Before 2010, teaching foreign languages at Georgian schools had not been a topic of public debate. Despite the number of academic hours allocated for Russian language and literature decreasing after Georgia gained its independence, the Russian language still remained the first foreign language that, according to school curricula, Georgian schoolchildren were expected to master. Moreover, in addition to the Russian language, schoolchildren were expected to study Russian literature; whereas in the case of English, German, French and other languages, literature was not taught as a separate subject.
Such a situation in the 1990s can be partially attributed to the Soviet legacy and partially to the foreign policy priorities of Eduard Shevardnadze's government of that time. Yet another important factor was the government viewing teachers as important base of electoral support. The government thus shunned implementing any reforms that would lead to the dismissal and replacement of a large segment of teachers.
From 2005, schools were given freedom to choose which foreign languages to teach, whilst since 2010 English became the mandatory first foreign language to be taught in schools. The principle of free choice is maintained with regard to the second foreign language taught, starting from the seventh grade.
Such a situation does not guarantee that learning English or, even more so, any other foreign language will become easier in Georgian schools. In addition to the low quality of school education, learning foreign languages is also impeded by the fact that it is difficult to find an environment where the corresponding foreign languages are spoken in Georgia.
Consequently, it is interesting to once again analyze why mastering the English language is necessary in Georgia and to review the experience of other countries in learning and applying English.
Proficiency in the English language in the contemporary world
For many years now the international non-governmental organization EF Education First has been surveying the levels of proficiency in the English language throughout the world. According to the EF English First Proficiency Index, the methodology of which is controversial, a number of smaller Western European countries and former British colonies in Asia are distinguished by having more or less high levels of proficiency in the English language.
The need to learn English as an international lingua franca is often prompted by the small size of certain countries' domestic markets. Press, literature, TV and other forms of media in small countries operate with small budgets and lack both the financial means and human resources for translating foreign language productions, especially when it comes to the translation of scientific literature or other less marketable media products. It is for this very reason that in the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, proficiency in English is a necessary precondition for obtaining a good education and finding qualified jobs.
For former British colonies the English language is a historic legacy. In India, Malaysia and Singapore, English retained the status as an official language even after the disintegration of the British Empire because granting priority to a particular local language in such multi-ethnic and multi-language countries would have endangered peace and stability.
Among those countries that have been less successful in mastering English, according to the EF English First Proficiency Index, are those with large internal markets, which find the translation of foreign cultural and media products to be more or less cost effective. In contrast to the Netherlands and Sweden, where American films are broadcast with subtitles, in some large European countries (Germany, France, Italy and Spain), as well as Brazil, Russia, Turkey, et cetera, foreign movies and TV programs are dubbed in the respective national languages. This is an important impediment for learning English in those countries.
evertheless, the formation of English as a global lingua franca has produced the need for highly qualified professionals in every country to master English. Indeed, the academic and scientific literature of various narrow specializations is, in most cases, available in English alone.
English in European Union member states
In Georgia one often hears opinions about the necessity of knowing not only English but other foreign languages too. The teaching of foreign languages in the Georgian education system also rests on this presumption: the majority of public and private schools teach two or more foreign languages, regardless of the fact that the level of proficiency in foreign languages is rather low in our country and a large majority of children fail to comprehensively learn any foreign language at schools.
The European experience shows that despite several foreign languages being taught at schools, the number of those people who know a foreign language other than English is decreasing, whereas the number of those proficient in English has been increasing sharply in recent periods.
This trend is seen from the results of the Eurobarometer surveys conducted in the EU in 2005 and 2012. In all EU countries, except for the three Baltic States (Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia), the English language is the most common foreign language. Even in former communist Slavic countries (Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Bulgaria) where Russian was previously mandatory, the level of proficiency in the English language, according to the assessment of citizens from those countries, exceeds that of Russian. This trend is even more conspicuous amongst the younger population: even in the Baltic States those aged under 30 years know English better than Russian.
It is also interesting to consider "the necessity to know the language of a large neighbor" – an assertion often heard in Georgia to substantiate the need for knowledge of the Russian language. Finland, a five-million strong country with a 1,300-kilometer common border with Russia, was a de-facto USSR satellite during the Cold War. Finland's economy was so dependent on the USSR that the break up of the Soviet Union caused a 15% economic recession in Finland, worsening the welfare of its population. Nevertheless, in 2012, only 3% of Finns spoke Russian, whereas the share of English speaking Finns stood at 70%, and those speaking German comprised 18%. These indicators were almost the same in the 2005 Eurobarometer survey. The Russian language is only spread throughout the post-Soviet space, where it continues to perform the function of a lingua franca (in the vernacular of the USSR it was called the "language of inter-nation communication").
The European Union has led to a decrease in the level of proficiency of not only Russian, but also of German and French. This is not accidental. Globalization, which is underway in every sphere of life, requires knowledge of a single international language to enable people to communicate with the world outside the borders of their respective countries. As that language is English across the world, knowledge of other foreign languages becomes less useful.
The English language and prospects for Georgia's development
The English Proficiency Index and the Eurobarometer surveys make it obvious that countries with a population highly proficient in English are economically more advanced than their neighboring countries. English is an important tool for economic development because it facilitates the attraction of investments, the development of tourism and the establishment of trade relations with other countries. High levels of proficiency in English, along with retaining elements of British law in their legislation, make former British colonies more competitive than former French, Portuguese or other colonies, and have contributed to their fast economic growth.
An increase in the level of knowledge of English in Georgia will also have a positive impact on the prospects for economic development. It will become much easier to attract tourists and investors if Georgia has an English-speaking service sector – in other words, if Georgian public servants, lawyers, doctors, and hotel and restaurant service personnel are able to easily establish contact with visiting foreign guests who want to start a business or even those who have arrived for a holiday.
To achieve this goal it is necessary not only to encourage the broadcast of English-language movies with subtitles, but also to develop a clear and realistic education policy that will admit that, because the majority of schools in Georgia lack the necessary resources for teaching several foreign languages efficiently, it would instead be better to concentrate on teaching the main language of global communication.