[lg policy] Georgia is speaking its way out of Russian orbit

r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK r.amirejibi-mullen at QMUL.AC.UK
Sun Jan 30 06:31:15 UTC 2011

Georgia is speaking its way out of Russian orbit

A brigade of native English speakers are being 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.


The New York Times

Deborah Cruz teaches 10th-grade students at School No. 161 in Tbilisi,  
Georgia, on Nov. 4. Cruz, from Seattle, is part of a brigade of  
English speakers recruited to teach.

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.

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," Cruz, 58, said  
after leading her class in a form of tic-tac-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, Mikhail Saakashvili, who  
speaks excellent English and studied law at Columbia University in New  
York City. Since taking office after an uprising in 2003, 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.

Many ties to 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 the Russian language,  
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 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," Shashkini said. "The  
resource that we have is our human intellectual potential. So we need  
to use that potential as much as possible."

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.

Complaints, challenges

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 arms."

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," 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  

Others agreed.

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  

"By the time I left, they were speaking English in the classroom, and  
the teachers were excited about it because they saw the  
transformation," Cruz said. "So this will continue when I am not here  
anymore. To me, that is more important than anything ? this is not  


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