Teaching a Nation’s Linguistic Minorities

Posted on June 6, 2012 by


Now, I know this is a blog run by English language teachers, so usually when we talk about non-native speakers we mean everyone but ourselves, the native English speakers.  However, in this post, the non-native speakers I want to talk about are non-native Georgian speakers, and I want to look at how these children are educated in Georgia.

I was born and raised in the U.S. state of Nevada which has a large population of Spanish speakers.  (In fact Nevada is Spanish for “snowy” and is taken from the mountain range that runs along its Western border – the Sierra Nevadas, or snowy mountains.)  So, growing up, there were always a good number of what we generally would call “ESL kids.”  ESL stands for English as a Second Language, and is used to refer to any method aimed at teaching English to non-native speakers.  (Turns out the more politically correct term is ELL, for English Language Learners.)  I didn’t give much thought at the time to how these kids were being taught English and what factors would influence how well they were able to do in school.  I did notice that the drop-out rate (percentage of students who don’t graduate high-school) was, and still is, much higher for native Spanish speaking kids than for the rest of us.  Now, there are many reasons that could explain this – this community tends to be poorer and less-educated, and parents who don’t speak English can’t help their children with their homework.  But, the bottom line is that we want all children in America to be able to get a good education, and we should do whatever we can to make that happen… right?  Well, it’s not that simple.

Language seems to be one of the most emotional parts of national identity for people.  Certainly in Georgia, nationalist movements seem to have always included protection of the Georgian language.  Even in the United States, where we are a nation of immigrants, proudly tracing our roots from hundreds if not thousands of the world’s ethnicities, for many Americans, the English language is a sacred and essential part of our nation’s identity.

So, the United States, Georgia, and any other country with a significant number of minority language speakers must decide how to educate its children, and before it decides what teaching method to use it must define its priorities.  How important is it that every child  speak the dominant/official language?  And do we want them to all be fluent or is it ok if they just have conversational fluency?  Is the most important thing that every child get a good grasp of the core subjects (math, science, literature, etc.) no matter what language they learn it in?  Do minority language speakers have a right to be taught in their mother tongue?  Does this right apply to the speakers of all minority languages in the country?  Georgia and America answer these questions differently (both today and in the past), so I will briefly compare the two below.  But first, a brief explanation of the three broad options available to a government in teaching minority language-speaking students.

The first option is dominant language immersion.  This would mean that all students would taught entirely in English (for the U.S.) or Georgian (for Georgia).  For example, a Spanish-speaking 6-year-old would start first grade and would learn everything from reading to math without any explanation in Spanish.  Or, a ten-year-old from France would attend school entirely in English without any French explanations.  (Hint: the French child would most likely do better as  he would already know how to read in his own language and would know the basics of math.  He’d just have to learn English.  He’d also likely be placed a grade or two lower than he was back in France, so he’d be repeating material he already learned in French.)

Option two is, shall we say, heritage language schools.  These are schools that are taught entirely in a non-dominant language.  This would be a school that teaches Spanish-speaking children entirely in Spanish, and teaches English, or another language, as a foreign language.

The third option available to educational systems is bilingual education.  Students would receive a certain amount of their education each day in their native language and the rest in the dominant language.  This would, if done right, only last a few years, and would taper the children off their native language so that they can finish their schooling in the dominant language.  The assistance should focus on “academic” English/Georgian, since children, even teenagers, pick up conversational or social English/Georgian fairly easily, but generally have trouble learning the words required, for instance, to understand a biology or geometry class.

Now, to the specifics of Georgia vs. the United States.  The first thing to say about the US is that education is largely decided locally, so each state has different rules about ESL instruction.  I think it is safe to say, though, that there is a consensus in all fifty states that all children attending U.S. public schools should learn English.  So, I’m going to make some broad generalizations for the sake of keeping this blog post to a reasonable length.  Please forgive the inevitable glossing-over of details that this will cause.

I’m going to start with education option two: heritage language schools.  As for the US, well they don’t exist there.  I feel fairly confident saying that they are actually illegal in all fifty states.  Some charter schools are foreign-language immersion, but they can’t be aimed entirely or even predominantly at native speakers of the language (ie, there are schools that teach students entirely in Mandarin, but most of the children who attend the school will be native English speakers).  On the other hand, Georgia, for the moment, has schools that are taught in one of either Georgian, Azeri, Armenian, and Russian.  Russian schools began to be phased out at the end of the last academic year, although 12 schools continue to offer Russian-only education and many other schools offer some measure of Russian-language instruction.   (According to information I received from the Georgian Ministry of Education, out of a total of 2097 schools in Georgia, there are 297 “ethnic minority schools,” including 116 Armenian, 89 Azerbaijani, 12 Russian, and 80 “mixed.”)  Again, I don’t want to stray too much off point here, but Georgia has a history of civil wars spawned, in part, by a historical grievance of not being allowed to speak one’s native language.  This was one of the complaints made by the Abkhaz in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it was also a powerful motivator behind Georgian nationalism (in opposition to Russian language imposition by the Soviet Union).  So, the right to speak one’s native language would seem to carry greater weight in Georgia than in the US.  (There’s an interesting story about loss of native American languages, as well, but again, I can’t really go into that here.)

Option one, if you will recall, is dominant language immersion.  This is an increasingly common (and perhaps the dominant) method in the US, esp. since bilingual education was banned in many states in 2002.  In Georgia, where families have a choice between a heritage-language school and a Georgian-language school (as is the case for Azeris in my neighborhood of Tbilisi), if parents choose to send their children to the Georgian school, it will mean Georgian immersion.  No assistance is given in any language other than Georgian (at least in my school).  For the US states that banned bilingual education, giving assistance in another language is actually forbidden under the law, even if the teacher speaks the minority language in question.

That brings us to bilingual education.  I have not been able to find much information on exactly how the new Russian-Georgian bilingual programs are operating, but I will assume that they follow the model described above.  Students start out being taught predominantly in Russian, and over the course of several years, as they learn more and more Georgian, the amount of Russian is reduced until the students can join the standard Georgian classrooms. This is the same across all minority language schools in Georgia.  Over the past several years bilingual education has been gradual introduced in 40 pilot schools, which included Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Russian schools in Tbilisi and elsewhere throughout the country.  These 40 schools were used to test different models of bilingual education to determine what would work best in Georgia.  At the beginning of the next academic year (September 2012), ALL minority schools will become bilingual schools.  Approximately 30% of all educational material covered in grades 1-6 will be conducted in Georgian.

In trying to research this post, I was able to find two good articles summarizing the arguments in favor of bilingual education and against it.  They are good, readable, articles, and if you are interested in this subject, I’d highly encourage you to read them.  Nevertheless, I’ll give you the highlights here.  Those who support bilingual education generally argue that when done right, it is much better at educating students.  It is much easier to learn to read and write in a foreign language if one has already learned to read and write in his first language.  (For the TLGers reading this, think of the difficulty in teaching first graders how to read “th” when they can’t even make the sound.)  It is also much easier to learn “academic English/Georgian,” or the words necessary to learn math, science, etc., when one has learned the basics of these subjects in his first language and has some assistance in learning the new terminology in English/Georgian.  On the other hand, those who oppose bilingual education argue that not only does it often end up being entirely in the heritage language (and, thus, not actually bilingual), but it also leads to de-facto racial segregation, which is illegal in the United States.

So, should students be taught in their native languages, in the country’s dominant language, or through bilingual education programs?  That’s the big question.  What do you think?