In Europe, over 50 million people speak a language other than the official language of their country. Although most of Europe ranks in the EF English Proficiency Index (EF EPI) in the two highest bands, Eastern Europe (Ukraine including) ranks as moderate.
The EF EPI places countries based on the survey into five proficiency bands from very high to very low. A proficiency band indicates the level of English of an average person.
Very high and high proficiency means people in those countries can on average lead conversations in English, understand TV shows, or read newspapers. People in moderate proficiency band can understand some song lyrics and participate in meetings that are in their area of expertise.
In Poland, 37% speak English as a second language. It’s 31% in Romania. In Hungary and Slovakia, it’s respectively 20% and 26%. In Ukraine, it’s around 18%, every sixth person. Looking at the figures in Eastern Europe more closely, younger generations tend to be the ones who understand English as their parents and grandparents did have very little choice to learn it at school.
According to data from UNHCR, by March 20th, 2022 more than 3.5 million refugees fled Ukraine. 2 million went to Poland which is a logical choice as more than 1.3 million Ukrainians have worked, studied, or lived there. In 2018, around 30-thousand Ukrainians possessed a permanent residence permit in Poland.
500-thousand fled so far to Romania, 370-thousand to Moldova, 300-thousand to Hungary, and 250-thousand to Slovakia.
Authorities in many of the countries receive help at the borders from volunteers as not all of them anticipated such a big refugee wave.
At the end of the Second World War, over 40 million people were estimated to be displaced from their home countries all over Europe. Most did return to their countries of origin but several million (the estimates vary) found home elsewhere.
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All this data points to an outcome where hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, possibly millions are going to stay mostly in the European Union country where they have taken refuge.
Living in a foreign country has its rules, the children are going to learn the language first and also adapt to the new culture. For an older generation of refugees, this is going to take longer. They will get jobs and become part of the communities. For that, they will need to be kept in the loop of what’s going on in the country, politics, economy.
On the second day of the Russian invasion, the biggest Polish news website Onet.pl started a whole section of their website with news and practical information in Ukrainian.
The editor-in-chief, Bartosz Węglarczyk, wrote an editorial titled: We are here for you. Welcome to Poland. You are at home.
He went on to explain they are starting an information service in Ukrainian with practical information for people arriving in Poland. The service is fully operational and publishes several articles a day with helpful information.
Onet also set up a standalone @OnetUkraina Facebook page. When checking the interactions of the posts on CrowdTangle it’s instantly clear there is high demand for such a service. Two million Ukrainians came to Poland, many with just what they could grab and any source of trustworthy information and news will help them in this situation.
A post from March 10th has 26-thousand interactions, it was shared more than 4-thousand times and it links to an article at Onet Ukraina about a “Shop for 0 zlotys” in the city of Myslenice (30 km from Krakow) to help Ukrainian refugees to get products, cosmetics, school supplies, clothes and more for free.
Facebook has been the leading social media network in Ukraine. So it makes sense to use it to spread information and target Ukrainian readers. In various countries, Ukrainians have set up Facebook groups where they share information among themselves.
South of Poland in Slovakia, the leading news website Aktuality.sk has published in the middle of March and still features prominently on the homepage two articles in Ukrainian: FAQ about temporary refugee status and asylum and advice for Ukrainians (how to obtain documents, accommodation, medical assistance or school for children).
In the Czech Republic, the main news show of the Czech Television called Události has begun a simultaneously translated broadcast in Ukrainian. The Czech weekly magazine Respekt created and published a memory matching game called My first words for kids with Czech and Ukrainian words to help them learn.
More from The Fix: How the war in Ukraine is changing European media and journalism
Neighbouring countries in the west from Ukraine have set up specialized websites to give refugees basic information in their own language.
The Polish, Czech, and Slovak governments provide such websites. On both Ukrainian can find information on legal stay, legal aid, and benefits such as the one-time aid of 300 zlotys the Polish government is giving to refugees.
An informational website for refugees from both Ukraine and Russia has been set up by the European Union.
These kinds of websites are vital and I imagine would take ages to set up just a few years ago. In some ways, it is a testament to the digital transformation efforts the EU member states have been leading.
But it is not enough. A governmental website will not write an article about shops with free products for Ukrainians (as the most successful post from Onet Ukraine I mentioned above).
Neither will they write stories about how to best navigate the complex bureaucracy of a particular country.
For news from Ukraine, there is the whole Ukrainian news landscape that has turned into one big warzone reporting service as this founder of the largest IT media holding in Ukraine has recently described for the Fast Company magazine: “Writers who reviewed the latest iPhone or interviewed IT business people have moved on to covering the war. Now they write about where the nearest bomb shelter is, or how Ukrainian refugees can settle in Poland or Germany. They make lists of useful resources and survival tips.”
Ukrainians who fled to another country are faced with many questions and life situations they need to find answers to. That’s where news in Ukrainian comes in and there are a couple of options.
Onet in Poland and the Ukrainian translation of Czech TV’s news program are some examples. An established news organisation decides it will set up a foreign news service.
For public service media in the countries close to Ukraine,, this should be a nobrainer. Sadly, public broadcasters in the CEE region have been for years battled by their governments and the smartest people usually left for the privately owned media where the incentives are different. The Czech TV, although without its own problems, has remained one of the bright examples in the region.
I wish more privately-owned media will step up and it’s never too late, will have an update on that if there is more movement in this regard.
The next option is to set up standalone news organisations. Countries in Europe have a long history of serving minorities by supporting minority-language media. I’m sure somewhere funds are being created for this purpose but that will take time. Yet, better later than never, in this case, I think.
I imagine, in the beginning, a simple blog with a daily newsletter would suffice. Facebook and Telegram groups are also an option as comments might extend the scope of information given.
The biggest issue would be funding as paying for news or supporting a new news startup, even a non-profit, by the target audience is out of the question at the moment. There are several stories of people arriving with their last money.
Some ideas come to mind, including creating a fundraising campaign or asking local companies (even newsrooms who can act like incubators) to help set up an initial fund.
Also, the model of The Local, a multi-regional, European, English-language digital news publisher with local editions in many Western European countries might serve as a template for creating a network of such publications linked together.
I don’t think it’s too soon to start something, people need information and local news now. If you are thinking about starting something and need help, let me know, would be glad to help.
Photo by Valentyn Ogirenko at Reuters
Hi! I'm David Tvrdon, a tech & media journalist and podcaster with a marketing background (and degree). Every week I send out the FWIW by David Tvrdon newsletter on tech, media, audio and journalism.