Encounters in English

Posted on April 15, 2012 by


It’s a normal morning– I’m making the fifteen minute walk to school, and along the way I meet familiar faces, most of them greeting me, in English, with the words, “Hello Mikkela! Good morning! How are you?”

While I’ve now become accustomed to the familiarity of hearing my native tongue in an unfamiliar setting, it still makes me chuckle a little, smile, and think to myself, oh Georgia. Because, truth be told, the fact that 90% of people on my route to school know a few words in English seems a little shocking. And for some, it extends beyond just basic phrases. Three quick anecdotes:

1) As I was walking to school, I was approached by a man I’d never seen before. He was wearing disheveled clothes, had bloodshot eyes, liquor on his breath, and a bottle of beer in his hand. It was 8:30 in the morning. Rather than flee, however, I couldn’t help but smile when he shouted my name a couple times and then proceeded to ask me all about my life. We had a conversation in English, where I talked to him about my family in America, being a teacher in Georgia, and answered his repeated question of how I liked Georgia. Now, not a day goes by where we don’t exchange a few friendly sentences when I pass by him on the street.

2) The other day, one of my first graders leaned from the balcony of her house and shouted “hello!” to me. I responded with hello, and asked her how she was. Rather than answering herself, her grandmother, who I had never met, responded with, “she is quite well, thank you. Wait there for a moment.” Well, you can imagine my surprise; another English speaker above the age of 30 within a week! So, I waited at the gate for her. She came down and introduced herself and told me she would like to have me in her house. I thanked her, and told her that I would gladly accept the invitation, to just let me know when.  Later in the week, I did in fact go to her house for treats and tea, and we had a full conversation about her life, her family, the school, and her granddaughter’s education (all in English, of course).

3) Today, as I was walking home from school, I was stopped by two of my favorite faces here in Kutaisi: a cute sixth grade girl and her younger sister, who is in third grade. Neither of these children go to my school, but they know I speak English and therefore always go out of their way to say, “Hello, how are you?” Since the weather was nice today, we stopped to talk for a second, and my-oh-my!, I couldn’t believe their English capabilities! They told me all about what they like to do, their own English teacher (non-TLG) and where she’s from, what grade they’re in, etc. Like most of my interactions with people in Georgia, I walked away with the broadest of smiles upon my face.

And so, I tell these three stories to illustrate the point that in Georgia, or at least in Kutaisi, English conversations are occurring. Those who don’t know it want to learn it; those who don’t know it well are improving daily. My host sister and brother both speak English incredibly well, as do my co-teachers. My students, while initially shy in speaking and limited in ability, are becoming more and more comfortable with the language. English music is always playing, signs on my street are posted in both Georgian and Latin letters, and neighbors have requested English lessons.

The Georgian Ministry of Education and Science recently released a statistic revealing that the number of students registering to take their university entrance exams in English, rather than Russian, German, or French, is up to 73%, 27 points up from where it stood just two years ago when that number was only 45%.

For me, it’s easy to see the truth behind the Ministry’s study–my tiny bubble of a world is filled with English speakers. It’s also easy to make a connection between the introduction of TLG and the huge influx in the number of students taking their exams in English, timeline aside. Foreigners here have sparked a curiosity of the West; Georgians want to know about Western culture, traditions, and relationships on a personal basis. They want to have conversations about our lifestyles and opinions. And the only way to do so? Learn how to communicate. And God knows Georgian is much too difficult for us Westerners, so we’ve left the task completely up to them…