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The Language Barrier: the Ongoing Challenge to Provide Decent Education to Georgia’s Minority Schoolchildren

Education was meant to be the means Georgia would achieve the civic integration of its ethnic minority communities. As Tamar Burduli discovered, there is still a long way to go.

Georgians are proud of the country’s tradition of inter-ethnic tolerance. Some 16% of the country’s population are ethnic minorities, mostly Armenians and Azerbaijanis, and Tbilisi’s old town, with its synagogue, mosque, Armenian and Georgian churches all crowded together, is seen as a symbol of the country’s multicultural harmony. But for most minority communities the reality is different. The bulk of Georgia’s Armenians and Azerbaijanis live in rural, monoethnic settlements in the south and east of the country. They are isolated from the rest of Georgian society, most obviously by language: 74% of native Azerbaijani speakers and 51% of native Armenian speakers do not speak Georgian fluently. Minorities look to Baku or Yerevan (or to Russia) rather than Tbilisi for opportunities for work and study and there is large-scale emigration. Since 2005, Georgia has seen education as the primary means to integrate its minority population: by providing them with Georgian language skills and quality education, it is thought minorities will be able to find good jobs or go to university in Georgia, hastening the civic integration of the country.

The results of the efforts of the last fifteen years have been mixed. As part of the U.S. Embassy-funded Georgian Educational Advocacy Project, we combed through reams of quantitative and qualitative data and spoke to a dozen of teachers and parents to examine the issues ethnic minorities face in general education. The results showed that in spite of some progress, there are multiple challenges faced by non-Georgian students.

There are currently over 80,000 students from minority backgrounds studying in Georgian schools, representing around 14% of the total student body. Most of these students study at one of 208 non-Georgian schools, or one of 83 Georgian schools with non-Georgian sectors. Efforts to improve the Georgian language skills and the overall level of educational attainment of minorities in Georgia are longstanding. The first textbooks to teach Georgian as a Second Language were created as far back as in 2005.

Other efforts include teacher training programs by Teachers’ Professional Development Center (TPDC) and the Zurab Zhvania School of Public Administration, a project for the professional development of school principals in their preferred language, the introduction of bilingual teaching and teacher training, the assignment of Georgian-speaking consultant-teachers to non-Georgian schools and the improvement of textbooks. These efforts have coincided with reforms to Georgia’s education sector overall, which includes the reconstruction of rural schools and increases in teachers’ salaries.

But in spite of this, there still exists a huge educational attainment gap between ethnic Georgians and minorities. In 2016, 56% of Azerbaijani language school and 44% of Armenian language school students failed their final exams, compared to just a quarter of Georgian students. A quarter of ethnic minority applicants failed their university entrance exams in 2018 compared to 13% of Georgian speakers.

Not speaking Georgian is an overarching issue. Since most ethnic minorities live in monoethnic minority settlements, for children, primary school is where they first encounter Georgian. From six years old they start to learn Georgian as a second language, followed at secondary school by several other subjects in Georgian (history, geography and social sciences). But from their first day at school, minority children face difficulties: parents cannot help their children with Georgian subjects at home because they do not speak Georgian. Children often need parental engagement in homework, especially in primary school, so ethnic minority schoolchildren are at a greater disadvantage. The situation is even more difficult given that many teachers in non-Georgian schools do not speak fluent Georgian themselves, meaning that children are often left alone with textbooks and difficult terminology.

“Even when there are bilingual textbooks, often teachers do not speak Georgian, which creates further problems,” said one teacher from the predominantly Azerbaijani town of Marneuli. “If the teacher does not know Georgian, they are unable to transfer knowledge in either language.”

As a result, many ethnic minority parents prefer their children to go to Georgian instead of non-Georgian schools – in total 32,000 or 40% of ethnic minority schoolchildren go to Georgian schools. This is a good solution for some students, who are more immersed in the Georgian-language environment. But, as one teacher from Gori municipality explained, without extra efforts from teachers, minority students’ education can suffer both in Georgian and in their native language.

“Due to the language problems many children from our non-Georgian school would transfer to the Georgian school. The parents understood that their kids would be unable to progress in life without knowing the Georgian language, so they would transfer them there. But then the child was in shock – twenty-five children in the class, five non-Georgian kids, the teacher would not even think about paying proper attention to them, so the children would remain without knowledge, without skills. After a few years they would realize that they are unable to study there and would come back to Azerbaijani school, but by then without proper knowledge of either Azerbaijani or Georgian.”

This points towards another issue: the fact that instruction in minority languages can also be problematic.  Georgia does not produce Armenian or Azerbaijani language and literature textbooks, so they have to be imported from neighboring Armenia and Azerbaijan. Because these countries have an 11-grade school system, final year students in the Georgian K12 system are left “without a book” for their native languages and have to repeat the 11-grade material.

Making matters worse is the fact that, as pension-age teachers retire every year with no one to replace them, some teachers have to cover subjects for which they have no training. In spite of extensive need and multiple vacancies, especially in sciences, it has proved persistently difficult to attract minorities to the teaching profession. This might be because lack of Georgian language knowledge prevents minority teachers from advancing up the career ladder as they struggle with language tests — even if they teach a non-Georgian subject.

“There is no teaching exam in the Azerbaijani language. This creates big problems for teachers. You can’t move forward. I have been working since 2016 and I am still a Teacher Seeker [a type of trainee]. Teachers of [minority] language and literature don’t have the opportunity to pass their exam and move forward in the career advancement scheme,” said a minority teacher from Gori Municipality. This, in turn, deters many minority-Georgians from going into the teaching profession.

In order to try to remedy this, since 2009 Georgian-speaking teaching assistants and consultants have been dispatched to some minority schools. However, studies by the Social Justice Center found “no significant difference in the achievements of the students with whom these teachers work.” The report found that these “consultant-teachers” worked with only 15% of non-Georgian students, and that half of the consultant teachers left the job after a year. Furthermore, lack of Georgian language knowledge deters minority teachers from advancing in career scheme as they struggle with Georgian-language tests, which, in turn, might partially explain the low general interest in the profession. While it is clear that there remains much to be done for the Georgian education system to improve standards for minority pupils, there are other factors at play that result in educational inequalities. Lower school attendance and a high dropout rate is another huge problem. Students from non-Georgian schools predominate among those who drop out of school. Economic and cultural issues, such as child labor and early marriage greatly affect their access to general education. Boys tend to be taken out of class for seasonal agriculture-related work, while girls in some communities drop out for marriage, as one teacher from a non-Georgian school in Telavi municipality explained.

“The tendency is that when children reach a certain age, mostly after the 9th grade, they pay less attention to education. Early marriage is an accepted custom. Also, they [boys] go away for work.”

It is likely that one of the most effective ways to mitigate the socio-economic conditions that lead to early marriage and child labor is through education. Yet in spite of more than ten years of intensive effort on the part of the government and international institutions, and multiple attempts at reform, it is clear that there remains a huge attainment gap for Georgia’s ethnic minority students. While things such as funding, employment opportunities and teaching materials appear to be improving, it is clear that the pace of these improvements is slower than one would expect, resulting in meagre overall improvements in Georgian language knowledge and overall educational attainment. This is an issue that must be addressed if Georgia is to live up to its reputational of inter-ethnic tolerance and successfully integrate its minority communities.

This article is written under the Georgian Educational Advocacy Project, which is funded by a grant from the United States Department of State. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State, or Civil.ge.

This post is also available in: ქართული (Georgian)

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