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English is our ‘intellectual weapon’, says Ukrainian military teacher

A woman teaching English to the Ukrainian military has said she hopes it will become the “second international language” for her country as it serves as an “intellectual weapon” 18 months into the ongoing war.

Olena Chekryzhova, 35, who is based in Kyiv, has been voluntarily teaching the Ukrainian military English for roughly a year and two months, through a project called ENG for UARMY, which she founded, as a means of “doing her part” for the war effort.

When the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia happened on February 24 2022, she started out by helping civilians to evacuate and provided people with essentials, before initially being invited to help teach English at one of the military units in Ukraine.

Woman posing in front of tank
Olena Chekryzhova said teaching English to the Ukrainian military has helped keep her mind off the everyday struggles the war has created (Olena Chekryzhova/PA)

“Commanders and personnel there wanted to implement English courses because a year ago, it was obvious that Ukraine would get military aid, weapons and support from our Western allies,” Ms Chekryzhova, speaking on Ukraine’s Independence Day on August 24, told the PA news agency.

“They wanted to increase and improve their competencies in English to co-operate with their foreign colleagues, handle weapons more effectively and communicate with journalists from abroad about the war.

“I decided to give it a go and so headed to the base of this military unit and settled there for almost four months.

“I lived there and I taught almost every day and it was quite an experience that allowed me to understand the military better, to understand the environment they live in and work in, their psychological climate and it allowed me to start this project to teach English to the military.”

Woman standing and teaching
Ms Chekryzhova has been teaching English to the Ukrainian military for more than a year (Olena Chekryzhova/PA)

She has since taught English, which is in line with Nato standards, to thousands of people from various units, both in person and online via a YouTube channel, which translates from Ukrainian to English as Army English, alongside a team of fellow volunteers.

The lessons can take place anywhere between twice to six times a week, depending on the unit, with the project ENG for UARMY also encompassing offline teaching, speaking clubs for the military, work with veterans and workshops for teachers.

Speaking about the challenges faced, she said it can be “difficult” to incorporate the lessons into the soldiers’ tight military training schedule, but it has been possible due to their organisation and motivation to learn.

Another challenge is that soldiers have to learn something completely new while having to contend with the everyday hardships of living in a country embroiled in war.

Woman with pencils in her hand
The 35-year-old has taught English professionally since 2009 (Olena Chekryzhova/PA)

“It’s much harder to learn something and devote your efforts to something apart from surviving, and intellectual processes slow down like memory and attention span,” she said.

“That’s why I had to break my course into smaller chunks to simplify information and teach information which is really required and at the same time, to keep the course entertaining.”

Ms Chekryzhova – who has taught English professionally since 2009 – said that feedback from the military has been “positive”, with her helping them to “understand things better and improve their performance in the military field”.

She spoke about the role English has played, and continues to play, in the war being of “paramount importance”.

Woman posing
Ms Chekryzhova said that military members have given positive feedback about her lessons (Olena Chekryzhova/PA)

“The most powerful allies of Ukraine have English as their primary language and it’s a bridging language between us and them,” she said.

“I really believe that our efforts will change something in this war and equip and arm our soldiers with more knowledge and act as an intellectual weapon so we can fight in a more effective way.

“I believe that English should become the second international language for Ukraine.”

She said her work with the military has distracted her from the ongoing war as she is so “absorbed” in it, and many Ukrainians have become used to air raids, which is not “healthy”.

“But, I think that in the conditions, it’s a natural process for people to adapt and try to survive,” she added.

She said that as winter nears, Ukrainians are already thinking about how they will get through it, with essentials such as electricity and heating expected to be under threat.

Woman looking at the camera and smiling
Ms Chekryzhova said English is of ‘paramount importance’ in the war (Olena Chekryzhova/PA)

With August 24 marking a year-and-a-half since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, Ms Chekryzhova said that she “wasn’t surprised” by the events of February 2022 as when Russia began seizing territory in eastern Ukraine in 2014, she was in Donetsk and witnessed it all unfold.

“For me, that was the time that Russia invaded Ukraine and I had to abandon my home in Donetsk and become an internally displaced person and I still have this status,” she said.

She hopes that Western allies continue to remember the plight of Ukrainians, adding: “Another thing that people can do is to tell their politicians and governments to provide help to Ukraine or support initiatives like ours and discover the real history of Ukraine to dispel this stereotype that Ukraine is a part of Russia.”

Those who wish to volunteer to teach English to the Ukrainian military can sign up using this link: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSc8qgm_iQpPeAH2TvlbDVc465E1Ntd_8_aNF9v46IW15qqq0A/viewform

More information about the course can be found on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@engforuarmy or Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/olena.chekryzhova

The team are looking for partners to support the project, and donations can be made to: olena.chekryzhova@gmail.com