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Interview - Pure Ukrainian class is not the way

In three months, we will not teach Ukrainians the language perfectly, but at least in such a way that they feel comfortable here, the director of the iCan language school, Alona Kurotová, told HN. Volunteers could also help with learning Slovak.
Your school specializes in teaching the Slovak language to foreigners. Are there people from Ukraine among your clients?

Most of our clients are from Ukraine, the interest is enormous. We offer them courses for free, both for children and for adults who need to get a job quickly. However, transportation for the refugees is very complicated, as they arrived without cars. So we have evaluated that the online form is the best. Especially children are still online. After corona, we have experience in how to engage them.

People have just arrived from Ukraine, but they are already interested in Slovak. What is it?

This is interesting information for the state as well. People want to work here. They want to know the language of the country they are coming to. I know we are not the only school that provides such an education. For example, Comenius University has more than 200 students, and the University of Economics has set up a course for a few hundred. However, I also know other universities and municipalities that also set up courses. And Ukrainians are interested in that, to feel at home here, either temporarily or permanently.

For some, Slovakia is just a temporary stop, some want to stay here. What cases do you encounter?

It depends on what situation they are in. Some came from Kharkiv, for example. Since their houses were bombed, they are also thinking about staying here. On the other hand, there are also those who see the situation as temporary, but want to know Slovak so that they can work for the time being. We have hundreds of interested parties in various regions. 50,000 people have already applied for temporary shelter. If we divide it into eight regions and say that a third want to know Slovak, the total is thousands. Our school can help because we can provide online support for teachers and methodical materials for both children and adults. Not everyone has someone to leave a child with. I know families who are in villages. They don't have a car or a computer. That's why we chose the mobile version.

Do individuals contact you proactively or are organizations also looking for you?

I have been working in Slovakia since 2007. Our consulting company for foreigners has been operating since 2008. We have billed hundreds of Ukrainian companies. We have a lot of contacts. Our iCan language school has always focused on Slovak for foreigners. We are the only ones who started Slovak for children. Until then, no one had paid attention to it. We started testing our own materials two years ago. It works best when someone tells someone about us and when we know, we help.

You currently have clients in all regions of Slovakia. How will they find their way to you?

I am in the communities of Ukrainians in Slovakia. Interested parties apply in the regions and elsewhere. We are in Bratislava and Košice, but now Trnava is also joining us. We have two groups of dentists from Ukraine and we are also making a group for female dentists, with the fact that there will also be a course for their children. I plan to write to the Trnava Region to see if we can implement it on their premises. Courses for adults are also offered by various companies, state institutions and universities. Slovaks perceive that it is a way to integrate foreigners.

You are the only organization that has Slovak textbooks for children from abroad. How is it possible?

Textbooks did not exist before. We wrote them together with the State Pedagogical Institute. We tested them on Slovaks living in France, Ireland, England and Germany. It was a set of publications such as first contact Slovak for elementary schools with notebooks or a textbook for preschoolers from five to seven years old, in which you can write. We also have dictionaries in six languages. Now the Slovak-Ukrainian or Slovak-Russian version is the most up-to-date. Some children in eastern Ukraine were also educated in Russian. Well, we also have Vietnamese or Serbian, for example.

You have decided to help our schools as well. What materials did you provide them with?

We provided parts of textbooks that children could already use in practice so that they already know how to work and integrate. These are the first two chapters of the first contact Slovak "Aha Slovak". It is a 228-page publication and two notebooks. However, we are still making corrections and finishing works, and they should be printed in May.

The textbooks are intended for both language and elementary schools. Could they also help individuals?

I see them as study material for elementary schools and kindergartens. The dictionary is for them to integrate quickly. There is also the possibility of integration outside the school system, so that the mother and child can manage it on their own. Some preschoolers will be at home and Ukrainian mothers will teach them. I was with a family of four children and four mothers. Three of them went to work and one looks after the children. This is how they will function until they find a place in the kindergarten. The mother who is at home with the children will take a textbook and learn Slovak with them. However, there are also Slovak families that have adopted Ukrainian children.

You plan to print thousands of textbooks. How do you want to finance it?

When we started this project three years ago, we had no idea that these textbooks would be needed on a large scale. We thought that three to four hundred pieces would be enough. Now it's in the thousands. We don't have the means to have them printed overnight. We are therefore collecting through the AK Foundation. It has been operating since 2014 and supports education for talented people from third countries. We would like to use the collected money to print textbooks and set up full-scale courses for children in April.

What amount do you need?

The foundation has already created an account. Donators have already sent us a few thousand euros, but it is not enough. In Slovakia, we already have 50,000 people who have registered for temporary refuge. They are mostly women and children, so out of 50 thousand there may be ten thousand preschoolers. Moreover, their number is still growing. When it comes to printing, we are concerned with three publications: for preschoolers, Aha Slovak for primary schools and the Slovak-Ukrainian dictionary, which we prepared with the State Pedagogical Institute according to subjects. For example, for biology, the student will find all the words he needs there. The textbook for preschoolers is colorful with stickers. Printing one costs about four euros. If we print 10,000, we will need 40,000 euros. Two publications for elementary school children can cost 10 euros. If there are 40,000 of these children, we need 400,000 euros. In addition, publishing houses are now running out of paper. So we will print it gradually.

Did you try to get some funding from the state as well?

Since we have a project with the State Pedagogical Institute, we also communicate with the Ministry of Education. They are also interested in us moving the materials to primary schools.

How did the ministry respond to your request?

It informed us that it could not finance the press. It is a public procurement that lasts for months. The only option is for us to print it on a home printer or the schools can print it directly. However, I reject such a solution.


The textbook will thereby lose its quality. Any school can print it however they want. It can be in black and white and stapled. However, this is not a sufficient quality. It was co-financed by the Erasmus+ program and our school. As a group of authors, we put three years of our lives into it. We don't want to devalue our work. We would like to do it well, so that the schools receive it in the form we imagined at the beginning. It will also be open-licensed so that it can be viewed on the Internet.

Some families announce that they will return home as soon as possible. Will textbooks be used in that case?

People are now deciding whether to learn Slovak and go to work. I communicate with a large number of people who have come here. I am in contact mainly with refugees from the eastern part of Ukraine such as Kharkiv, Dnipro, Mariupol and Kyiv. Most of them no longer have a home. Some don't want to come back and some do. They know their houses are no longer worth it. They realize that their children will stay here for at least a year and a half. They are already evaluating this so that they will go to school from September. Every additional language is a good thing. Some cannot return when they have someone in Russia or had something to do with Russia. Some do not want to return once they have obtained permits here and mastered the complicated approach to the labor market.

Slovak schools have already accepted thousands of Ukrainian children. Do they even have any materials for them?

We sent them our aforementioned first two chapters this Monday. However, only a fraction of children are still in school. Almost none of my acquaintances. Parents are afraid because they keep hearing sirens in their heads. Rather, they turn to us and want to enroll in a course. They don't want to push the children into it when they tell them that they don't know Slovak and don't know the letters. Therefore, for the time being, those who were already preparing to leave and are not afraid go to school.

The Department of Education suggested that purely Ukrainian classes could be created. What do you think about it?

War class is not a good way to go. From a psychological and sociological point of view, it is a way to divide society. There is no need to push them to school right away from April. They need to establish training centers at higher territorial units and provide them with Slovak language courses with good materials. It should be expected that the children will go to school from September at the earliest, but they can integrate until then.

Some schools included Ukrainian students in existing classes. However, the pedagogues do not know Ukrainian and do not have time to attend to both groups. Would it be better if the pupils completed a course in specialized centers before integration?

We cannot deteriorate the quality of our education. Slovaks need to finish school. It's also hard for a refugee to hook up when they're almost an adult. It would be better if he prepares somewhere else and then goes with the same students, but he will no longer sit there not understanding anything. It is best to include children together in the first grade. At the second level, there should be joint preparatory courses. These are teenagers who can't just talk in their own language and not feel that they don't understand them. They take it more seriously. However, it is necessary to communicate immediately that it is not a war class, but only preparation so that they can go on.

You have several years of experience teaching Slovak to Ukrainians. How fast can you teach them the language?

We can teach children quickly so that they can start the next class. Most often, they arrived in June, we prepared them for three months, and they went to school in September. Although they did not speak Slovak perfectly, they felt at ease. After half a year there was another course. They had two classes every week on Friday or Saturday. The teachers helped them with their homework, which their parents could not help them with.

Approximately how long does it take to master the basics of a language?

It can take three months. Then we should give them a break and they would resume in September, for example. Three months is a good time to prepare them without complicating classroom relationships. We also had children that we prepared all year. They were still in Ukraine and we met online. We had one hour once a week.

They can master the basics in a relatively short time. What gives people the biggest problems?

Kitchen Slovak and understanding the language in the shop is not a problem. A Ukrainian and a Slovak understand each other. Problems arise in schools. Ukrainian uses completely different words for expressions like square, curve, dot and comma. A dictionary will help them with that. The second group are health workers. Heart, liver and kidneys have completely different names. I'm not even saying that Latin and abbreviations are used in the healthcare sector in Slovakia, which they don't understand at all. The professional course should last six months.

You offer tailor-made courses for various professions. What for example?

For example, foreigners speaking Slovak do not need it. They communicate in English and feel comfortable here. Well, in the store, you need a crash course so that they know how to throw money. We had a course for Ukrainian truck drivers that lasted a month. The words they need are repeated over and over. The cleaners also need to know the vocabulary to know which stop they need to go to. The courses should teach them not only to understand each other, but also to answer questions. It would be good if the thematic courses were made by the hiring company. It is helpfulness, a bonus from the employer, but also a very good aid in further communication.

Courses for Ukrainians are free. How does it work?

I have not yet heard of anyone offering a paid course. From the offers I've seen, all organizations offer them for free. Even if people had money, they could not exchange it until recently. Everyone wants to help, and so do organizations. They are not always trained by a Slovak teacher. It is often an ordinary Slovak who knows Slovak. There are also volunteers who take the textbook and communicate with them. We don't have that many Slovak teachers and that many student teachers. There should be a teacher who sets the rules, and then Slovak volunteers who have communication skills and love to teach could help. Not everyone has to run to the border and carry things there that may not even be needed anymore. The regions would greatly appreciate it if the volunteers would just communicate with the people.

Who teaches Slovak at your place?

We are included in the network of schools and school facilities. That is why we have the condition that they be teachers. They are not always teachers of Slovak, but also of other languages and subjects, for example. Now, when we were opening free courses and volunteers were applying, we rather chose students of pedagogic faculties. When the course is free, we also take people who don't have an education but would like to help and have tutoring experience. When it is not free, we try to have them be teachers with education. When it comes to a crash course in kitchen Slovak, we welcome anyone's help.