The language we speak, the words and expressions we use, defines everything we do, from our culture and traditions to our relationships. Language can be used to unify—or divide—people, nations, ethnicities, and sub-ethnicities.
Nowhere is that more visible than in my hometown, in the Gali district of Abkhazia, a breakaway region in Georgia.
After the breakdown of the Soviet Union, Abkhazia declared independence. Today, following a bloody war over its status, the territory is de-facto governed by Abkhaz leaders. Most of the ethnic Georgian population, once the majority, fled to Georgian controlled territory. After 1994, when the situation in Abkhazia was alleviated, 40,000 - 60,000 Georgians returned to Gali and the district. However, due to barriers and challenges, many left. While there are no exact figures, it is estimated that between 27,000 - 40,000 remained throughout the municipality.
When I was growing up in Gali in the 2000s, ethnic Georgians still spoke the language freely: it was the language of instruction at most schools in the district and the language we spoke at home. But when I returned this summer after two years away during the pandemic, I noticed a sharp change. My childhood town was different—the mood and atmosphere were heavier. I felt like a stranger.
As I walked the familiar streets, soaking in the aroma of fresh cut grass—a signature note of my childhood—one of the most vivid changes was the use of Russian. I realized even the children spoke Russian, not Georgian or Megrelian, a distinct language native to Samegrelo, another region of Georgia that neighbors Abkhazia. I couldn't understand how their parents allowed this to happen. What was clear was that Georgia was no longer used for daily communication. Instead, adults and children rely on a mix of Georgian, Megrelian and Russian—three very different languages—to express their thoughts.
“A sad thing is happening to us in Gali,” notes Ana, a local resident.
“We, Georgians who live here, have lost our identity and language. The only thing that keeps us together is that we talk to each other in Megrelian...[People] do not see why they should speak Georgian… "
Linguist Diana Kakashvili believes that language is the most powerful tool to forge a sense of belonging in a community.
"Language and culture are inseparable parts of each other. And we cannot say language determines culture or culture determines language,” she says. “Values are completely embedded in language. Even if we consider greetings, we will notice who says ‘peace’ and who says ‘hello’ – this demonstrates how language can reflect culture. If I have no common language with a social group, it is hard to feel that I belong to that group."
Ana says her family still makes the effort to speak Georgian at home, especially with her son, who is five.
"I've thought over the language a lot. This is an important topic for me and all Georgians living in Abkhazia. First, I would like to emphasize that I am speaking Georgian here not to prove something to someone but to know who I am,” she says. “A person learns her identity through self-awareness, so to speak, personality.”
But ensuring her son speaks his native language fluently is an uphill battle.
After Abkhazia became a de-facto state following the 1992-1993 war, there was a push in the region to promote the Abkhazian language, also a distinct language that does not resemble Georgian, Megrelian or Russian.
After Abkhazia became a de-facto state following the 1992-1993 war, there was a push in the region to promote the Abkhazian language. Due to the lack of resources in Abkhazian, however, Russian became the lingua franca in government and schools. In Gali, schools in several villages maintained Georgian as the teaching language, however. That changed in 2015, when Abkhazian authorities announced a transition to the Russian language curriculum for all schools.
The new policy left only an hour for the Georgian literature lesson throughout Gali Municipality. Most teachers have a Georgian education, and the transition to the Russian curriculum wasn't easy for them or their students. For example, students in the upper classes who studied everything in the Georgian language for years, suddenly switched to foreign - Russian language studies. Seven years later, the impact is clear.
Ana sees first-hand how the policy is affecting young Georgians when she takes her son to kindergarten.
“Eighty percent of Georgian children do not speak Georgian. The children and the teachers understand Georgian, but their language of communication is Russian because they are not allowed to speak in Georgian,” she says. “I think more flexibility is needed on the side of Abkhazians to enable us to speak our language. That would make things easier for them too."
Shalva Tabatadze, an education specialist, notes that language - especially the language of instruction - has long been a sensitive issue with Abkhazians.
"There was always an argument like ‘Georgians canceled our Abkhazian schools in 1945-1953.’ If you consider this a problem, how can you support what is happening now in Gali? How can this policy be implemented if you consider yourself an independent state that respects human rights and civil development? The only argument was that Georgian is not the native language of the population, but Megrelian is. We argued that limiting others' mother tongue is barbaric. Working on this issue is very important,” he said, adding that the Georgian government also needs to do more.
"Our problem is that our [Georgian] authorities had no idea, no policies or programs in terms of supporting and strengthening the native language in the Gali region in the context of the de-facto situation. They only react to what the de-facto government is doing alongside Russia."
Some successful Georgian initiatives, such as encouraging young people from Gali to enroll in universities in Georgian-controlled territory and opening free Georgian language courses in Samegrelo, which neighbors Gali, had a positive impact.
From 2011-2015, 120 school children crossed into Samegrelo to attend the courses every day. Stricter Abkhaz policies to restrict “border” crossings, coupled with the pandemic, have made it nearly impossible for the children to continue their Georgian education, however.
Tabatadze argues that the Georgian government lost an opportunity when they did not immediately provide practical solutions for Gali residents.
"Since 2015, when the final year of Georgian education was announced, the online education process should have begun immediately in Gali. E-learning and distance learning is progress, and the future of the education system and this tool should also be used for Gali,” Tabatadze says.
In the absence of such policies, parents like Ana are largely left to their own devices. Linguist Kakashvili warns the impact will be felt by generations.
“Imagine how difficult it is when you lose your language,” she says. "The Russian-Megrelian-Georgian language environment will affect a child's cultural affiliation."
Ana worries that the Georgian language has already disappeared. “The language is no longer in active use,” she says.
“If nurturing and love for the language do not come from the family, this love disappears, and one of the hallmarks of your identity is lost, and you lose yourself. And no matter how many languages you learn, it still won't compensate for the loss of not knowing and not using your native language.”
This feature story was prepared with support from the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) South Caucasus Regional Office. All opinions expressed are the author’s alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of FES or Chai Khana.
This Feature Article was produced in the framework of Chai Khana Fellowship program - Summer/Autumn 2022