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English ousts Russian in ex-Soviet Georgia’s schools

Tbilisi – At schools across ex-Soviet Georgia, English is ousting Russian as the pro-Western authorities mount an ambitious campaign to promote the language of Shakespeare.

Keen to build closer ties with the West and amid continued tensions with Moscow after the 2008 Georgia–Russia war, Georgia’s government seems determined to end Russian’s dominance as the country’s most-spoken foreign language.

And young Georgians, anxious to learn one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, couldn’t be happier.

“Every Georgian needs to know English. It is impossible to get a proper education and build a successful career without knowing English,” said 16-year-old Mariam Sulashvili during a break from her English classes at high school number 47 in central Tbilisi.

Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, a fluent English speaker himself, has led the charge for English, saying earlier this year that Georgia needs a “linguistic revolution.”

A string of new measures are being taken to help promote English.

Earlier this year, Georgia’s education ministry launched a programme to bring 1,000 native English teachers to schools across the country starting in September.

From 2011, English classes will become compulsory from the first grade in all Georgian schools.

Tbilisi city hall is also offering free English lessons for adults aimed at boosting their career prospects.

New rules will even forbid Georgian television from broadcasting English-language films with Russian voiceover translation, requiring the use of Georgian subtitles instead.

Education Minister Dimitri Shashkin said the goals of these efforts go beyond simply teaching English and are important to the country’s pro-Western aspirations.

“Beyond its immediate goal – to improve English language proficiency – the programme is aimed at helping Georgian school children in adopting and sharing Western values and culture,” Shashkin told AFP.

Shashkin insisted that the programme “must not be implemented to the detriment of the Russian language.”

But some in Georgia are concerned about the diminishing knowledge of Russian here and worry that Georgia is losing touch with the language that for generations was the small country’s window on the outside world.

First under Tsarist and later under Soviet rule, Russian was the most widely spoken second language in Georgia and knowledge of it was considered essential.

Some tensions over use of Russian did exist, as for example when thousands took to the streets in 1978 to protest plans to abolish the status of Georgian as an official language in the then-Soviet republic.

But for the most part Georgians embraced Russian and Russian culture had a profound influence on the country.

Zurab Abashidze, Georgia’s former ambassador to Moscow and director of the Georgian Institute for Russian Studies, said it was unfortunate that current tensions with Moscow were pushing Russian to the sidelines.

“The language of Pushkin and Dostoevsky has nothing to do with politics,” he said.

“One day our relations with Russia will be normalised and we may discover that we lost the Russian language and cut centuries-old cultural ties with our giant neighbour.”

Supporters of the government’s efforts, however, say that regardless of politics teaching English simply makes more sense in today’s world.

“It is a natural situation caused by the demands of our shrinking world … and not by artificial government policies,” said the director of high school number 47, Irma Khutsishvili.

“Unlike English, Russian is not a universal language and cannot play the role that the English language is playing.”

AFP / Expatica