I was asked on my placement test before arriving to Georgia how I imagined the relationship between my Russian language studies and my future. A big question, I have to say, for an answer that is expected to be less than a minute long. My first reaction in answering this question was to focus on tangible career goals. I said that I see a future where I can speak Russian regularly and solve problems with the aid of my cultural and linguistic understanding. It was a clean, simple, and neutral response and is by no means far from the truth. While on this program I hope to further develop my Russian language skills to enable me to speak Russian in a professional environment one day.
However, this question got me thinking.
Now, as I write this blog post while looking out at the Georgian countryside on a train from Tbilisi to Batumi, I can’t help but wrestle with what exactly a future with my Russian language studies will look like beyond my career goals. What the relationship my academic goals have with my Russian language study and what my personal goals are while on this program. Learning a language is a new life, a new understanding of the world, and its impact bleeds beyond the walls of a classroom or conference room.
Being in Georgia for such a short time already has opened my eyes to the possibilities, limitations, and geopolitical baggage that studying Russian can introduce. In the big cities of Georgia, such as Tbilisi or Batumi, daily life is functionally trilingual: most people speak Georgian as a first language and have a functional knowledge (no matter how begrudgingly) of English and Russian or Turkish. It feels like a social minefield sometimes, entering a restaurant with a gamarjoba and waiting to see if they continue in Russian or English. It is interesting speaking with my host mother, grandmother, and new Georgian friends about their opinions, experiences, and perceptions of the world. And how these conversations differ depending on whether we speak Russian or English together.
I think that in the few days that I have been here my personal and academic goals for my time in Georgia have shifted from “make friends and do my homework” to being meaningful with my Russian language interaction and investigating the impacts of Soviet language and culture policies more than thirty years after the fall of the USSR. In what ways can speaking Russian aid in cultural understanding and in what ways can it exacerbate difficult histories? What is the best way to negotiate these tensions while still building meaningful relationships? How can I use my Russian language skills to better understand the complex histories and cultures of Eastern Europe, the Caucuses and Central Asia that is often overshadowed by Russian cultural history? And, most importantly, how can I use my Russian to tell my host grandmother that it is literally impossible for me to have a fourth serving of khachapuri but that it is still the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten?
I aim to think about these very difficult questions from both an academic and historical perspective, but also through my personal relationships with new friends and with my relationship to the Russian language as I progress through my time here in Georgia.
Language is political and I feel it every day on the streets of Batumi.
Until next time!