching films without audio translations. Before the movie started, all the guests were given sheets of paper listing words and idioms used by the characters in the film. Having this visual reference helped people to memorize new vocabulary. The movie – Shaun of the Dead – had English subtitles, which I personally found helpful, since I’m not so the British accent. Afterwards, there was time to share opinions about the film
Each Thursday at 6:30pm, Anticafe 7/9 screens films ranging from classic romantic comedies like Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Some Like It Hot to action movies like The Transporter and The Fast and the Furious – almost everyone’s tastes are satisfied. Again, when the movie finishes the participators discuss it with a professional teacher. The price for the event is a reasonable 50 hryvnias.
I can still only imagine the joy of a situation in which it would be possible to go out and watch any movie in whichever version – dubbed or original – I liked. The only way to achieve this will be for more people to start asking for it: demand breeds supply, as economists would say. It’s distributors, not cinemas, who determine which versions of a film are made available. For now at least, in Ukraine in general, demand for un-dubbed foreign movies is still low.
But the fact that projects like Theatre HD have found an audience shows that we are moving in the right direction.
More and more people in Ukraine are studying to speak English – which is now, for better or worse, the language of international communication. Who knows – maybe, the moment will come when our society is ready to integrate into the “European political, economic, scientific and educational space”, as hoped for by the president when he announced the Year of English.
Picture: Blondinrikard Fröberg via Flickr