Georgian and Ossetian Language Schools in South Ossetia


This article reviews the current state of instruction in Georgian and Ossetian language schools in South Ossetia.

General Picture

Even though Ossetians are the “majority” in South Ossetia, the teaching of and in the Ossetian language still can be viewed as a matter of “minority” language education since it is a gravely neglected problem. Unlike the Georgian language, Ossetian does not act as a comprehensive language of instruction in schools in South Ossetia. There are no TV channels or radio programs in the Ossetian language. For many, the use of the Ossetian language in the education system, in record-keeping, as well as in literature and arts, is one of the most urgent issues in South Ossetia and for all Ossetians in general.

As a matter of fact, the struggle for independence was born partly out of the growing frustrations around the issue of language. The first unrests and protests started in 1989 after a number of the official institutions of the South Ossetian Autonomous Republic[1] (including educational ones such as the Pedagogical Institute, the scientific institutes, and schools) received typewriters with Georgian fonts, while Cyrillic characters were used in the Ossetian language. The majority of South Ossetians believe that this step of the leadership of the Georgian Soviet Socialist Republic (Georgian SSR) largely determined the subsequent course of the Georgian-Ossetian relations.

Assistance in the preservation of the language[2] in South Ossetia might have had a positive impact on these relations, since previously the adoption of various alphabets for the Ossetian language had aggravated the language issue. During the years of the Soviet rule, the alphabet for the Ossetian language was changed at least[3] twice. It was changed from Latin characters to Georgian ones in 1938 and to Cyrillic ones in 1989. In fact, twice in one century, the population of South Ossetia was rendered “illiterate” and had to regain literacy. For the older generations, this was a difficult task, and often they were not able to acquire the use of the new script.

According to Ossetian academician and proponent of teaching all school subjects in the Ossetian language Nafi Dzhussoyty, there are two fundamental categories in the command and proficiency of a language – the knowledge of the language itself and the sense of the language. Citing examples from his graduate student life, Dzhussoyty writes that he could outplay his fellow writers in the knowledge of rarely used Russian words – neologisms, jargon, etc. Nevertheless, Dzhussoyty wrote prose and poetry in the Ossetian language, considering that in addition to the semantics of the word, it is important to know, and in fact, to feel its aesthetic component. Dzhussoyty, who graduated from an Ossetian school where the language of instruction was Ossetian till Grade 7, believes that these nuances can be picked up only in childhood.

Until the 1970s, along with Russian schools, there were also Ossetian and Georgian schools in South Ossetia. In the mid-1970s, there were two Georgian schools in Tskhinval[4] – school N1 and N4. At that point already, the city did not have Ossetian schools. According to a survey of teachers in Tskhinval, currently there are no Ossetian schools in the city or in the regions.

Societal criticism targeting the lack of proper attention to the Ossetian language in the education system has been increasing. The general state of the language does not show substantial trends of improvement, but the organization of the education system, the teaching of the Ossetian language, as well as the format and implementation of the educational programs is not as severe as is often presented.

For three years now, the rural schools are using the teaching system developed by one of the professors of the North Ossetian Research Institute Tamerlan Kambolov. This polylingual-polycultural methodology was developed for the schools of the so-called “small peoples”. This methodology was positively acclaimed in the scientific circles not only in Russia but also on the international level. A UNESCO grant was awarded for the implementation of Kambolov’s methodology. According to experts, this methodology allows to preserve and develop the identity of “small peoples” when it comes to language. To date, this methodology has already been implemented across the North Caucasus – from Dagestan and Chechnya to Karachay-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria. Interestingly, Kambolov’s methodology was also adopted in Tatarstan even though the Tatar language belongs to a group that does not qualify to be called a “small people” on the territory of Tatarstan. This points to the effectiveness of the methodology in regions where there are problems with the preservation of the local population’s language.

What makes this methodology attractive and effective? All subjects at the primary level are to be taught in the local language – in this case in the Ossetian language – from natural sciences to math. When the local language is the language of instruction at the primary level, a child not only studies the language but also starts exploring the world using this language – numbers and counting, names of plants and animals, geographical terminology and toponymy, and many other things. In South Ossetia, for the primary level, this method foresees also an English language textbook that does not include an “intermediary” language and works directly between English and Ossetian. According to child psychologists and methodologists in the field of primary education, this approach provides a solid base for the language that will not be easily forgotten. Subsequently, even the absence of further language practice and the repeated study of the same subjects in another language – in this case in Russian – is not detrimental to the knowledge of the language. This methodology is also consistent with Dzhussoyty’s thesis about feeling the language, a skill that can be picked up only in childhood.

However, the implementation of this methodology was not easy. The supporters of this system were severely criticized, even by colleagues, and were accused of the desire to use the funding allocated to this new methodology for their personal interests. Parent protests, collective petitions, and marches to the Ministry of Education became common. Parents were concerned that after completing a course of study in Ossetian and graduating from school, their children will not be able to pass the state exams or enter Russian universities, or even the Russian language university in South Ossetia. Currently the Ministry of Education is carrying out an information campaign, and specialists try to reassure parents that students in the middle and high school grades will retake the same subjects in the Russian language on a much advanced level, and thus there should not be any issues with pursuing education at the university level.

Instruction in the Ossetian language is closely related to the teaching of the history of Ossetia. In this case, even the opponents of instruction in the Ossetian language agree that this subject should be taught in Ossetian and resent the fact that the history of South Ossetia is being taught in Russian. Many believe that the teaching of this subject in Ossetian will also help to enrich and make the process of learning the Ossetian language more interesting for the students.

The knowledge of the Ossetian language in Georgian villages is another aspect of the complex situation around language in South Ossetia. Ossetians who lived in Georgian villages before 2008 usually do not master Ossetian. This is particularly true in the Leningor[5] district that was under Georgian control before 2008 and had been renamed into Akhalgori. Practically no programs on teaching the Ossetian language in the district and in Leningor itself were implemented despite Georgia’s strategy on the creation of an alternative Republic of South Ossetia within Georgia. After almost twenty years, the residents of this area lost their Ossetian language skills altogether. As a result, it was difficult to teach the language to adults. In this regard, things are much better with the students of primary schools. A special program on teaching the Ossetian language was developed for them. An important aspect of this curriculum is that unlike the other districts of South Ossetia, the Georgian language is taught as a second language instead of the Russian language.

South Ossetian authorities are also working on creating conditions for teaching the Georgian language to children in Georgian villages beyond the Leningor district. This includes several villages of the Znaur[6] and Tskhinval districts, the villages of the Dzau[7] district, the remote mountain villages of Karzman[8] and Sinagur[9], along with those in the Leningor district. Students have the opportunity to attend Georgian schools that often host teachers from Georgia who are allowed to cross the border. These schools use textbooks published in Georgia for all subjects except history. The Ministry of Education of South Ossetia is currently working on the edited version of the textbook on the History of Modern Georgia. The chapters that present Russia and the USSR as “occupiers” and “aggressors” are being edited. During an interview for this article, a representative of the Ministry of Education said that the Ministry is working on this textbook to comply it to the epigraph of the textbook on the history of the Georgian SSR that contains a quote from Ivane Javakhishvili, “Every people must know the history of its social life without exaggeration and fabrication”. However, it can be assumed that in the new textbook, Georgia will be portrayed not in the best light.

Overall the current problems in the language policies in South Ossetia are linked to the heritage of the previous era. During the Soviet rule, Ossetian was not simply a minority language, but a language of a quasi-minority with a corresponding attitude toward it on the part of the republican and union centers – Tbilisi and Moscow. Despite the change in South Ossetia’s political status, the “big brothers” still view the Ossetian language as a “national minority” language and this attitude leads to the complexity of the current situation.

The Situation in Leningor/Akhalgori

There are only 11 schools in the Leningor/Akhalgori district. Out of these, 6 are Georgian and 5 are Russian schools. The Georgian schools are in the town of Leningor/Akhalgori and in the villages of Ikot/i, Bol/i, Akhmadz/Akhmadji, Korinta and Balaan/i. There is only one Russian school in Leningor/Akhalgori, and the rest are in the villages of Dzukantkari, Tsinagar/i, Zakkor/Zakhori and Orchosan/i.

Since 1990 up until the war in 2008, the Ossetian-Russian secondary school and kindergarten in the village of Tsinagar/i were financed by the Georgian government. However, despite the approved budget, the financing stopped in September 2008. Perhaps, this was a politically motivated decision of Georgia’s leadership of that time.

The Ministry of Education and Science of Georgia provides Georgian schools with textbooks that get stored in the school libraries. They are being used on a voluntary basis. The school curriculum in Georgian schools is developed by the Ministry of Education of Georgia. The Ministry of Education of South Ossetia supplies Russian schools with textbooks, as well as develops the curriculum.

Georgian schools are attended mainly by ethnic Georgians and those Ossetians who plan on getting higher education in Tbilisi. At the same time, Georgians who are looking into getting higher education in Tskhinval/i or Russia choose to study in Russian schools.

The Georgian Ministry of Education also finances training programs and teachers’ salaries in all Georgian and one Russian school. In one particular case, it was necessary to submit a special request to the ministry.

As far as other regions of South Ossetia are concerned, there was only one Georgian school in the Znaur/Kornisi district, which was financed by the South Ossetian authorities. Unfortunately, we were unable to find out if this school still functions.

After graduation from Georgian schools, the Ministry of Education of South Ossetia issues diplomas that are later officially certified in Tbilisi.

School events are held in the Georgian language in Georgian schools and in the Russian language in Russian schools. In case the event is of the district level, a program is usually developed in all three languages – in Georgian, Ossetian, and Russian. Interestingly enough, during the election campaigns, the candidates or parties try to interact with the voters in the Georgian language.

Until 2008, there was one Ossetian-Russian school in the town of Leningor/Akhalgori. Despite the low numbers of students, Georgian authorities demonstrated goodwill maintaining the status of a secondary school for this school. Nevertheless, before the war, the authorities paid more attention to popularizing the Ossetian language than they do today.

Issues concerning language are not exclusive to the sphere of education and impact other areas as well. For example, it is impossible to purchase newspapers in the Georgian language in the Leningor/Akhalgori district. The South Ossetian authorities are thinking to publish a Georgian language newspaper for the district that will publish the news from the capital and the district as well as translations of works by Ossetian writers. Meanwhile, the main information sources are Georgian TV channels that are accessible through parabolic antennas. In Tskhinval as well, one can see people watching Georgian TV channels and listening to Georgian radio stations in the cars. The representatives of international organizations usually get surprised when they have the rare opportunity to meet the local Georgians and Ossetians that still practice peaceful coexistence. For the residents of the area, it is just part of the routine. Such is the case with Irina who was born and raised in the town of Leningor/Akhalgori. She does not speak Ossetian since she was born in a mixed family. They always spoke Georgian at home and despite all her desire, she did not have the opportunity to study her native language either at school or outside of it due to the absence of Ossetian language courses. The situation in this regard has not changed today either. Despite the fact that the Ossetian language is being taught in Georgian schools, students and their parents believe that teaching is done in a slipshod manner. For example, students study the Ossetian language using one single textbook, which does not change as they move to another grade. And this is not because there are no textbooks, but because the South Ossetian authorities do not pay proper attention to this issue.


[1] On November 10 in 1989, the South Ossetian Autonomous Oblast’s regional council sent a plea to the Georgian Supreme Soviet for the region to be made an Autonomous Republic.

[2] At the time, the population of South Ossetia mastered the Ossetian language better than that of North Ossetia.

[3] During the years of the Mountain Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic, there had already been a shift from a variety of alphabets that were in use towards a unified Latin alphabet.

[4] The city is called Tskhinvali in the Georgian version.

[5] The district and the city are called Akhalgori in the Georgian version.

[6] The district is called Kornisi in the Georgian version.

[7] The district is called Java in the Georgian version.

[8] The village is called Karzmani in the Georgian version.

[9] The village is called Sinaguri in the Georgian version.

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