Inviting Linguistic Colonization?

This New York Times story today, out of Georgia, becomes an interesting twist on a fight to assert (linguistic) independence. Russia has been the colonial authority in Georgia for decades, and as in many other former Soviet satellites, Russian generations ago became the de facto language of power:

During the Soviet era, the Communists used the Russian language to bind the nation’s far-flung regions, requiring it as the second — and sometimes primary — language from Estonia to Uzbekistan. But since the Soviet Union collapsed two decades ago, many of the former Soviet republics have elevated their own languages and marginalized Russian in order to bolster their independence and national identities.

The influence of Russian is retreating. Rather than seek to assert Georgian, however–the most spoken language in the country–Georgia has instead sought English teachers to help to replace Russian:

The goal is to make Georgia a country where English is as common as in Sweden — and in the process to supplant Russian as the dominant second language. . . . Many Georgians older than 40 readily speak Russian, while the young people who have come of age under Mr. Saakashvili are often more interested in English. The government is intent on hastening that trend.

Certainly, especially after the 2008 conflict, problems more directly worrisome than linguistic influence are at stake in the relationship with Russia. The interesting thing about English here, though, is that it seems to be culturally neutral, or culturally malleable to this country’s circumstances, or perhaps even culturally inert–that is, it’s just a tool, not a constellation of cultural influences. The key is its ability to provide economic mobility: it can help to pry off Russian influence and open up economic independence.

I would ask further questions, though, as a student of how language and culture interact: what kind of cultural accessories do the Georgians imagine traveling with English (if any?) Is it a desired cultural influence? (The positive reaction of students to teachers might make one think so–here are some stories by teachers there.) Or is a political balance being struck–so that the key is not precisely the desired influence of English, but just to mitigate the legacy of Russian?


Author: Derrick Pitard

I teach medieval and early modern literature, the history of the language, introductions to literature, Latin, and writing at Slippery Rock University.

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