As an English teacher, I’m frequently asked “How many languages do you speak?” and the short answer to that is “Four…to varying degrees”. What’s a more interesting question, though, is “What languages do you speak on a daily basis here in Georgia?”. The answer to that may surprise you: even though Georgian and Russian are among the languages I speak, I usually speak English in Georgia. Part of this is because, when you boil things down, my JOB is to speak English with Georgians. At work, I always speak English with my students. Even though they know I speak Georgian and will sometimes chatter at me excitedly in Georgian, I try to reply in English. I am, as a general rule, not a fan of relying on translation in class, so I do as much as I can to avoid telling my students a Georgian translation of English words they don’t know. If it is necessary, though, it is generally my co-teacher who supplies the translation: giving a bad translation is certainly a greater sin than translating in class on occasion! At home, I speak exclusively English with my host siblings, who are both studying it in school and have high academic aspirations. When my host father learned that I spoke Georgian, his first reply was “But then how will the children learn English?!?!”, so I try to be very conscientious about using English with them for everyday tasks, not just when we’re doing academic English work. I communicate with the older generations of my host family in Georgian, but my host mother (my primary interlocutor) is naturally an excellent communicator–she’s very good at understanding and being understood without benefit of a common language. My closest friends here are English-speakers, though our group is quite international. Most of my daily conversations in Georgian are little things that don’t require a particularly high level of language skills: taking taxis, or buying things in stores. Though, increasingly often people will switch to English out of the blue. Most of my Georgian-language practice comes from working with my language textbooks and watching TV in Georgian. Although I speak Russian slightly better than Georgian, and it is often touted as the second language of Georgia (it was mandatory in Soviet schools, and most of the ex-pats I know were Russian or Russian Studies majors), I rarely speak it. It’s useful to be able to read the Cyrillic alphabet, since many signs are still in Russian and I can read it more quickly than Georgian. Other than that, most of my conversations in Russian are with the Russian teachers at the school I work at (though sadly due to schedule and administration changes I’m no longer sitting in on Russian classes).
This situation couldn’t be more different from what it was during my first trip to Georgia nearly two years ago. President Saakashvili has declared that he wants English to be Georgia’s second language, like Russian has been historically, and I have seen this change happening before my eyes (or ears). Two years ago (at which time I had only studied Georgian for one year, though I had five years of Russian under my belt), I spoke primarily in an odd hodge-podge of Georgian, Russian, and English, as did most of my interlocutors. It wasn’t pretty, but we managed to understand one another most of the time. It’s also important to note that at this time I was primarily in Tbilisi, and now I live in the regions. (English is generally more widely spoken in the capital, where there are more foreigners and more universities).
Georgia isn’t an English-speaking country yet, and people still are very appreciative when foreigners try to speak their language, but a trip to Georgia is no longer the linguistic challenge it used to be.