17 September 2012
The Decline of the Russian Language in Georgia
The Decline of the Russian Language in Georgia
By Arik Seiler, Kathryn Copp, Deborah Kotkin, and Kerry Drew
In declaring its independence in 1991, Georgia resolutely severed its ties to the Soviet Union’s communist bloc. Zviad Gamsakhurdia, Georgia’s first democratically elected president, was, in turn, given the task of rebuilding this newly sovereign country. He instituted a drastic new policy which substituted the Russian language in public schools with English, believing it was essential for the success of Georgia’s long term development.
Before 1991, Russian was the prevalent language in Georgia, both spoken colloquially and taught in public schools. However, as the nation replaced the school curriculums, Russian language courses became offered only as elective studies. In order to change over to an English curriculum, Georgia flew in 1,000 native English speakers in a program similar to Teach for America. Teachers were paid a monthly stipend of $275 and lived rent free with Georgian host families. This took place in January, 2011 with the hope that by September, every school in Georgia would have at least one native English teacher.
Georgia’s induction of English into its school system, served its Georgia’s post-1991 economic and diplomatic goals, which included partnering with the European Union and NATO.
At the same time, Georgian became the official language of Georgia where formerly Russian had been the primary state language. As there were many minorities in Georgia who spoke Russian but not English or Georgian, this language policy change put them very much at risk; ethnic-Russians and other Russian speakers complained of diminished political and cultural rights, and that the change placed them at a disadvantage in their efforts for employment.
To increase knowledge of Georgian in ethnic minority groups “…the government has set up a program to ‘promote [the] popularization’ of Georgian as a state language, and to provide fallbacks, ranging from translated textbooks to minority-language university entrance exams, to guarantee that minority students can continue with their education.” In other words, while the government provided textbooks and exams in minority languages, the translated texts were meant only to keep students in the education system in order for them to continue learning Georgian for the future. The discontent about the state language policy among ethnic minorities in specific regions of the country mirrored the brewing tension regarding South Ossetia and its loyalty to the Soviet Union.
Gamsakhurdia launched a “Georgia for Georgians,” campaign, inflaming ethnic minorities’ resentment further. Many of Georgia’s public schools discriminated between ethnic Georgian and non-Georgian students based on their Georgian language skills. Students were often segregated into ethnic ‘Georgian’ and ‘Non-Georgian’ classrooms based on knowledge levels of Georgian, which created more language barriers for students of non-Georgian descent who need to learn the language. This “practice appear[ed] to contradict the spirit of the Ministry of Education’s Georgian Language program, which emphasize[d] ‘civil integration’”.
Existing animosities between the different ethnicities were augmented with the change in language policy which, in conjunction with other issues such as Georgia's South Ossetia region's continued loyalty to the USSR, would eventually lead to Civil War and to South Ossetia and Abakhazia becoming, effectively, independent entities with their own governments and militaries, although they would still be internationally recognized as part of Georgia.
However, Georgia still plans to make itself a nation “a country where English is as common as in Sweden”. Current Georgian president Mikheil Saakashvili has been steadfastly working to take Georgia away from Russian influence and move it into a more Western “orbit.” This continues to stoke tensions among some of the country's ethnic Russians who argue that Georgia can never escape Russia because of its geography and history. Some of these Russians are also voicing the same complaints as the Ossetians and Abkhazians before them – that the language policies are diminishing their political and cultural rights.
Georgia's language policies show how language can influence domestic and international politics. The Georgian government wants its youth to speak English, to encourage western investment but also to claim further independence from Russia. By encouraging the English language and stepping away from Russian, Georgia is pursuing a goal to be closer to the West and farther from Russia.
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