TBILISI - Twenty years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, 90 percent of the people in the 12 new countries that surrounded Russia, Belarus and Ukraine spoke Russian. By the end of this decade, linguists say, that portion could fall to 10 percent.
The decline of Russian is particularly sharp in Georgia.
Packed with eight-year-olds, a third-grade English class at a government school in northern Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, offers a noisy insight into the country’s linguistic future.
“I have a boat,” the students cry out, poring over their workbooks with encouragement coming from two teachers, Georgian Inga Chanturia, and Charlie McMurray, a 25-year-old American from the U.S. west coast state of Oregon.
McMurray is one of 540 English teachers, two-thirds of them Americans, who work here for minimal salaries under a new Georgian government program to teach English to all students, from first through 12th grade.
“There are 2,000 some odd schools in Georgia, and almost all of them have had a native English speaker at the school,” says McMurray, who has taught here for one year.
Key linguistic switch
After nearly two centuries of rule by Moscow, Georgia made a key linguistic switch two years ago. English now is mandatory for all students, Russian is optional.
On Sunday (October 21), a Russian-trained, Russian-speaking billionaire, Bidzina Ivanishvili, becomes Georgia’s new prime minister. Many Georgians hope he will bring better relations with Russia. But in interviews here, no one said they wanted the language policy changed.
At Tbilisi’s school number 75, director Tina Alavidze foresees no language policy change. She says parents demand English, starting in the first grade.
“The people themselves chose to learn English,” she said, speaking in Georgian and declining to speak in Russian. “So no new policy will be introduced in terms of learning language.”
Georgia wants to join the European Union. That may be far off, but Georgians know in Europe today 90 percent of school children study English.
Meri Sazuashvili, a 15-year-old student at the school, predicts the student reaction if the new Georgian government cuts back on English teaching: “We will have protests,” she said in the school library, where Russian books still outnumber English books on the shelves. “English is really important. If they do that, we will do our own study.”
Sazuashvili uses English to make friends around the world through Facebook. Her girlfriend, Nanuka Abuashvili, uses the social networking site, Tumblr.
“I have talked to people from USA, Australia, England, France Belgium and other countries,” Abuashvili said. “They know perfect English.”
English, then Russian
Now in high school, both girls have started studying Russian as their second foreign language. Although Russia still demands visas from Georgians and bans most imports from Georgia, the girls predict that by the time they are looking for jobs, normal relations will be restored, and companies will look for employees who can speak English and Russian.
In contrast to their English study, they say their mothers can help them with their Russian homework. But the attraction is limited. They say they never visit Russian language websites, and are not big fans of Russian pop music.
Last year, the girls’ American teacher was Raughley Nuzzi. He joined VOA for a return visit to his old class at school number 75. Sazuashvili remembers American culture came with some of Nuzzi’s language classes.
“We learned some American dances, Elvis Presley songs,” she said. “It was fun. It was good.”
Now Nuzzi is spokesman for Georgia’s English teacher program, Teach and Learn With Georgia.
“The program is pretty universally popular, even amongst opponents to the previous administration,” he said, referring to the ongoing political changeover here. “The schools, families, students, parents, everyone has been very gracious and very much in support.”
From Tbilisi, Lawrence Sheets, Caucasus Director for the International Crisis group, is watching Russian lose its historical role as a language of empire. For the past two decades in Georgia, Russian language signs have been banned, and Russian language TV and radio broadcasts have been limited.
“Many people have forgotten Russian,” Sheets said of Georgians of the "Soviet generation." “If you go into the countryside, the older generation, where they definitely would have spoken Russia, at least some, during the Soviet era, you find areas where people don’t speak, or they speak very little.”
Many of the current wave of tourists to Georgia from the former Soviet republics of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Russia and Ukraine find that if they want to talk to a Georgian under 35 years of age, it is simpler to try English.
Judging by the enthusiasm in the third grade of Tblisi’s school number 75, the wave of the future here is English.