I am in the midst of attempting to construct my own thoughtful essay on the art and experience of learning Georgian, but as I actually have to go cram Georgian now (typical Sunday night scenario and I haven’t done my homework yet…), I’m going to simply let you read a much more eloquent and concise account by someone who knows Georgian far better than I.
This piece was written by a friend who lives and works in Tbilisi and who exemplifies how the knowledge of the local language opens you up to a culture, to friendships, to a different world than the one experienced in translation. A world I hope to one day visit, but until then, I’m taking his word for it.
Dedaena – Mother Tongue
“Gamarjoba!” the Georgian equivalent of “hi,” is probably one of the first Georgian words any foreigner arriving in Georgia will learn; for many, it will also be one of the only Georgian words they will learn during their stay. Ask anyone who has attempted to learn Georgian beyond the phrases provided in the guidebook, and you’ll get a simple answer: It’s hard.
And for Westerners, it is – Georgian does not belong to the Indo-European family of languages, its complex grammar allows for the formation of words that seem to stretch half-way across the page yet which contain so few vowels that you start to wonder if one has to be born with a Georgian tongue to attempt such linguistic gymnastics, and it contains sounds that some might describe as “alien.” But difficult as it may be, mastering the Georgian language to some degree is more than worth the hours of trying to memorize the conjugations of one irregular verb (and yes, there are many) in all its tenses.
Whenever foreigners living in Georgia get together, the topic of discussion at some point inevitably turns to the Georgian language. “Are you studying Georgian?” “How long have you been studying?” “Isn’t it hard?” When discussing studying Georgian with other expats, I am often disappointed to hear that someone has given up trying, or has decided to study Russian instead. Faced with the choice of either studying Georgian— and perhaps spending months before being able to hold a basic conversation—or studying the relatively easier and more useful Russian language, it is not surprising that many choose the latter.
But Georgia is actively trying to distance itself from Russia, for better or worse, and this includes the Russian language. The President of Georgia has made it a priority to make English the primary secondary language taught in Georgian schools, most notably inaugurating in 2010 the “Teach and Learn with Georgia” program which seeks to bring 1,000 native English speakers to teach in Georgia. As a result of this program and the general dominance of English language education in the last decade, today, you are more likely to find young Georgians fluent in English than in Russian. And if this trend continues, it is obvious that it will only be a matter of time before the Russian language becomes all but obsolete. While learning Russian may be more practical as a language spoken in most of the former Soviet Union, in Georgia, English is gradually replacing Russian as the primary language with which to communicate with foreigners.
Why then bother to learn Georgian at all? While every visitor to Georgia can attest to Georgia’s amazing hospitality and fascinating culture, I would argue that being able to communicate in Georgian allows the speaker to experience Georgia from a more intimate perspective that is ultimately richer and more rewarding. True, you could say the same about the benefits of learning any language, but what makes learning Georgian different is both the very fact that it is a difficult language that claims only a few million native speakers—and therefore, anyone who succeeds in achieving some level of fluency immediately gains special favor in the eyes of Georgians—and the fact that the Georgian language is so deeply intertwined with the Georgian identity. Beyond allowing one to communicate with everyday Georgians, a command of the Georgian language is the key to unlocking the soul of Georgia.
It is difficult to explain what I mean using the English language. But I can attempt to give a few examples of how the Georgian language is a window on the Georgian identity. The word for “pregnant,” for example is “orsuli” which combines the words “two” and “soul” – literally, “two-souled”; the Georgian word for “loyal” is “ertguli” and literally means “one-hearted.” Even that Georgian word for “hi” that all visitors learn –“gamarjoba” – tells us something about the Georgian spirit: it comes from the Georgian word for “victory.”