They’re not kidding about this program being intensive. Somehow 15 hours of intensive lessons seemed so much less intense when I was sitting in America. Now that I’m in Georgia, I find that my brain is thinking about Georgian most of the time. When I’m lying in bed at night, I’m thinking about whether the word for woman starts with “k” or “k’” and other such issues that are suddenly important to my grasping this language.
I lived in a Georgian village for the 2011-2012 school year and picked up some Georgian by virtue of living there. I tried self-study, but between the emotional toll of living in a village where no one speaks your native language and the ease with which I could communicate my needs and wants in Russian, I did not put much effort into my self-imposed Georgian lessons. It did not help that anytime I started a conversation with a taxi driver, salesperson, or practically anyone in Georgian, it would take less than a minute for the conversation to switch to Russian, usually initiated by the other person. Plus, the Georgian verb system looked terrifying and incomprehensible. After going home to America and feeling Georgia’s magnetic pull for a year, I decided I needed to get serious about learning Georgian. My career goals involve Georgian down the road, but some days, I just want to know enough Georgian to understand my Facebook news feed. Thus, I thought a summer of intensive lessons on top of whatever I had gathered via immersion would give me a solid foundation in Georgian. I knew that was a good decision when just hearing Georgian at the Munich airport made me grin.
As I could only really use the verb “to be” and the commands necessary to keep a classroom of Georgian children relatively under control, I knew that this summer what I really needed to learn was verbs. I was actually looking forward to it, to be able to say complete sentences instead of using nouns, adjectives, adverbs, and pantomime. Two weeks into my program, I’m swimming in verbs. (As of yesterday, I can even say “I’m swimming”.) The linguist inside of me is thrilled. As an agglutinative language, there’s a compact brilliance to Georgian verbs. As someone who just wants to be able to explain where she went last weekend, the verbs are maddening, as there are prefixes and suffixes aplenty to remember. Some days I think Georgian is simple and logical. Other days I think no one in their right mind would put such consonant clusters together. I’m confident I’m using jaw muscles I never knew I had, trying desperately to get through words that seem unpronounceable at first glance. I’m also reminded of a linguistics group project I did as a freshman where we created a language and the rules we developed created words I was convinced were impossible in reality. Some Georgian words sound a lot like my made-up language, except they were not created by freshmen in a mental exercise but a real group of living, breathing people who actually communicate this way.
Learning Georgian is definitely a challenge, but one I’m really enjoying. When my teacher explains to me the roots involved in a word that seems both far too big and entirely impossible to say, it’s like she’s giving me a password to get into a club where people get this language. Those moments feel good. Even though some days I fear I might drown in Georgian verbs, I love spending hours getting to learn more of the language. Almost every day I learn something and think “So that’s what they were always saying!” or “Why could I not have learned this when I lived in the village. This is so useful!” Having lived surrounded by the language for a year, it’s a wonderful feeling to be given keys to communicate with the people around me in their native tongue. While it would have been nice to have all this knowledge while living in Georgia before, I’m also fully aware that I’m learning so much because I have great teachers who are teaching me how I learn best. While I’m still learning beginner phrases, my teachers are also explaining the linguistics behind certain suffixes, which both help me feel more like an adult and aid my understanding, since knowing the rules helps me understand the language better. My teachers, with my blessing, have me running through the lessons in my book, so that I’m being constantly challenged and also seeing a real expansion of my knowledge and ability despite only having eight weeks of lessons. I’ll finish the first level book at the end of my third week and feel like I finally have skills to have real conversations instead of simply being able to explain who I am and what I am doing in a Georgian village.
I went back to my old village this weekend. I felt so proud to be able to explain why I was there in Georgian instead of Russian. My former host family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues were all so delighted that I was learning Georgian, and it was also great to be back and realize that I already understood more of what was going on than I ever had before. When I lived in Georgia before, it was not hard to fall in love with the country, but the language always seemed like a thorn in my side. Now, as I start to understand it, I’m starting to fall in love with the language too.
By: Hannah Kay
Term: Summer 2013