[lg policy] In Georgia, English replaces retreating Russian
r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK
r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK
Wed Sep 15 17:44:44 UTC 2010
With Alexander Pushkin's framed visage on the wall and creased
editions of fellow Russian literary giants on dusty shelves, Natela
Chokhonelidze's office recalls a very different era at Georgia's State
"We once had a staff of 50, and now there are five, because there
aren't many students," said the 70-year-old Professor Emeritus at the
university's Institute of Russian Studies.
"Russian language is fading out," she quipped, "with me!"
Chokhonelidze is on the losing side of a deliberate shift in the
former Soviet republic as its pro-Western leadership tries to supplant
Russian with English as the default second language of 21st century
On Wednesday, hundreds of native English speakers joined the first day
of school as teaching assistants under an ambitious program to have
every child aged five to 16 speak English. English is now compulsory,
and Russian optional.
The aim appears pragmatic in a globalized world where English
dominates and Georgia's investment-driven economy is seeking partners
in Turkey and the European Union.
It dovetails too, however, with President Mikheil Saakashvili's policy
of dragging the Caucasus country of 4.5 million people out from
Russia's orbit, two years after war shattered already fragile ties
between the neighbors.
"We're a free and independent country and our people are free and
independent. It's their choice which language to learn," Education
Minister Dmitry Shashkin, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters, in English.
The government plans to recruit 1,000 native English speakers by the
end of the year on 500 lari ($272) per month, eventually building up
to one per school.
English "opens many doors," said Shashkin. "Georgia doesn't have oil,
Georgia doesn't have natural gas. The resource we have is our people,
the intellectual potential of our country."
The scheme puts Georgia at the sharp end of the retreat of Russian
language from the former Soviet Union. Language imparts influence, and
here too Russia faces a challenge from the West, and China, over
investment opportunities and oil and gas supplies in the Caspian Sea
and Central Asia.
Critics question the wisdom of relegating Russian, still the most
likely language of communication between ex-Soviet republics, to a
But much of it is generational. Students entering university now were
born after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The influence of
Western pop culture and the Internet is strong.
So too is the fallout from the deterioration in political relations
with Russia since Georgia's 2003 "Rose Revolution" swept aside the
ex-Soviet old guard and brought Saakashvili and his team of
English-speaking ministers to power.
He set Georgian sights on joining NATO, to the anger of Russia.
Political ties collapsed with the 2008 war, when Russia crushed an
assault by Georgia's U.S.-trained military on the rebel pro-Russian
region of South Ossetia.
Trade links are minimal. Visa requirements and torturous travel routes
have strained ties between family and friends.
"Taken in the wider context ... it seems there is a political element
behind this," said Shorena Shaverdashvili, editor of Georgian weekly
English should be taught, she said, but "Why replace one (language)
with the other? This is our neighborhood and the common language with
our neighbors is Russian."
At the university, Chokhonelidze laments the passing of an era, and
the generations brought up on reading Pushkin, Tolstoy and
Dostoyevsky. "I fear in a few years when those grandfathers and
grandmothers aren't around, nobody will bother."
The answer, said 20-year-old mathematics student Nugzar Barbakadze, is
simple: "I can read Russian books in Georgian."
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