Georgia Launches English Revolution

Local educationalists question value of recruiting untrained language assistants abroad.

Georgia Launches English Revolution

Local educationalists question value of recruiting untrained language assistants abroad.

Friday, 10 September, 2010

The authorities in Georgia are planning to teach every child in the country to speak English, and have invited in 1,000 foreigners to spearhead what they call an “educational revolution”.

The programme, intended to improve teaching standards as well as links between Georgia and the West, has not met with universal praise, as many experts saying the foreign teaching assistants are not up to the job.

Daniella Smith, a 20-year-old from America, is one of the first wave of teachers, of whom around 100 have arrived to date.

After spending her first few days in the country on a series of excursions arranged by the education ministry, she said, “I didn’t know much about Georgia…. But what I’ve seen has exceeded my expectations. I have a small amount of experience of teaching English to children, and I will have training here and will happily work with Georgian children.”

The teachers will receive health insurance, accommodation in local families, work trips, tickets for a holiday and a monthly salary of 500 laris.

Addressing the first group of teachers, Education Minister Dmitry Shashkin said, “The standard of foreign-language teachers in the provinces is not very high. Therefore, you will not only teach English to children, but also help teachers improve their skills. You will not only be part of the learning process, but also talk with the local community, exchange opinions with them, learn about Georgian culture, and introduce them to Western democratic values,”

The new arrivals will assist the full-time teaching staff rather than conduct classes themselves.

Some educational experts are violently opposed to the programme. Levan Gvinjilia, a professor at the Arnold Chikobava Institute of Linguistics, said letting untrained assistants loose in the classroom is not “just a mistake, it’s a crime”.

“You can see yourselves that those who’ve come here on this programme so far are an average 18 to 20 years old. What experience or educational knowledge can you expect from them?” he asked.

Gvinjilia said the two weeks’ training provided for the teaching assistants was inadequate. "It’s bad that no one is thinking about training for the teachers who already work in the schools, or about the children,” he added.

Georgian teachers seemed to be slightly confused by how the programme will work. Marina Cheishvili has taught English for more than 15 years, and is about to get a foreign assistant.

“Conversational English is best taught by a person for whom the language is native, but we need a programme for that. The number of teaching hours hasn’t increased, and I think that conversations with our foreign guest will take up a lot of time. And anyway, I don’t really have a clear idea how we will teach a language as a pair,” she said.

Opposition politicians picked up on the affair as well. David Zurabishvili, one of the leaders of the Republican Party, was sharply critical of the government for thinking that foreigners could teach English better than Georgians.

“Don’t the authorities like Georgian teachers’ accents? This is… a bit offensive, to be honest,” he said. “No leader of any self-respecting country would bring 10,000 people over from America so that children would speak with a pronounced New Jersey accent.”

Maia Siprashvili, the coordinator of the project, which the government has called “Teach and Learn with Georgia”, said the new arrivals had all the skills needed for the role assigned to them.

“The Peace Corps programme in Georgia already has 400 volunteers teaching English, and there has been clear progress in the regions where they’ve been working,” she said. “Our research shows that in countries like Japan and South Korea, where such programmes already exist, the advent of foreign volunteers has had a positive impact on English-language standards.”

Knowledge of English is certainly considered a useful skill by employers, judging by job adverts on the main Georgian websites.

Professor Gvinjilia is annoyed at this, too, arguing that Georgian is losing out as a result.

“Knowledge of the national language is less and less in demand, and as a result fewer and fewer Georgians have good Georgian, especially in areas inhabited by ethnic minorities. It would be better for our government to concern itself primarily with raising standards of knowledge of the national language,” he said.

Daniella Smith has already picked up the Georgian for “thanks”, “cool” and “I love you”, and intends to learn more.

Critics of the programme argue, however, that the teaching assistants may gain more from the programme than the schoolchildren. They say the government should reveal the cost of the programme, which is being funded partly by the education ministry and partly by foreign donors.

“Even if the programme wasn’t being financed out of the state budget, it should be transparent anyway,” Tamar Kordzaia, head of the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, said.

Siprashvili, however, was adamant that the project was intended to be long-term.

“We are accepting volunteers for next year. We want all Georgian schools to be included in this project and, as the president said, to create an English-speaking generation,” she said.

Nino Chanturia works for the Georgian Association of Regional Broadcasters.

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