As Georgia’s school year gets underway, the country’s polyglot president is betting a thousand native English speakers can jump start an ambitious new policy to make English Georgia’s second language.
Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, who speaks English, Russian, French, and Ukrainian in addition to Georgian, recently pledged that all 597,800 Georgian public schoolchildren will speak English as their second language by 2014.
The Teach and Learn with Georgia program, implemented by the Georgian Ministry of Education, seeks to place 10,000 native English-speaking volunteers in schools throughout the country by that date, with 1,000 native speakers in public schools by 2011.
To date, 205 such individuals -- mostly from the US -- have arrived for the September 15 kick-off of Georgia’s school year; the Ministry of Education predicts roughly 300 more participants by the end of 2010.
Never one to downplay an idea that casts Georgia as open to the world, Saakashvili has called the campaign “the greatest contribution we will make to the future development of our country. “ And the “largest breakthrough…in the entire post-Soviet space.”
Georgia’s longstanding goal to break with its Soviet past and to be accepted as a European country with Western values explains the hyperbole in part.
The program, however, also reflects a generational change -- Georgians of Saakashvili’s age (42) and younger generally see English, rather than Russian, as the ticket to success, making English the foreign language of fashion. By comparison, knowledge of Russian carries no hipster value and far less economic weight.
The challenge lies, though, in making sure all young Georgians have an equal chance at that perceived linguistic ticket to success.
Rural schools are the primary target for the program; Tbilisi, where youngsters have greater access to English language instruction, will follow behind.
Some critics, though, accuse Saakashvili of trying to turn education into a new field of battle between Tbilisi and Moscow. One schoolteacher in the village of Supsa in the western region of Guria wistfully noted that children have been “poisoned” against the Russian language as relations between Georgia and Russia have soured.
But Maia Siprashvili-Lee, an advisor to Education Minister Dmitri Shashkin and the organizer of the Teach and Learn program, counters that the program’s aim is educational, not political.
“I wouldn’t say that it is a political program; it is purely educational at this point,” Siprashvili-Lee said. Russian, along with German and French, remain part of the Georgian education system, she added.
Other plans include introducing even more languages to the national curriculum, including Italian, Spanish and Turkish.
“A person in Khulo [village in western Georgia – ed] or a person in Svaneti who is a very talented kid and his parents do not have money to send this kid abroad and introduce him to the 21st century -- this is what the government is doing,” Siprashvili-Lee elaborated.
Much like the US Peace Corps and the Japan Exchange and Teaching program on which Teach and Learn with Georgia is modeled, the program does not require any prior teaching experience.
Instead, participants are given an eight-day crash course in Georgian language and culture, as well as teaching methodology. Participating schools are responsible for deciding how to use the volunteers to teach English, Siprashvili-Lee said.
Volunteers receive a free round trip ticket to Georgia, a 500 lari (approximately $270) monthly stipend and free accommodations with a host family.
A 1,000-lari (about $540) incentive program to sign up friends and associates also exists, although Siprashvili-Lee said that no bonuses have been paid out yet.
But some participants, excited by the chance to travel abroad, nonetheless express concerns about what they term a lack of training and organization.
Daniel Celvi, a 23-year-old volunteer from Illinois based in the village of Khelvachauri near the Black Sea, comments that his local school has been short on answers about its plans for the school year.
“I am still waiting for my lesson plans,” Celvi said, adding that national program staff has been more responsive to questions.
Blog entries by other volunteers echo Celvi’s comments.
A volunteer in Poti who blogs under the name “Dream Weaver” complained that she felt “frustrated and annoyed” by the lack of information from her school principal, who also doubles as her host mother.
“I understand that she is very excited I am here however I have no clue what's expected of me,” she wrote. “I have so many questions and things I want to say but… I… can’t. It sucks that we both speak English but neither of us are communicating.”
A Tbilisi school principal interviewed by EurasiaNet.org expressed enthusiasm for the program, but stressed that implementation could prove the key. “This is a great idea…if it is managed well in the classroom,” commented Public School No. 1 Director Amiran Jamagidze.
Siprashvili-Lee says that her staff will receive monthly progress reports once the school year starts from both the local school faculty and volunteers to assess how Teach and Learn with Georgia is being implemented on the ground.
Success, she noted, will be as much about interaction outside the classroom as inside it.
A “volunteer is talking and showing that there is a whole other world out there,” Siprashvili-Lee said. “People who didn’t have a chance to see what is out there, this is this person telling them, or showing them…the indicator of success will be what happens after school.”
Editor's note: Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi.