The Language Barrier

Years back, the Russian language was compulsory for children to learn and was universally taught in the education system. It was a very important language in Georgia, especially if you wanted to work and study in certain fields. What’s more, Russian was and still remains an essential language among ethnic Armenians and Azeris residing outside of Tbilisi, to say nothing of communication with citizens from former Soviet republics.

The unsurprising reality, however, is that proficiency in Russian is slowly fading in Georgia. Only a few schools remain where all subjects are taught in Russian, the result of this being debatable. Three years ago, a survey was done by of what languages Georgians can freely converse in besides their native language. The survey revealed that 65% of the Georgian population can speak a language other than their native tongue and a third speaks only one language.

Not surprisingly, Georgian is the main language spoken in households across the country. For about 90% of Georgia’s population, Georgian being the obvious home spoken language, Azeri is 5.2%, Armenian 3.4% and Russian 1.4%, are the three main languages spoken in households besides Georgian.

The main languages spoken at home are correlated with actual ethnicity, with 86.9 % of people living in Georgia being ethnically Georgian, followed by Azeris at 6.3%, Armenians 4.5% and Russians at 0.7%.

International languages being learned by students are as follows: Russian 88%, English 18% and German 4% - based on respondents claims, these three are the most frequently mentioned foreign languages.

Even though both males and females can converse in Russian much more than in English, males tend to converse in Russian more than females, while females tend to converse in English slightly more than males. Furthermore, speaking in these two languages varies a lot depending on age. 46% of people aged from 18-24 can speak in English, compared to 2% of people who can speak English freely in the 55-64 age groups, meaning the younger generation is much more likely to speak in English than the older generation. On the other hand, the older generation is much more likely to speak in Russian; with 97% of people aged 55-64 able to fluently speak in Russian and only 66% of people aged from 18-24 can speak in Russian.

The reason for this is obvious, going on the history of Georgia. People aged 18-24 were born in a time where Russian influence was fading from Georgia; borders with other countries were opened; and people gained access to computers and the internet where one can read and watch a plethora of content in English. Also, from 2005, schools were given freedom to choose which foreign languages to teach, whilst in 2010, English became the mandatory first foreign language to be taught in schools. The principle of free choice is maintained with regard to the second foreign language taught; starting from the seventh grade. It is also noteworthy that even though knowing Russian does not vary a lot by socio-economic class, knowing English varies a lot due to one’s economic status. 5% of people from the poor socio-economic class report speaking English fluently, compared to 33% of people from the upper-middle class. This is also not surprising since people with more money can pay more for education, and gain more exposure via other means. In addition, English classes in general are much more expensive than Russian classes, meaning that lower- and upper-middle class families can better afford English tutors.

More recently, Georgians have been flooding to western universities where they study mostly in English, and after returning, a good number of these people are employed by the government, with some serving in top positions. Naturally, they have no issue with the English language as several of them have PHDs in that language. With changing times however, and tourism on the rise every day, Georgia needs a larger segment of society to be fluent in English, as this will bring only positive results.

The English Proficiency Index and the Eurobarometer surveys make it obvious that countries with a population highly proficient in English are economically more advanced than their neighboring countries. English is an important tool for economic development because it facilitates the attraction of investments, the development of tourism and the establishment of trade relations with other countries.

An increase in the level of knowledge of English in Georgia will also have a positive impact on the prospects for economic development. It will become much easier to attract tourists and investors if Georgia has an English-speaking service sector – in other words, if Georgian public servants, lawyers, doctors, and hotel and restaurant service personnel are able to easily establish contact with visiting foreign guests who want to start a business or even those who have arrived for a holiday, it will be an invitation to people from around the world saying: Hey, we speak your language, come and see what else we have to offer!

By Shawn Wayne

20 August 2018 16:08