I did not come to Georgia solely to learn Georgian. I came to intensively study Chechen and, as someone who enjoys learning languages and wants to work in the Caucasus, thought that being able to also learn Georgian was a great bonus opportunity. Between Russian and English, I can get by in taxis and shops and basic conversations with almost everyone, but it seems like disrespectful not to even try to learn the language of the country I live in. And without the local language you can only ever really experience the surface of a place and its culture. I knew very little about Georgian as a language before my arrival. Turns out it’s hard. Very, very hard. Almost as hard as Chechen. But my reasons for learning Chechen, my long term goals for the language, are solid and help motivate me to stay up at night memorizing verb forms that are governed by no rules, no rules at all. My motivations for learning Georgian are newer, not quite as solid yet. There are days when I just want to throw up my hands and give up on the language. These are the days where living in Tbilisi, being immersed in the language and culture, is vital. When I lose sight of the big picture, it gives me small reasons, daily motivations not to give up.
There is a small café/restaurant that I go to every Thursday night with a group of foreign girls. We go to banya, the baths, around the corner beforehand and then have dinner at Alani. I have gone every week but two since I arrived in September and the woman who runs the place knows us, knows me. Somehow I’ve become the designated “orderer” for the table, and from listening to me doubtlessly mispronouncing words and butchering grammar in an attempt to get two bowls of the red sauce rather than just one, it must be painfully obvious to everyone working there that I have a very tenuous hold on the language. Despite this, for the last several months, the manager has started to sit down with us when things are slow and chat. She speaks no English, no Russian. I can understand the gist of what she says usually (she’s talking about her sons, my loud laugh), but never the details. I can respond with smiles, simple questions and exclamations, but then my language skills run out. She doesn’t seem bothered by it, and it certainly doesn’t stop her from continuing to talk to me, but I hate the feeling of not being able to fully engage. When she asks me what’s new, if I’ve found a husband yet, how school is going, I want to answer the way she answers me: fully and expressively, rather than monosyllabically. When my Georgian homework makes me want to throw my book at the wall, the moment when future career plans or linguistic interest seem much less important than ending my frustration, I think about how much I want to be able to talk to this woman whose name I don’t even know, and that motivates me to open the book back up and try again.
Every language learner has long-term goals and objectives that motivate the learning process and they run the gamut from wanting to speak the same language as your boyfriend to wanting to read your favorite book in the original language to wanting to work as an interpreter at the UN. Learning a language is rarely a simple undertaking, and no one gets very far if they don’t know why they’re doing it. But even if you have a strong motivation and important language goals, it is impossible not to feel discouraged and frustrated. There are periods where you feel as if you’re learning nothing, making no progress, not understanding anything. Everyone has days when they lose sight of why they started learning, days when they feel like it’s just not worth it. While having big, long term goals and important reasons for learning a new language are vital, there are times when having smaller, more personal and immediately rewarding goals are also necessary. Both the levels of frustration and motivation are much higher when you are living immersed in the language. Everyday activities become at once a both a struggle and also an impetus to learn.
By: Ruth Grossman
Term: Spring 2013