Fewer Students Studying Russian Language, Ukraine War To Blame

A study found that Russian language enrollment rates at U.S colleges have dropped between 30 and 50%.

By Kari Apted | Published

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Since February 24, 2022, the Russian Invasion of Ukraine has topped headlines worldwide. Though the reasons behind the war are complex, people around the globe have united in expressing horror, shock, and disbelief over the images emerging from the extended conflict. One surprising casualty of the war has surfaced: fewer college students are choosing to study the Russian language.

It’s not as though Russian has ever been the top foreign language choice for college students in the United States. According to the popular foreign language app Duolingo, Spanish continues to hold its place at the top of the list of the most-studied languages in America, followed by English, French, Japanese, and German. There are currently 111 American colleges and universities that offer Russian language programs, but according to an article by Times Higher Education, they are seeing 30 to 50 percent declines in enrollment.

Yale University reports that enrollment in first-year Russian is 40 percent lower than in the past five years, while liberal arts institutions Swarthmore College and Wellesley College have each seen a 30 percent drop. However, the war has sparked interest in learning other Slavic languages. This includes both Polish and Ukrainian.

Edyta Bojanowska, professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale said it best.“The new geopolitical situation in Eastern Europe certainly opened up a unique window for such initiatives by realigning student interests. Constant media coverage of not just Ukraine but Eastern Europe more broadly may have increased young people’s interest in East European languages and cultures other than Russian.”

Bojanowska stated that informal conversations she had with students last spring indicate that the war has added an ethical dimension to studying the Russian language. This ethical dilemma has led students to question their decision to learn Russian. She is hopeful that Yale will follow the University of California Berkeley’s lead and consider adding in-person Ukrainian language classes to meet the rising student interest.

Though Ukrainian and Russian are similar languages in many ways, they are nowhere near identical. Duolingo’s blog about the Ukrainian language states that both use a version of the Cyrillic alphabet, but Ukrainian has several unique letters to represent sounds not included in Russian. The language also has a case system where nouns change their form depending on what role they play in a sentence and distinct verb and noun endings.

Languages are always somewhat political, and Ukrainian President Zelenskyy has notably switched between Ukrainian and Russian even in the same speech, depending on who he was addressing. Russian speakers even reveal their political stance in the way they pronounce their word for “Ukraine.” If they put stress on one part of the word, it suggests that Ukraine is a sovereign nation while accentuating another part makes it sound like the word for a borderland or edge of a larger region.


Although painful news headlines and imagery make it understandable to take sides in any war, college students might want to reconsider before showing solidarity with Ukraine by dropping their Russian language class. Florida State University has composed a list of the Top 10 Reasons to Study Russian and it starts with the fact that the U.S. Government seriously needs to hire more Russian language experts. Other reasons to master Russian include being able to engage in the Russian economy and gain higher positions in legal, medical, educational, and STEM careers.