Friday, May 11, 2012

Don't Throw Out the малыш With the Bath Water

The common wisdom is that Georgia intends for English to be the new second language, replacing Russian.

I've been asked if I've noticed that more Georgians are speaking English since I arrived here.  No, I haven't.

Not because there aren't more Georgians speaking English. It's just that I've only been in Georgia since July 2011. So I don't have enough time here to have observed such a change.

I have observed, with great appreciation, a notable increase in English signage in Tbilisi's metro stations and at businesses. I also love that the bus stop LED boards in Tbilisi show both Georgian and English information.

I asked the Georgians around me this question: "Do more Georgians speak more English now than a year ago"?

The unanimous answer was yes.

"Why"? I asked.

To which all replied, "Because there are more people coming to Georgia who speak English, so we have more opportunities to practice it."

And 100% of my respondents (approximately 25 men and women of various ages, professions, and interests) agreed: "And we should continue to learn Russian."


"Because Russia is our neighbor. Because Russia is an enemy. And because our former brothers and sisters in the old Soviet Union also speak Russian, thus it is a common language."

I heard proverbs:
  • You live a new life for every new language you speak.
  • One who speaks only one language is one person, but one who speaks two languages is two people.

There's another dimension to the language issue. 

In the schools, it's a difficult time for language teachers. English teachers are in demand; Russian teachers are expendable.  Old teachers are disdained; the young are admired. There are too many part-time Russian teachers fighting for too few class hours and too few lari.

In the abstract, the painful flux of organizational change in Georgia's education system is necessary. There are so many needed reforms, and not just related to foreign language. 

But as with all progress, there is collateral damage. My hostess, for one. She has a university degree in education, and she's taught at her public school for more than 40 years. She's fluent in Georgian, Russian, and English, and has conversational competence in other languages. She's a skilled and dedicated teacher. She welcomes innovation. But she's an older woman, so there is a presumption of obsolescence and incompetence. Out onto the ice floe she'll go.

There aren't many Georgians in the world. There are fewer Georgians in Georgia than there are people in my home state of Missouri. Georgia has millennia of experience being invaded by enemies.

I agree that English as Georgia's second language is a good strategic choice, in both the security and economic arenas. But I'm a believer in diversifying one's portfolio to mitigate risk.

As such, I agree with my focus group members that Russian should remain an important secondary language.

Don't throw out the малыш with the bath water.


Jen2010 said...

I have not found that Georgians are jumping over themselves to practice their English with us (apart from one Physics graduate on a train and one sixth form girl on a marshutka. We have been here since August 2011. However an important difference between English and Russian is that most of the information in the world (internet, scientific journals etc) are in English and there fore to access the information, a high level of English language competence is required. Russians also speak English and so if you are only going to learn one additional language then English has to be a priority over Russian.

Mzuri said...

You make a good point about Russians now learning English, as are, of course, Georgia's Caucasus neighbors.

I also like your point about internet info, though you made me wonder if that assumption (which I share) is accurate or if we're unknowing victims of English-centrism. Regardless, I think the online translation applications offset the language barrier, even if they're buggy sometimes.

Interesting experience the other night: I was in a conversation class with four students. One had studied Arabic and Russian, and now English (four alphabets!). Another had studied Persian (Farsi), I think Russian, and now English. A third speaks Megrelian, a Georgian dialect with no alphabet.

Georgia is in a unique geopolitical situation. With its turbulent history, the more languages Georgians learn the better, in my opinion.

But again, I agree with you that English makes the most strategic sense as the 1st second language. By the way, Chinese native speakers are coming to Georgia to teach same, from what I understand.

LindztheWiz said...

Since Georgia is in Russian's butt, and they are surrounded by the CIS countries (considering they were one, too, at one point), and especially with a huge focus on tourism and the never-ending disputes with Russia, I think it's incredibly important for the country to focus on both languages -English and Russian are equally important. Things might change though, next year, with Misha out of presidency.