Learning Ukrainian in One-Week: Lancaster Student Challenge Fundraiser


Peter Merritt raises nearly £1,500 for British-Ukrainian Aid by completing his challenge to learn Ukrainian in just 75 hours.

Can you learn a language in only one-week? SCAN spoke to Peter Merritt, second-year student, who set himself the challenge to do just that.

The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) lists Ukrainian as one of the hardest languages for native English speakers to learn. It is ranked within Category IV – the second hardest category.

Influenced by the Ukrainian crisis and inspired by his tutees from his part-time job as an English tutor, Peter set about getting to grips with the language – which the FSI estimates takes 1100 class hours to learn – in just 75 hours.

“Like everyone, I’d been concerned about what was happening in Ukraine since the war started, but it was teaching Ukrainian students in my job as an English tutor that really pushed me to help in some way… The biggest motivation was the cause that I was doing the challenge for.”

Peter Merritt on why he took on this challenge

Between 10th and 17th October 2022, with the help of nine Ukrainian teachers, Peter worked from 10am to 9pm each day to get to grips with as many aspects of the language as he could. “The process itself was very demanding… When I was understanding things, it was great, but in the first half of the week I felt pretty lost for most of it…”.

The challenge had a difficult start. “The first day of the challenge just so happened to coincide with one of the worst bombings in Ukraine since the war began. Russia had targeted lots of cities, and as a result, some of the lessons had to be cancelled as teachers didn’t have electricity or water. Thankfully, I was able to make contact with the teachers and they all confirmed that they were okay.”

Although he prioritised speaking and listening, he tackled reading and writing as well. Ukrainian is one of fifty languages that uses the Cyrillic alphabet, which posed a challenge to Peter.

“Before the challenge, I had only learnt languages which used the Latin alphabet, so getting to grips with the Cyrillic alphabet was very difficult.”

Peter on the difficulty of learning a new alphabet

Doubts set in by the end of the second day. “I was almost convinced that I had bitten off more than I could chew. I had only memorised a couple of phrases and I didn’t understand any of the grammar.”

Fortunately, Peter had the support of his girlfriend, family, and friends to back him up. The university also played a role in supporting him through this challenge. “…The PPR department were incredibly supportive and really helped me get the word out around uni. I’m really grateful to the Spanish society and the Scandinavian society who responded to me and helped to share the fundraiser. The university also shared it on their Instagram account which helped again with donations.”

Peter finished the week by recording a short video of his conversational Ukrainian with his teacher which now has over 4,000 views on Instagram. He has also received media attention from BBC Radio 5Live for his challenge, featuring on 5 Live Drive on 24th October. He has now uploaded a full version documenting his challenge to YouTube, with excerpts of conversations he has had with his Ukrainian students.

 “Peter, for six days you speak brilliantly. It’s just incredible. I didn’t think that this could ever happen… I am so proud of you.”

Katerina, one of Peter’s students

Going forward, Peter hopes to keep up with his Ukrainian, and still practices regularly, although he confesses that he must make the most of the limited time that he has available around his degree and societies.

Currently, Peter is in his second year, studying Philosophy and Politics. Has his challenge convinced him to switch to a language degree? “The motivation for learning languages is more of a personal thing for me… I was considering doing a minor in a language this year, but I decided against it. I’m now considering doing a masters in Translation and Interpreting after completing my undergrad.”

Now, with a better understanding of Slavic languages, he continues to tutor. Once it is safe to do so, he hopes to visit his teachers in Ukraine, but in the meantime, he plans to continue to raise money for British-Ukrainian Aid.

As of November 2022, Peter has raised nearly £1,500 for British-Ukrainian Aid (BUAid) through donations. BUAid is a London based charity, run by volunteers, that provides “humanitarian and medical aid” in the form of Tactical Medicine, Ambulances and Medical supplies and equipment.

“I chose British-Ukrainian Aid because it is a Ukrainian-run, British-based humanitarian charity. I wanted to fundraise for a charity that was run by Ukrainians, but it needed to be based in Britain to make it easier for people to donate.”

Peter on why he chose BUAid

Peter’s advice for students considering taking on a similar challenge: “There are so many benefits to learning languages…Focus on doing a lot with a little… I feel like you see the best side of people when speaking to them in their language and most people are very appreciative for you having taken the time to learn.

Peter’s GoFundMe will remain open for donations for an additional month, so donate here.

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