Do you speak English? Yes I has.

Do you speak English? Yes I has.

The Russian language was compulsory when I was a kid and it was universally taught in the education system. It was a very important language especially if one wanted to work in certain fields like engineering or the social sciences due to a lack of access to literature in languages other that Russian. In addition, Russian was and remains today an essential language among ethnic Armenians and Azeris residing outside of Tbilisi, to say nothing of communication with citizens from former Soviet republics. 

But the reality is that we are losing proficiency in Russian. There are few schools left where all subjects are taught in Russian and this is unfortunate since learning good Russian is still very cheap and could be much easier in Georgia.

Three years ago GORBI asked a representative sample of the Georgian population a few questions to measure respondents’ perception and claims of what languages they can freely converse in besides their own. The survey revealed that 65% of the Georgian Population can speak a language other than their native tongue and every third (35%) speaks only one language.

Not surprisingly, Georgian is the main language spoken in households across the country. For about 90% of Georgia’s population, Georgian is the main language that is spoken at home. Azeri (5.2%), Armenian (3.4%) and Russian (1.4%) are the other three top main languages spoken in the household.

The main languages spoken at home are correlated with ethnicity, where according to data from the 2014 Census, 86.9 % of people living in Georgia are ethnically Georgian, followed by Azeris, Armenians and Russians with 6.3%, 4,5% and 0.7% respectively.

It is interesting that even though Azeri and Armenian are the second and third most spoken languages at home, they did not appear in the list of other top spoken languages by the individuals. This can be due to the fact that people for whom Azeri and Armenian are the main languages, are probably ethnically Azeri and Armenians - that’s why this is main language in their home. But if people are learning a second language, these tend to be more international languages such as Russian, English or German.

Russian (88%), English (18%) and German (4%), based on respondents claims, are the three most frequently mentioned foreign languages. Let us quickly analyze differences among various societal groups between the two most spoken foreign languages.

Chart 1. In what other languages can you freely converse? (From those that can converse in at least one other language - 65% of the total population)

Source: GORBI 2015 nationwide survey of 1200 adult respondents

Chart 1 demonstrates that even though both males and females can converse in Russian much more than in English, males tend to converse in Russian more than females, while females tend to converse in English slightly more than males. The chart also demonstrates that speaking in these two languages varies a lot by age. For example, 46% of people aged from 18-24 can speak in English, compared to 2% of people who can speak English freely in the 55-64 age group. Therefore, the younger generation is much more likely to speak in English than the older generation. On the other hand, the older generation is much more likely to speak in Russian than the younger. If 97% of people aged 55-64 can fluently speak in Russian, only 66% of people aged from 18-24 can speak in Russian.

This generational gap is not a mystery due to history of Georgia. People aged 18-24 are born after the breakdown of Soviet Union, after Georgia gained its independence, borders with other countries were opened, and people gained access to computers and the internet where one can read and watch a plethora of content in English. It is also noteworthy that even though knowing Russian does not vary a lot by socio-economic class, knowing English varies a lot due to one’s economic status. 5% of people from the poor socio-economic class report speaking English fluently, compared to 33% of people from the upper-middle class. This is also not surprising since people with more money can pay more for education. In addition, English classes in general are much more expensive than Russian classes so lower- and upper-middle class families can better afford English tutors.

Nowadays, a few thousand Georgians are back from western universities where they studied mostly in English and a good number of these people are employed by the government and some serve in top positions. Naturally they have no issue with the English language as several of them have defended PHDs in that language. But this is not enough. We need a much larger segment of society to be fluent in English as this will bring only positive results. Here is one example of how a good knowledge of English helped me to catch an issue that is still unresolved and remains a mystery for me.

In late 2008 I was browsing the Georgian police website and found a strange page when I tried to check if I had video tickets on their English language site (http://videos.police.ge/?lang=en).

Table 1: police.ge Incorrect vs. Corrected English

In the beginning I thought that mistakes on the site were done on purpose to protect the portal from Russian hackers, as they had hacked several government websites when they last invaded Georgia in August 2008. But later I decided against this idea, as is was a too primitive defensive measure. And then I thought, what about if the Russians indeed hacked the website and made a fun of us and changed the language? As a good citizen, I asked a contact who was a trusted person of the police leadership to change the language on a site because it simply was making no sense, and was even funny in some ways. Despite the fact that I have repeated the same request four other times nothing has happened. If you decide to check the site, please use the text from Table 1 to understand the meanings!

Our survey was not designed to measure true knowledge of foreign language - that task would require a different approach. I am confident that the proficiency of knowledge of these languages is well below claimed levels. But one thing remains clear for me – someone has to read officially published texts and make sure they express exactly what the authors had in mind!

Note: I would like to extend special appreciation to Ani Lortkipanidze who assisted with the analysis and charts featured in this article
GORBI is an exclusive member of the Gallup International research network and has more than two decades of experience in survey research (gorbi.com)