As far as I can see, expats in Georgia frequently get into rivalries over local languages, specifically to test who knows the most Georgian, who can read their alphabet best, who also knows the Cyrillic alphabet and bits of Russian. I don’t bother getting into competitions with other people over languages; after all, you’re only really competing against yourself, since at the end of the day it doesn’t matter a damn what anybody else knows. It’s all on you.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but compare myself to others on occasion. For instance, when it comes to actually defining fluency. A friend of mine from the United States told me he was fluent in Russian, but it turned out he didn’t have anywhere near as much knowledge of the language as I did. However, he could do basic things very well, such as ordering in restaurants, taking taxis and getting to his hotel room, so since he could do these exchanges so effortlessly he considered himself to be fluent, which I actually think is fair enough; after all, he had as much skill as he needed to get by in Russian and had turned his attention to learning Spanish, and as I stated before, you’re only in competition with yourself, so if you attain a level at which you’re happy to plateau at, then I don’t see the problem. However, after watching me talk to Georgian people in Russian, he stated that I was speaking like a native, which was flattering but sadly untrue. I’d consider myself an advanced intermediate, or at best the lowest of advanced levels; I can talk about anything with anyone, but on certain topics my vocabulary will be limited and in other instances I’ll have to take the long way around to get my point across if the linguistic territory is unfamiliar to me, and it is always obvious I’m not a native speaker.
I’d say my Russian is better than most other foreign expats, but I put that mostly down to my never having investing a significant amount of time in Georgian. If I’m 1000% honest, as much as I love the Georgian culture and people, I don’t like the language; it’s harsh and guttural on the ear, and much harder to learn than Russian. After spending nine years of my life in France, I’ve been blessed with a significant command of the French language, and French enjoys many grammatical similarities to Russian, being an Indo-European language, which Georgian is not (even bits of vocabulary are the same in French and Russian, thanks to Napoleon’s wars in the 19th century). It took me weeks to learn in Russian the same phrases and words that I’d been struggling with in Georgian for months. It didn’t help that the throaty clicking noises necessary to pronounce certain Georgian letters were very hard for me (and are for most foreigners), while Russian is largely devoid of such things.
I put a lot of my inability to learn Georgian into two main factors. Firstly, as stated, it is not a member of any major language family, but is part of its own language group exclusive to Georgia (which also includes Svani and Mingrelian), a fact which makes it interesting and culturally significant but also rather difficult. Many people say that being around the language will allow you to just ‘pick it up’, and I found that to be true (to an extent) when I was in France. I also found it with Russian, but I have never found it to be true when it comes to Georgian. Adding credence to this idea is my friend Steffi, who speaks fluent Dutch and English as well as her native German, but has never made any significant headway within Georgian, and she’s lived here a much longer time than I have.
Secondly, I really don’t feel motivated to learn Georgian, slightly because I don’t like the sound of it but mostly because it’s hard and seems rather pointless putting in so much effort into so little reward. I hope I don’t offend any Georgian speakers here (I’ve actually spoken to a lot who understand and agree with me), but it has barely five million native speakers worldwide, and it frustrates me that if I’d put as much time and effort into a more globally significant language such as, say, Spanish or German, I would likely already be at an intermediate level.
Learning Russian has been very useful, since it’s given me the ability to not only to speak to non-English speaking Georgian friends and family, but also to people during my infrequent visits to Latvia and Ukraine en route back to England. It will also open doors to employment opportunities in a way that Georgian language skills will not. However, I will admit that that there is a certain politeness in learning the language of the country within which you live, but I can communicate just fine in Russian and I quickly learned that settling into Georgian society is contradictory and riddled with hypocrisy. For instance, I am frequently told by Georgians in a typical Georgian grunt that because I live in Georgia, I must ‘live like Georgian’. That is to say, I must get my wife pregnant as quickly as possible, I must drink more beer and attend more tedious supras with young men who do nothing in their lives, and I must arrange to have an affair, as so many Georgian men boast of doing. Behaviour like this makes me resist adhering to Georgian culture all the more, and it extends to my language learning. Besides, since Russian is much easier, more useful and my blue eyes and pale skin always lead me to being addressed in Russian anyway, what’s the point?
As I say, some of it is to some degree my slightly knee-jerk reaction to Georgian hospitality being more forceful and aggressive than even perhaps Georgians really imagine. But then again, if I lived in Ukraine, Armenia or Belarus, I highly doubt I’d bother trying to learn their national languages either, and (as far as I know) Russian is even more widely spoken in those countries than it is in Georgia. In fact, a lad from Almaty told me today that all over Kazakhstan the current trend is not to learn the Kazakh language at all, and it’s apparently widely believed that Russian will eventually overtake it as the state’s official language (at the moment it’s an official secondary language, I think).
On the other hand, I absolutely do not understand people who live in Georgia and cannot speak either Georgian or Russian. I don’t particularly mind if you disagree with me about putting priority into Russian; I don’t even mind if you think I’m being impolite and inconsiderate to the Georgian culture, but I would take exception if you are one of these Western expats in Georgia whose language skill is still at greetings, courtesies and ordering food in restaurants simply by stating what you want and tacking on ‘madloba’ at the end. I honestly cannot imagine living in a foreign country and expect to everyone to speak my native language to me. That kind of attitude, which is sadly all too common, is (in my view) far more offensive than my preference of Russian, since Russian is practically a second native language to Georgians, anyway. It’s very typical of Westerners, and since many of the people I see who are incapable of Georgian/Russian language skills are teachers who are supposed to be taking something away from their time in this country I can’t help but wonder what it is they’re really doing with their time here. But ne’ermind, it’s little and less to do with me, but it still irritates me.
Anyway, since I love language learning so much, I thoroughly recommend Benny Lewis’ ‘Skype Me Maybe’ video on YouTube, and checking out all the polyglots who partake in the singing. It’s a really impressive and creative piece of art, and not a little inspiring. Check it out if you have the time.