A Linguist Grows in Brighton Beach

August 9, 2022

By Abe Loomis

For a daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, learning multiple languages in childhood led to the pursuit of a Ph.D.

Yana Miroshnychenko
Yana Miroshnychenko, who grew up speaking Ukrainian and Russian in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, joins the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics this month. (Photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

The Russia-Ukraine war has sparked a different, quieter conflict for a New Yorker who is about to begin her first year of the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics at the CUNY Graduate Center.

“It’s an internal battle,” Yana Miroshnychenko says of her fluency in both Ukrainian and Russian. “You have these two languages within you, and the language that you’ve been speaking most of your life is now stigmatized. You feel it’s almost morally wrong to speak that language, because the aggressors speak that language. I feel like I’m beginning the Ph.D. program at a very good time — I mean, it’s a really horrible time, but also a time when it’s possible to observe change and what happens during wartime, when it essentially becomes a linguistic battle.”

The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, Miroshnychenko grew up in Brighton Beach, the Brooklyn neighborhood known to many as Little Odessa after the Ukrainian port city on the Black Sea. The area is home to one of the largest concentrations of Russian speakers in the U.S. Many are former refugees, or the children of refugees, from Russia, Ukraine, and other countries once controlled by the former Soviet Union.

In Wartime, Language Sends a Signal

In light of the ongoing violence, Miroshnychenko says, the choice of which language to use in her community has taken on a new significance. Friends who once freely mixed Ukrainian and Russian, or alternated between the two, have begun to speak only Ukrainian, and she has heard more Ukrainian spoken on the street. As The New York Times and other outlets have reported, in the current conflict, language has become a tool of both aggression and resistance. In Brighton Beach these days, Miroshnychenko says, language can also signal solidarity.

“The other day at the grocery store,” she says, “I heard the cashier speak Ukrainian to her co-worker, but when I came up to check out, she spoke to me in Russian. In the middle of checking out, I got a phone call from my grandmother that I answered in Ukrainian. Later, after the cashier was finished bagging the groceries, she complimented my dress in her native Ukrainian. Language choice in Brighton Beach does not go unnoticed, which adds an extra layer to choosing the most ‘appropriate’ language to use in any given situation.”

As a child, Miroshnychenko spoke Ukrainian and Russian at home with her parents. In her neighborhood, she mostly spoke Russian. At school and with friends, she often spoke English. With her grandmother, who was Miroshnychenko’s primary caregiver for much of her childhood, she spoke a blend of Russian and Ukrainian known as Surzhyk.

“My grandmother would say, ‘You either speak with me in my language, or you don’t eat,’” Miroshnychenko says with a laugh. “So I didn’t really have a choice.”

Sleuthing Out Speech Patterns

Born of necessity, her multilingual perspective kindled a desire to learn more. Wherever she went, she picked up words and phrases from different areas of the world.

“I had a Turkish friend at the Shorefront Y summer camp,” Miroshnychenko says, “and I was like, now I want to learn Turkish! I’ve kept up that pattern throughout my life and learned bits of different languages. I’ve always especially liked the different sounds that are produced by speaking different languages, so that led me to getting very interested in that aspect of linguistics.”

Learn More About the Ph.D. Program in Linguistics

When Miroshnychenko was an undergraduate at SUNY New Paltz, a course in bilingualism inspired her to take her interest further. In her junior year, she was selected to participate in a National Science Foundation–funded Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at Brandeis University, where she analyzed data from recorded interactions in Russian between children and their caregivers in the U.S., Germany, Ukraine, Russia, and Canada. As a senior, she conducted a study on the linguistic backgrounds of young residents of Brighton Beach funded by a SUNY grant for undergraduate research.

“We wanted to know how the grammatical features of their speech and the lexical features were different from the Russian spoken in the Eastern Bloc,” Miroshnychenko says of that study, which she designed with Professor Oksana Laleko. “It wasn’t even a grand-scale study, but it was the most grand-scale research that’s been done there to this day. It’s a slightly new conversation to be having about Brighton Beach.”

Why a Linguistics Ph.D.

Miroshnychenko first became interested in the CUNY Graduate Center in 2019, when she attended a dissertation presentation by one of her SUNY professors, Eric Chambers (Ph.D. ’20, Linguistics).

“I found it so fascinating that he was able to write almost 300 pages,” Miroshnychenko says, “and I immediately thought, ‘I want to apply to the CUNY Graduate Center,’ because I wanted to be able to do this kind of work in such depth and breadth.”

She also liked the proximity of the school to her home, and the Graduate Center’s deep roots in New York.

“I’ve been living in New York City my whole life,” Miroshnychenko says. “I come from one of the most linguistically diverse places in America. So to me it’s super important to go to a graduate program that really values that and makes it part of their mission. When I got accepted to the Graduate Center, it was one of the best days in my life.”

As the recipient of a Provost’s Enhancement Fellowship, Miroshnychenko will receive an additional $10,000 a year to support her studies. She hopes one day to become a professor herself. For now, she is focused on the scholarly work ahead and excited to begin classes in the fall. A recent trip to Italy piqued her interest in Italian dialects, and though she has so far mostly explored the social aspects of language, she is considering focusing on phonology, the study of speech sounds.

Learn More About the Provost's Enhancement Fellowship

Whatever approach she takes, she’s quick to point out that a knowledge of multiple languages won’t be a prerequisite. In fact, she says, despite the popular misconception, many linguists — who study the nature and structure of language — speak only one language. Confusion on this point has become a topic of gentle humor in the field.

“My professors always joke that linguistics is a very versatile profession,” Miroshnychenko says. “Because nobody gets it, so you can basically do whatever you want in life.”

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