Languages in Georgia: expats and learning

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.


About tcjogden69

Former soldier, current boxing trainer/student living in Tbilisi.
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15 Responses to Languages in Georgia: expats and learning

  1. Glad to read your post.
    I hate the word “fluent”!

    Interesting, for me Georgian grammar makes far more sense than Russian grammar (this isn’t to say I manage to spit it out correctly when speaking, though). I speculate that it’s the three genders in Russian declension that screws me up. Georgian phonics are pretty difficult though, but I’ve realized that since I have an identifiable accent when I speak English, my native language, why should I hold myself to a higher standard in a foreign language?

    • tcjogden69 says:

      Accents are a tricky one – I know plenty of people who, along with learning a language, actively try to imitate natives. It’s very successful for some (check out Luca Lampariello), and for some people it’s easier than others (it’s very easy for Scandinavians to mimic British accents) but I personally don’t see the point. I just learn the words and start speaking…although interestingly enough, lots of Georgians tell me my Russian has a Ukrainian accent. I’m not sure if that’s true or not, or if it’s the first thing they jump to because my accent isn’t Russian but my skin is pale and my eyes are blue. Still, I find it rather flattering. What’s it like within the teaching community? Do lots of your colleagues speak good Russian or Georgian? I’ve met a lot of TLGers who don’t, and don’t care to learn, but I’ve read on your blog you’ve studied Russian in the US, so I’m interested in what the average standard is like.

      • I think it’s a mix among teachers…some of us chose Georgia because we had a background in the region (ie, were unemployed Russian majors), but there are also plenty of people who don’t speak a word and, as you say, don’t care to learn. I find it sad that there are many teachers who aren’t interested in learning…it seems wrong to me. I won’t use either Russian or Georgian in the classroom because I think an immersion classroom is far more effective, but I do thinking having an understanding of Georgian and Russian grammar helps me to present things in a helpful way and know where problems will pop up.

      • tcjogden69 says:

        Aye, total immersion is the way to go. You must be doing a good job, I find a lot of young Georgians speak very good English 😉 are you in Tbilisi these days? I’d like to hear about your experiences, we should definitely meet up.

  2. Pingback: Teaching and Learning | Cookies and The Caucasus

  3. ფურცხვი says:

    if you were some TLGer who will return home after 6 months or a year, there would be no problems with this Approach at all…
    for example if some american or british person came here to visit country and speaks russian at intermediat level why he/she should bother himself with learning georgian? absolutely no reason for this…
    but as i know (from this blog), you’re going to stay here for long time (am i right?)… this changes things slightly. you know what i mean right?
    i had some russian neighbours who live in georgia for about 35 years and still speak no georgian at all…
    and i heard them whining about young georgians not speaking russian, they were kinda embarassed that they can’t communicate with younger georgians in russian.

    “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”
    If you don’t want to get your wife pregnant ASAP and don’t want to attend lots of supras that mean you shouldn’t try to learn georgian? given that you’re going to stay here for long time. i can’t really get the point here.

    i’m sorry for bad English, but i hope u got my point.

    • tcjogden69 says:

      I do but I think you’ve misunderstood my rather cutting British sense of humour and some of my points. What I meant by that statement was that I’m sick and tired of Georgians telling me to live like they do, just because I live in their country; supras can be frustrating experiences, I despise the culture of the modern Georgian male and I have no interest in having children for a long time. We don’t tell people what to do in Europe, and this is the point at which the famous Georgian hospitality becomes aggressive and cloying.
      I don’t like being criticised for not learning Georgian because I am absolutely not like these Americans who come to Georgia and demand everyone speak English. I love Georgian culture, history and (for the most part) the people, so I’m not the same as TLGers who’ve been here for years and still can’t get past ‘Gamarjoba’ and ordering things in restaurants.
      Actually, I do speak some Georgian; I speak enough to be polite and get by in emergency situations, or to order my own food and drinks when I go out. But do I need to learn Georgian? No. If there are Georgians who don’t Russian (younger ones) then they all speak English, so I can talk to almost anyone. I wrote in this post that Georgian is a harder language than Russian, and I’m not the only one who says so.
      Georgian is also not useful. Sorry, but it’s not; Russian has 350 million speakers in the world, and Western companies want to employ people who speak it. Georgian has 6 million native speakers, and even if there are companies that operate in Georgia, everyone speaks Russian or English anyway so learning Georgian is not even a factor.
      Imagine you live in Wales, Ireland or Scotland. The languages there are not Indo-European languages, just like Georgian; they have nothing in common with English. Imagine the people are telling you all the time to learn Irish, Gaelic or Welsh, instead of English, even though English is more useful and easier to learn since there are widely available resources. Imagine the people are telling you to abandon your Georgian culture because you don’t live in Georgia anymore, and live like a true Welshman or an Irishman. What are you going to tell them? I think I could guess.

      • ფურცხვი says:

        i see… well and good, but i didn’t wanted to say that you must live like most of georgian males do.
        i was all about the language.
        i obviously won’t reuire from foreigner to live like a georgian because i, myself totally dislike the way most of georgians live…
        i just tought you were trying to say that you don’t want to learn georgian because you dislike the way georgian males live… but now i see, perhaps i indeed misunderstood you (that’s because of my brilliant english skills)

        By the way don’t even think to give up this blog 🙂 i’m your constant reader 🙂
        Best wishes ფურცხვი.

      • tcjogden69 says:

        haha thank you! Glad we’re on the same page. And your English skills are very good indeed; a million years ahead of my Georgian 😉

      • “Imagine you live in Wales, Ireland or Scotland. The languages there are not Indo-European languages, just like Georgian; they have nothing in common with English.”

        Just to nitpick, that’s not true. Celtic languages aren’t Germanic, but they are Indo-European. They’re about as closely related to English as Russian is.

      • tcjogden69 says:

        I stand corrected. I’m not sure why I wrote that, seems that I should have known better. But any rate I’d actually say that Russian has more in common with English than Welsh; Russian has a similar grammatical structure to French, and even whole words can be the same (etage, douche, magasin, for example, are pronounced in Russian as they are in French, the only difference being the spelling in the Cyrillic alphabet). Since English has a hell of a lot of shared vocabulary with French (which it doesn’t, as far as I know, with Welsh) I’d say that English is a lot closer to Russian than it is to Celtic languages. For instance, take the word ‘nation’ in English. In French, the spelling is the same but it’s pronounced something like ‘nats-see-on’, but in Russian it stays familiar, being spoken as ‘nat-sia’. In Welsh, translating ‘nation’ leads to ‘genedl’ (that’s for ‘nation’, by the way, not ‘country’; in French that’d be ‘pays’ and in Russian ‘straniy’). There’s a whole host of those types of loan words from English which have counterparts in Romantic or Slavic languages but not in Celtic ones. As far as I know, the only connections to Georgia in a similar fashion come from the Georgian use of words like ‘magasin’ for shop, which comes from Russian via French. Thanks for following, I’ll be sure to check out your own stuff 😉

  4. As a pale, blue-eyed American, I get addressed in Russian frequently throughout Georgia, even after I clearly demonstrate that I know plenty of Georgian. Sometimes they just want to have it both ways, getting impatient with foreigners who don’t know Russian and indignant with those who don’t know Georgian.

    • tcjogden69 says:

      Aye, that happens to most expats that I know here. Georgians aren’t the most patient of people when it comes to things like this; if you don’t understand what they just said, rather than try and find a way around it using alternate explanations they’ll just repeat it slower and louder. For the most part, I just pretend to be Ukrainian; they know I’m not Russian due to my accent, but admitting that I’m British always means I have to take time explaining why I’ve lived here for so many years, if I like Georgia, what I do here etc. and I just can’t be arsed for the purposes of a short taxi drive. Being Ukrainian raises no eyebrows…although I did come unstuck with this tactic a few weeks ago when the taxi driver turned out to be from Kiev, and started talking to me in Ukrainian. However, I did end up learning some Ukrainian words. ‘Every cloud’, eh?

  5. Elmyra says:

    I’m thinking of coming to Tbilisi to study Russian but I’m afraid I might learn Georgian variation of the language (instead of literary language). Language courses in Georgia are 50% cheaper than courses in Russia, Ukraine or Belarus and don’t require visa (at least from me). Do you think it’s a good idea? Or should I rather spend more money and learn Russian in Russia?

    • tcjogden69 says:

      There is no real Georgian dialect for Russian – they speak it with an accent, but that’s about as far as it goes, so there’s no ‘variation’ on the language per se. Georgia is a friendly country full of (mostly) nice people, and they’re much more open to Western foreigners than Russians can be. So yes, Tbilisi would be my choice, if you’ll excuse a little bias 😉

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