Tuesday, July 29, 2008


From June 2007 through June 2008, I was fortunate enough to live and study, at first, in Tbilisi, Georgia (~9 months), and then Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan (~3 months). [If you are interested in my travels, please visit my travel blog]

Before coming to Georgia, I knew only the alphabet and a few basic phrases. While this may seem like little, it was an ideal level of knowledge for someone like me who was about to have lessons in an immersion environment--too little, and I would have wasted my time in Georgia with the rather mechanical task of learning the alphabet and sounds; too much, and I would have wasted time in the States inefficiently laboring over what could be practiced, actively used in Georgia. For most of my time in Georgia, I lived with a wonderful non-English speaking family and had private Georgian lessons through the highly recommended International Center for Georgian Language (ICGL). Over the course of my almost 9 months in Georgia, I slowly began to gain fluency in this sometimes absurdly difficult language.

Towards the end of my 6th month in Georgia, after giving up my ill-fated career as a student at the Tbilisi State Medical University, I began to take private Russian lessons concurrently with my Georgian studies. Unlike my experience with Georgian, I had been exposed to the Russian language before as a first year at college. The class I took then was called "Russian through Pushkin," and as the title suggests, it involved lots of reading and translating, yet, unfortunately, little conversation. I discovered that, while I thought I had completely forgotten all of my Russian, it came back to me rather quickly, and after 3 months, I was already venturing into new territory.

As a former republic of the Soviet Union, Georgia is often mistakenly assumed to be a bilingual, Georgian/Russian-speaking country. But this simply isn't the case. In fact, even during the times of the Soviet Union, Georgia was so proud of its "monolinguality", that when the Kremlin tried to make Russian the state language (as it had done successfully in all the other republics), the streets of Tbilisi filled with demonstrators. Of course, this isn't to say that Georgians don't know Russian. Georgians are in fact great linguists (perhaps somehow as a result of the complexity of their own language? I know that in my own experience, learning Russian seemed like learning English with an accent after having studied Georgian!) and many can speak three if not more languages, and Russian is the second language in most cases. But in Georgia, people speak Georgian to one another. Not Russian, not English. (I'm not counting the ethnic minorities in Georgia who indeed speak languages other than Georgian.)

So, while I was making good progress re-learning Russian grammar, I was faced once again with the same flaw of my first-year Russian class: I wasn't speaking Russian. And though my Russian teacher encouraged me to use Russian in my daily interactions with the locals, it felt awkward forcing myself to speak in a language I didn't know very well to people who regarded that language as a second or third language when I could just speak to them much more comfortably in their native tongue. I needed to be taken out of my comfort zone and forced to speak Russian.

Which is why I ended up in Kyrgyzstan. In contrast to Georgia, Kyrgyzstan was successfully Russified. Before I left Georgia, I had heard that in Kyrgyzstan, particularly in the capital, Bishkek, just about everyone spoke Russian--not just with foreigners but even with each other. I immediately found this to be true when I arrived at Manas Airport in Bishkek: the entirely ethnically Kyrgyz consular staff that issued my visa spoke amongst themselves solely in Russian. As I later learned from my teachers at the very well-run and inexpensive London School in Bishkek, the first language in Bishkek is Russian. Even many ethnic Kyrgyz in Bishkek have only a elementary grasp of their own Kyrgyz language! Combined with the relative low-cost of living and lessons and the breathtaking beauty of Central Asia, Bishkek turned out to be the best place for me to learn Russian.

Now, I am back in relatively dull America, preparing to return to the University of Chicago in September to finish my final two years of college. Before I left for Georgia a year ago, I was a declared Chemistry major. But having discovered my love for Eurasia and its languages, I've decided to pursue a double concentration of Chemistry and Russian (there is not, unfortunately and not surprisingly, a Georgian concentration available at the U of C) in hopes that I won't forget at least one of the languages I learned during my year abroad.

It's for the same reason that I've created this blog: the hope is that by translating works--articles, poems, short stories--that interest me, I will continue to improve both my Russian and Georgian. And for those of you who have found this blog, I hope I can provide you with a different perspective on a fascinating, yet often misrepresented, region of the world.


PS Tarjimani (თარჯიმანი) is Georgian for "translator."


laura sue said...

Wow! You are such an over acheiver! HAHA! Good for you Ryan.
I'm kicking myself that I didn't know about ICGL sooner!
I'm still contemplating learning Russian too...
Hey what about translating Russian articles about Georgia, namely issues with Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. It would be interesting to see the spin, in comparison to the Western and Georgian spin on the issue(s).

Ryan Erickson said...

Don't worry, I plan to focus on the conflicts. Check out my most recent post...