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What's the difference between the words вчити, вчитися, and вивчати? As far as I can tell they all mean "to learn" - are they just synonyms or is there more to it? In particular I don't understand what the ся suffix is doing if it doesn't change the meaning of the word - that seems linguistically confusing...

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This is one great question! The verb вчити acts as an antagonym (contranym, auto-antonym) — a word that has two different meanings, merely opposite to each other.

  • Вчити

    • + object-ACCto teach (someone)

    я вчу дитину бути доброю — I teach a kid to be kind;

    • + object-ACCto study (something)

    я вчу українську мову — I study Ukrainian language;

    • + object-GENto teach (something)

    я вчу української мови — I teach Ukrainian language

  • Навчати

    • + object-GENto teach (something)

    я навчаю української мови — I teach Ukrainian language

  • Вчитися, навчатися

    • (as a reflexive/intransitive verb) — to study (in general)
    • + a object-DATto learn (something)

    Both meanings (reflexive and transitive) present in a famous Shevchenko verse:

    Учітесь¹, читайте,
    І чужому научайтесь,
    Й свого не цурайтесь.

    Gain knowledge, brothers! Think and read,
    And to your neighbours' gifts pay heed, --
    Yet do not thus neglect your own
    (My Friendly Epistle translated by C.H. Andrusyshen & W. Kirkconnel)

  • Вивчати

    • + object-ACCto learn, to research (something)

    я вивчаю українську мову — I study Ukrainian language
    я вивчаю космос — I research the space.


In particular I don't understand what the ся suffix is doing if it doesn't change the meaning of the word - that seems linguistically confusing...

Generally, the -ся suffix indicates one of the following:

  • an action directed to the subject itself (reflexive verb) (митися — to wash oneself);
  • the absence (or the impossibility) of an object of an action;
  • the mutuality of an action (вітатися — to greet; одружуватися — to marry, битися — to fight);
  • subjectless phrases (only an object is specified);
  • words that do not have a form with no -ся (намагатися — to try).

Well, as a language learner you should keep in mind that every language has many exceptions (that may look weird and illogical). I would suggest simply memorize them on a case-by-case basis first. With more practice, the proper form will come to your mind intuitively.

We have a question on this matter here (in Ukrainan),but I'm afraid I'm unable to translate my answer to a decent English. :)


¹) I hope you are already familiar with the у / в euphony.

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    Great thorough answer, thank you! :) A lot of overlapping options, but you're right that languages are just like that and I'll get used to it with time. (And yes, I knew about the у/в thing although I didn't know what it was called.) Thank you for the other question link too! I will attempt to make my way through the Ukrainian, the practice should do me good. :)
    – weronika
    Jun 6, 2022 at 23:56

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