On Trying to Learn Georgian: Part I

I have decided to grant myself a break from Georgian to write about Georgian. Don’t worry, there will be minimal grammar in this post, but as the overarching point of this extended (working) vacation is the Georgian language, it seems only appropriate that I try to get down some of my impressions of my first days of formal instruction.

I arrived two weeks ago yesterday, and as anticipated, enrolling in the semi-existent language program at Tbilisi State University was both easier and harder than expected. I had applied twice already, dutifully filling out the online application and writing to the various language coordinators who were listed as contacts on the website. Perhaps not surprising, I received no answer, so I actually arrived here with a rather vague sense of how my coursework would actually materialize.

On my second day in this great mountainous nation, I walked myself over to the department offices, which seem to be a scattered collection of rooms throughout Building Number Five of Ilia Javakhishvili State University, inhabited (exclusively?) by women between the age of twenty five and fifty. I presented myself in the main office and made clear my desire to become a committed student of the Georgian language.  In an feeble attempt to display my intended on-the-balledness, I told the woman there that I had written to a certain Rusiko D—-but did not yet have a contract with the university. “I am Rusiko D—-,” was the reply, and then she let me know that she was busy, and sent me upstairs to another room of younger Georgian women who were flipping through notebooks and languorously snacking on wafer cookies.

I think I plead my case well: I have four weeks in Tbilisi (my last four weeks will be otherwise engaged) and I want to take as many hours as possible, starting as soon as possible. I am willing to pay more since it’s the summer. I have experience. I can meet anywhere. I just want to start learning Georgian intensively. This garnered a series of mmm‘s and hmmmm‘s and then I was instructed to write down my email and phone number on a post-it. Two woman shook their heads and said, “We’re just too tired from the semester to teach right now” (fair enough, the aggressive lack of desire to teach anymore is something I can truly emphasize with). A third handed me her card and noncommittally sighed, “We’ll be in touch.” I walked out feeling like I may have just bombed a first date.

After a few days of no word, I wrote my business card contact and debated just contacting one of the many teachers that I knew were actually available. Many of the few expats I’d already met had an instructor, and I figured that no response from my official program was legitimate grounds for abandoning my fellowship stipulation of only enrolling at an accredited university. Afterall, I’m about the spirit, not the letter, of the law.

To my surprise, I got a response on Monday, and a slow chain of phone calls and emails led to setting me up with two instructors—one in the mornings, another in the evening. I had been outsourced by TSU to another language group that apparently had a bit more manpower.

After countless offers to just start soon, or next week, or “keep in touch” I managed to get a confirmed first class last week. And so it began.

Oh wait, so I actually have to speak Georgian?

For two hours we only spoke, and my morning teacher evaluated where I stood. For example, she asked me if I knew the numbers, and when I replied yes, said, “Okay, start.”

“One, two, three…” I gazed at her to see if she was convinced. She beckoned for me to continue. “Four, five, six….”

This went on till one hundred. Yeah, for about four minutes there was just the sounds of me counting, drawing in a deep breath at each multiple of ten. I paused around 55 and 80 to see if I was in the clear, but no such luck. When I stopped at one hundred, she looked at me and with the serene gaze of boredom, said, “Next?”

I could see that counting one by one to thousand probably lay in my future, so I just smiled and with the slightest intonation of guilt offered, “um, two hundred, three hundred, four hundred, so on, one thousand.”

This garnered a very long hmm and then a brief silence before we moved on.

To be honest though, its great practice because Georgian numbers are obnoxious and sort of like French, so to say 77, you have to say three times twenty plus seventeen. Then, under the watchful gaze of a certain pedagogue named T’ea, three time twenty plus eighteen. And three times twenty plus nineteen. I’ll assume you’re seeing the pattern.

Despite having insisted that I had a background in the language, I was thoroughly vetted and, to be honest, found lacking at a few moments. Words that apparently made it into her list for beginning Georgian were totally unfamiliar to me or completely forgotten.  ‘Waterfall’, ‘radish’, all three forms of ‘cousin’ (options: deidashvili ‘child of the sister of my mother’ or mamidashvili ‘child of the sister of my father’ or bidzashvili ‘child of my uncle’) Okay, I should have remembered all the cousin words…but next:

“Backgammon”

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know how is backgammon?”

Expression of shock and disapproval.

“No.”

Nardi.”

“Nardi”

“Yes, nardi, please, memorize this,  you must learn to speak Georgian.”

Isn’t that the truth.

And yet, nardi is a pretty innocent word, with the letters and length of any well-respecting English word.  This is not the case for what seems like at least half of the words in Georgian. Georgian is famous for its verbal system (more on that later) but the cognitive labyrinth of the verbs are twice removed from me by being dressed in sounds that actually make my tongue tired (and tied!). This is a language that love, love, loves it consonant clusters.

Mstzv-…

grdz-…

rtskhv-…

The moment you manage to spit out one cluster of tzkv‘s, you can barely draw enough air (oh the sweet oxygen of a vowel!) to tackle the next two in the world. Not to mention, there are a few different k-esque sounds that I recognize in writing (roughly transliterated to k, kh, q’ and x), but really can’t consistently produce with my own mouth. To this I am not accustomed.

Sure, I have an accent whenever I speak a foreign language, but I’m not talking about an accent here.  I’m talking about a real physical effort to figure out how to get my mouth to make Georgian sounds.  Especially when I need to, oh, let’s say, speak with more than one word at a time. (Can you tell I’m the ambitious type?)

For the first couple days (ahem, first weeks…okay, still happening…) the sounds of the Georgian language quite simply made me feel like my whole mouth is some ill-fitted prosthetic. Mnishvnelovani zrda ‘important development’.  Gasp for air. Msxlis tsveni ‘pear juice’. Even the most basic everyday terms aroused frustration.  I often felt/feel something verging on spite for my tongue trained only for the robust chewy sounds of English.

But you know what, its getting a lot better, even after just a couple days of classes. Even if my mouth is still some faltering prosthetic, my brain is picking up on the rhythms of the words. Spoken Georgian feels like less of a barrage of sound and much more like a composition of recognizable morphemes encased in an elaboarate and archaic costume.  But I am starting to see the shapes under the costume.  Every now and then, stuff almost makes sense.  I’ve also found that there are words I love.  Some of them Ryan mentioned in his post, others keep cropping up:  a parrot is a tutiq’ushi.  That just seems fitting. A frog is baq’aq’i. To make a toast (as in at a party, or a supra, the lengthy and highly ritualized Georgian feast) is literally “to extend the day.”

And of course, part of the fun of learning a new language is realizing how your language works. For example, a ‘holiday’ is dghesastsauli.  Breakdown of part: day + miracle.  And I loved that, as it both reminded me that our holidays are/were holy-days, but that miracle-days are even more worthy of being dubbed holidays! The word for ‘different, varied’ is sxvadasxva. Breakdown: other+and+other.  Being different is like between doubly other, so now I can actually remember this word with no delay. I could go on, but I have a strategy.  I’m only going to keep talking about this crazy language so I’m saving your patience with language examples for when I write an poignant post on Georgian verbs…

(P.S. I’ll also get around to posting pictures soon, if you couldn’t give a rip about my person language acquisition (legit position) but want to see an ancient Transcaucasian capital (so much more legit))

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8 Comments

Filed under Sakartvelo! (aka Republic of Georgia), Uncategorized

8 responses to “On Trying to Learn Georgian: Part I

  1. You realize that all the easy Georgian words are borrowings from Persian. Actual Georgian is still batshit crazy 🙂

  2. Mom

    Love learning about what you are learning. Thanks for the updates.

  3. You are hilarious! can’t wait to see those pics and get more updates…

  4. I was cringing as you were describing the language. You are the only person, you with your amazing intelligence and positive attitude, who can undergo the torturous process of learning this tongue. Good luck! Wish I was there.

    • Yeah, I think its clear that I have the intelligence and foolhardiness to be in the process of learning this language, but I’m not sure about enough to actually LEARN this language. I’m looking forward to someday reading well, but with the spoken skills of a first grader. But a first grader with a heavy accent.

  5. Tetyana

    Brittanichka, you never fail to entertain me!!! You describe everything so vividly (or may be it’s my wild imagination :o) that with no effort I picture your facial expressions and diligent persistence articulating those crazy sounds. Do they teach you tongue and lip position while looking in a pocket mirror? Good luck to you! Can’t wait for more posts.

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