Native v State Language: Ethnic minorities of Georgia face education and identity challenges

What the Armenian community in Georgia is mostly concerned about, among its numerous other issues, is the knowledge of the Armenian and Georgian languages and education in general. This issue has become even more important when Armenian schools started closing down, and the government overtook the translation of textbooks.

According to the results of the 2002 official census, the total number of the Georgian population is 4.37 million, 5.7 percent of whom (249,175 people) are Armenians. The majority of Armenians live in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region in the south-west of Georgia, next to the Armenian border’s northern sector. The region has always been an Armenian settlement and today, too, Armenians constitute 94 percent of the population; their everyday communication language is their mother tongue – Armenian.

The fact that the government has taken over the translation and publishing of textbooks designated for ethnic minorities has become an issue of great concern for Georgia’s ethnic minorities; namely the two largest, Azeri and Armenian, communities as it hinders native-language and identity education. The community representatives complain that the textbook translation is done poorly.

“If you could only imagine how terribly the Armenian and Azeri translation of the textbooks is done, they in no way match the original texts,” says Georgian-Armenian community spokesperson Mari Mikoyan, adding that Armenian schools stop functioning mainly because of the lack of qualified personnel. “It is impossible for a physical training teacher also to teach physics, math, which is usually the case at Armenian schools, hence in a decade or so we will not have Armenian schools at all, and not because we or the government are unwilling to keep Armenian schools running, but because we will simply have no teachers.”

Schoolchildren and their parents are not happy with the quality of the textbooks either; they are also concerned about the shortage of personnel.

“They have complicated our textbook so much having put so many words that are difficult to understand that now even my mom is unable to help me,” says Gagik Markosyan, a fourth-grade student at Mesrop Mashtots School #3 in Akhaltskha. His mother, Karine Markosyan, adds: “Mainly elderly teachers work at our school, they are not only unable to manage the class but also to explain the material properly.”

In response to numerous textbook-related complaints Akhaltskha governor Lasha Chkauda explains that there is no other option.

“Tbilisi is the authority, and it is impossible to bring in textbooks from other countries, say from Armenia, for schools operating in the territory of Georgia,” he says, adding that several school principles have been released of their duties in order to raise the quality of education; teacher qualification monitoring and evaluation work is in progress now.

However, besides the issue of their native language education, the minorities also face the need to know Georgian, because without it they not only cannot find employment but get isolated from the society.

Zaur Dargally, head of a youth center in Marneul town in Georgia with mainly Azeri population, believes that the main reason why ethnic minorities do not speak Georgian is because of their “compact settlement”.

“If a village is populated only by Armenians or Azeris and they communicate in their native language, practically not using Georgian, they, naturally, cannot master it. However, today, the youth has come to realise that without the knowledge of the Georgian language they cannot compete in the job market, so they have started actively studying Georgian in order to get education and find jobs,” he says.

The Georgian government is currently taking steps promoting Georgian language learning, which, they believe, will also contribute to the ethnic minorities’ integration.

In particular, the government provides free-of-charge courses to people of different age range for studying the country’s state language.

A “1+4” called system is applied at institutions of higher education, according to which ethnic minority representatives are allowed to enter by passing a general exam in their mother tongue, after which they study Georgian during the first academic year and continue their education for the next four years as a full-right student.

Ethnic minority representatives believe that all theses steps are necessary and are yielding results.

“If you have to live in Georgia you have to know their language, because if you know the language you can find a job and support yourself,” says Marine Petrosyan, 51, bringing as an example her daughter, who has Armenian education but studied Georgian at a language center, then became a lawyer and is now working at a court.

“We know their language, but at home we speak only Armenian and keep our national traditions,” says Poghosyan.