English in the Caucasus

Posted on April 30, 2012 by

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Is English becoming Georgia’s second language? If I went around my village or even the neighboring towns not many people would even understand this question. So I guess that’s a no. But will English soon BECOME Georgia’s second language? That’s probably a huge yes! I think while most people would agree that Georgia is not quite there yet in terms of English fluency, it’s clear to me that it’s well on its way.

One reason is TLG! Many volunteers are placed in villages, which are the most important places right now because I think that Tbilisi and other large cities are already on their way to being very English literate. In fact, my travels to Tbilisi and even Kutaisi have led to me meeting handfuls of people, often university students, who are willing and able to talk to me in English. So, obviously the cities have a head start, but I have also seen some much needed positive changes in the villages as a whole. In my first village there was NO English save one or two students and the English teachers. This was because I was the first foreigner most people had ever met – they had had no previous exposure to English in a real life setting. In my new village there is a remarkable amount of English and I must give a lot of credit to the Peace Corps for this. They were in my village for about ten years, and this progress is because of them. Though not fluent, many teachers (in addition to the English teachers!) can speak to me in English and many of our students have won top prizes in the English writing Olympics competition. This year we even have one student going to America to study for a year with the Flex program – the only student chosen from a village in Georgia! My two contrasting experiences prove that this English thing takes time. A few villages, like my new one, are well on their way to being English literate (maybe almost on par with the cities), but most others are only at the first or second stage. They will get there, but the results won’t be overnight.

This leads to my second point. There have obviously been increasing motivations to learn the language well, especially in the schools. Aside from the TLG teachers themselves, the writing Olympics and the Flex program that I have mentioned already are playing a role. These are very prestigious competitions and many students are motivated to study and compete, not only for the honor but also for the chance to go to America. Seemingly everyone in Georgia wants to go to America! Aside from the USA, many Georgians want to seek work in Europe because of the job situation here. I have talked to a handful of kids who have a parent in Greece or Italy for this very reason. Once again, English opens a lot of doors!

For those Georgians who can’t leave the country, I have witnessed a lot of interest in the developing international tourism industry here… for good reason, since Georgia is a beautiful country. I have already seen massive changes in certain areas of Georgia in the name of tourism, and in a short time there will be quite a job field. Relatedly, there are a huge amount of English-language signs throughout Georgia – another hint that things are rapidly changing. In my travels in Armenia, Ukraine and Eastern Turkey I did not witness signage such as this. As a result of all of this, many people (my host sister included) want to go into tourism as their profession. This will clearly involve English as many tourists know English at least as a second language regardless of where they are from. It’s inevitable that strong English speakers will be hired for these types of jobs, just as English is already practically required to work at McDonald’s in Tbilisi, Kutaisi and Batumi.

For now though, let’s be modest and celebrate the fact that most Georgians now understand “hello!”. I can say that I’ve rarely passed a group of children without hearing a tiny, high-pitched “hello!” or two before getting out of earshot. For the rest of the English language, I see many challenges ahead and a lot of time that needs to be devoted, but Georgia is making progress. Because of the job situation, the promise of a massive tourism industry and the continuous work of organizations like TLG I don’t see how things can’t change rapidly in the near future. I feel like we are now in the beginning stages of what will change the country and its opportunities forever.

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