Sometimes I’m tempted to ask myself the question, who brought a love of English to the schoolchildren of Georgia first: TLG’s volunteers, or Pitbull, Adam Levine, and Michael Jackson?
Every day I walk into my 4th-6th grade classes, one of my students is singing some popular song; this week’s feature was ABBA’s Dancing Queen. English pop-culture has been seeping into each corner of Georgia for a good many years now, and the children we teach love to sing along to their favorite songs, whether they actually know the words they are singing or not.
But love of catchy music cannot translate to love of learning a language.
A recent press release from Georgia’s Ministry of Science and Education shows that the percentage of 12th graders who elected to take their foreign language test of the Unified National Exams (a combination high school exit exam and university entrance exam) in English has risen to 73% for this upcoming spring, an incredible jump from 45% just two years ago. In the words of the Ministry, “The percentage of students now taking their foreign language exams in English is a clear indicator that English is quickly becoming the most demanded foreign language in Georgia.”
The rising demand for English can be attributed to a multitude of factors. English is certainly the dominant language used on the internet, business, tourism, and various academic fields. As long as Georgia continues its plan to align itself with Europe, a demand for English will increase.
But this demand is not enough to explain why students have begun feeling more comfortable taking their Unified Exams in English. Nor can the rising percents be attributed only to those students in Tbilisi, who have greater access to tutors or private schools; Tbilisi comprises only a fourth of Georgia’s population.
I believe that TLG has played a large role in this change. For the first time, students across the country are not just singing songs in English, but have a member of their community they can converse with in English. TLG volunteers act not only as teachers; instead, they also are interesting people who quickly become members of their communities. They put a personality to the language, and bring with the language aspects of culture as divergent as foods to dance to slam poetry. Children around the country can now use English not as a disembodied grammar exercise, but as an authentic form of communication and interchange.
My students started the year not knowing any English. Now, I need to run through the hallways in order to get to my class on time because my third and fourth and fifth graders will stop me to have conversations. Aside from the typical greetings, they tell me about their families, ask what sports or music groups I like.
Last year, TLG taught English to the upper grades, which may have had an impact on how many students chose English for their exams. Now, we volunteers teach English in the primary grades. With this move, coupled with the Ministry’s continuing reforms pushing towards English (new textbooks, instruction from grade 1, olypmiads and other competitions) I would not be surprised if the percentage of students taking their Unifieds in English in six years reached close to one hundred.
English is undoubtedly useful. But it can also be beautiful and fun. To be fluent in a language, you must feel comfortable expressing yourself in it. As teachers in this country, our role is not just to aid in grammar and pronunciation so students can feel confident taking English exams; we should also sing along with our children to their favorite pop songs.