In Georgia, English replaces retreating Russian

Wed Sep 15, 2010 9:23am EDT
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By Matt Robinson and Nino Ivanishvili

TBILISI (Reuters) - With Alexander Pushkin's framed visage on the wall and creased editions of fellow Russian literary giants on dusty shelves, Natela Chokhonelidze's office recalls a very different era at Georgia's State University.

"We once had a staff of 50, and now there are five, because there aren't many students," said the 70-year-old Professor Emeritus at the university's Institute of Russian Studies.

"Russian language is fading out," she quipped, "with me!"

Chokhonelidze is on the losing side of a deliberate shift in the former Soviet republic as its pro-Western leadership tries to supplant Russian with English as the default second language of 21st century Georgia.

On Wednesday, hundreds of native English speakers joined the first day of school as teaching assistants under an ambitious program to have every child aged five to 16 speak English. English is now compulsory, and Russian optional.

The aim appears pragmatic in a globalized world where English dominates and Georgia's investment-driven economy is seeking partners in Turkey and the European Union.

It dovetails too, however, with President Mikheil Saakashvili's policy of dragging the Caucasus country of 4.5 million people out from Russia's orbit, two years after war shattered already fragile ties between the neighbors.

"We're a free and independent country and our people are free and independent. It's their choice which language to learn," Education Minister Dmitry Shashkin, an ethnic Russian, told Reuters, in English.   Continued...

<p>A first grader attends his first English language lesson at a local school in Tbilisi, September 15, 2010. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili</p>