[lg policy] Georgia: Still Fighting Russia, This Time With Words

Harold Schiffman haroldfs at GMAIL.COM
Mon Jan 24 15:29:48 UTC 2011

January 23, 2011

Still Fighting Russia, This Time With Words


TBILISI, Georgia — The new teacher who arrived recently at School No.
161 could barely speak a word of the Georgian language, knew little
about local customs and easily got lost in the crazy-quilt streets of
this hilly capital. But she was at the forefront of one of the most
notable educational initiatives — if not social experiments — being
attempted in the former Soviet Union.

When the teacher, Deborah Cruz, walked into a classroom of squirmy
teenagers, they grew rapt. Here was a stranger who would help connect
them to the rest of the world, one irregular verb tense at a time. Ms.
Cruz, who is from the Seattle area, is part of a brigade of native
English speakers recruited by Georgia’s government to spur a
linguistic revolution. The goal is to make Georgia a country where
English is as common as in Sweden — and in the process to supplant
Russian as the dominant second language.

“What we are doing is really something groundbreaking,” Ms. Cruz, 58,
said after leading her class in a form of tick-tack-toe on the
blackboard, with students devising a sentence to fill in a box. One of
her students, Tekla Iordanishvili, 15, chimed in, “English is the
international language, and we need it.” The government has already
lured 1,000 English speakers to Georgia, and by September, hopes to
have another 500 in place so that every school in the country has at
least one. Under the program, which resembles both the Peace Corps and
the Teach for America program, the teachers live rent-free with
Georgian families and receive a stipend of about $275 a month.

The initiative to embed these foreigners across Georgia reflects the
ambitions of its Western-leaning president, Mikheil Saakashvili, who
speaks excellent English and studied law at Columbia University. Since
taking office after an uprising in 2003, Mr. Saakashvili has worked to
wrench Georgia out of Moscow’s orbit and move it closer to the United
States — so determined is his effort that it was a factor in the 2008
war between Georgia and Russia.

During the Soviet era, the Communists used the Russian language to
bind the nation’s far-flung regions, requiring it as the second — and
sometimes primary — language from Estonia to Uzbekistan. But since the
Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, many of the former Soviet
republics have elevated their own languages and marginalized Russian
in order to bolster their independence and national identities.

The Kremlin is highly sensitive to the status of Russian, viewing it
as a kind of barometer of its influence. The turnabout is stark in
Georgia, whose cultural ties to Russia extend back centuries. Many
Georgians older than 40 readily speak Russian, while the young people
who have come of age under Mr. Saakashvili are often more interested
in English. The government is intent on hastening that trend.

Dimitri Shashkini, the minister of education and science, said in an
interview that Georgia, which has 4.6 million people, would prosper
economically only by significantly improving its educational system.
Ensuring that every child knows English is a major part of that
objective, he said.
“Georgia doesn’t have natural gas or oil,” Mr. Shashkini said. “The
resource that we have is our human intellectual potential. So we need
to use that potential as much as possible.”

Mr. Shashkini said the government was not doing away with Russian
classes, but rather making them as optional as French or German. In
general, English is now mandatory. He pointed out that teachers from
the United States, Canada and other English-speaking countries were
also serving as cultural ambassadors in a society that is still often
saddled with Soviet-era mores. The teachers not only instruct students
and assist local English teachers, but also start English clubs and
interact with parents.

The Georgian government has studied English language initiatives
elsewhere, including in South Korea, and is working with a company,
Footprints Recruiting, of Vancouver, British Columbia, that
specializes in finding native English speakers for such programs
around the world. The one in Georgia has stirred complaints among
old-guard Russian speakers, who maintain that whatever the country’s
political orientation, it cannot escape its geography or history.

Still, many of the English teachers said they were heartened by the
initial response to their efforts. “To say that children were
extremely excited to meet me is a gross understatement,” Meg Bell, 23,
who is from the Dallas area, wrote in an e-mail. “Other teacher
friends that I’ve spoken with had similar experiences upon first
entering their schools. An atmosphere of near Beatlemania hysteria
broke out for about a week or so. Kids wanted me to autograph their

But some expressed frustration with the educational system in Georgia,
which remains a relatively poor country. As in much of the developing
world, the local English teachers sometimes do not speak competent
English. Children are told to memorize lists of words and are engaged
in little if any conversation. Teenagers who have been in English
classes for years cannot utter a sentence.

Some of the new teachers, assigned to village schools with crumbling
classrooms and few textbooks, questioned the Georgian government’s
emphasis on English. “It’s like buying an espresso machine before
you’ve built a kitchen,” said James Norton, 23, from Boulder, Colo.

“There are so many obstacles preventing this cadre of foreign teachers
from doing their jobs effectively,” Mr. Norton said by e-mail. “I
often wonder whether the government would be better off focusing on
fundamentals first — buying books for all students, training teachers
in modern techniques (as opposed to the translation-and-memorization
doctrine which is currently rampant), paying Georgian teachers a
living wage, better accountability metrics, etc.”

He stressed that despite his misgivings, he was pleased with his time
in Georgia, had no regrets, and believed that he was enriching his
students. Others agreed. Ms. Cruz, who worked in the fall at a school
in Batumi on the Black Sea, recalled that when she started, the
children seemed bored. Their previous English teachers had never
engaged the students in conversation. “By the time I left, they were
speaking English in the classroom, and the teachers were excited about
it because they saw the transformation,” Ms. Cruz said. “So this will
continue when I am not here anymore. To me, that is more important
than anything — this is not temporary.”



 Harold F. Schiffman

Professor Emeritus of
 Dravidian Linguistics and Culture
Dept. of South Asia Studies
University of Pennsylvania
Philadelphia, PA 19104-6305

Phone:  (215) 898-7475
Fax:  (215) 573-2138

Email:  haroldfs at gmail.com


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