Sophio Tabatadze from Sakartvelo: “Being an international student taught me how to be more open minded, more tolerant and loving of all kind of people”
There are international students, and then there are INTERNATIONAL STUDENTS that make both of the countries proud. Such is Sakartvelo native Sophio Tabatadze, currently studying MA of Diplomacy at Vytautas Magnus University, on her way to become a successful diplomat, who will eventually bridge the two countries and two cultures together. Sophio is a unique character – a polyglot, fluently mastering at least three languages, and a successful student, who not only loves her native Sakartvelo, but also constantly expresses her love and appreciation for Lithuania, which she calls a “second home”. We have caught Sophio at a difficult time. While currently writing her Master thesis, she took some time off to chat with us and encourage others to dream big.
Sophio, tell me your story. How did you first hear about Lithuania?
When I first heard about Lithuania I was a student at school. I received a basic knowledge about the Baltic States, but the truth is, I didn’t really know a lot of information about them. Everything changed in 2015 when I became the Bachelor student in Tbilisi State University and found out that there was Lithuanian language and culture center in Georgian Technical University, Tbilisi. Soon enough, this center became my second home (to say the truth, I spent more time there than at home or university). This was the place where I learned Lithuanian language at C1 level. Here I also learned about Lithuanian history, traditions and culture, met a lot of prominent Lithuanian people (including the former Lithuanian president Dalia Grybauskaitė and the speaker of Seimas Viktoras Pranckietis, not to mention numerous artists, writers, translators, etc.). This was the place where I started singing Lithuanian songs and the place that gave me possibility to arrive to Lithuania in different study programs for 8 times, including my MA studies nowadays. So, the Lithuanian language and culture center not only taught me a lot about Lithuania, but also filled me with love for this country so much, that soon this country truly became my second home. Nowadays I work at the NGO called “Embassy of Lithuanian-Georgian friendship” and I try to share this love of both countries to other people. I want everyone to see the special bonds Georgia and Lithuania share and we, as a future generation have to ensure that these ties and relationships are deepened and strengthened.
You speak Lithuanian fluently. Was learning this language a difficult process?
I’ve always agreed to the quote “the more languages you know, the more of a person you are”, so as soon as I heard about the Lithuanian language and culture center, I decided to give it a shot and started learning Lithuanian. The more this language seemed mysterious, distant and unknown, the more attractive and interesting it was to me, but I have never thought that a language could be so hard to learn. Lithuanian language even appeared to be harder than the Georgian language (Georigian language has its own alphabet, I must add!) because of the grammatical diversity and stress. In Georgian language we don’t differentiate the gender of words neither do we have such complex word stressing system. Even though the path towards learning Lithuanian was quite hard, it was still exciting and amusing. One of the people that helped me to overcome the difficulty of Lithuanian language was my amazing teacher Vidas Kavaliauskas, who explained everything so plainly and easily, that we already knew the new materials by heart at the end of the class. Attending the language classes was actually full of joy and happiness for me because we were not only studying from books but also singing Lithuanian songs, watching movies in Lithuanian etc. Additionally, I had an amazing practice of Lithuanian language when I attended the summer and winter courses of Lithuanian language and culture in different Lithuanian universities. Finally, I can say that the main thing that can make you fluently learn a language as hard as Lithuanian… is motivation!
What do people usually say when they hear you speaking fluent Lithuanian?
I have encountered several different cases regarding speaking in Lithuanian. Sometimes the taxi drivers don’t even realize that I’m not Lithuanian. It makes me so proud! Sometimes the bank accountants realize that I’m a foreigner and tell me how well I speak in Lithuanian and how amazing this fact is. But sometimes, sadly, the shop assistants start speaking to me in English even though they heard me speaking in Lithuanian. In the worst case scenario, some people offer me to speak in Russian and then I firmly say: Ne, aš kalbu lietuviškai (No, I speak Lithuanian). In all of the cases, I’ve never stopped speaking Lithuanian. I think it is really amazing and respectful how a foreigner tries to speak to you in your native language and I’m so grateful to all those people who understand that and appreciate my effort. What I love in Lithuanian people is that they see and appreciate things in others. So when I started coming to Lithuania from 2016 and actively participated in different projects related to Lithuania, Lithuanian people saw my devotion and love and offered me the interviews, radio transmissions, projects to participate and share my love of Lithuania and its language to Lithuanian people. Happily, the feedback from people was always so sweet and motivating.
You are quite an active student. Which activities in your university have you been involved with?
Vytautas Magnus University gave me numerous activities to participate and receive experience. I was a volunteer in European Information Center, participant of Vilnius model United Nations, I was involved in several foreigners’ discussions at Martynas Mažvydas library etc. But the most important opportunity that my university gave me was to become a mentor and teacher of Lithuanian language during winter & summer language and culture courses and semester studies in VMU. If before I was just a student, arriving in this university to improve my Lithuanian language skills, in 2020 I became a person who was shearing her experience and knowledge to other students. I am so grateful to my university and the administration of Lithuanian language and culture center in VMU who saw this love and devotion to Lithuania in me and appreciated it. I feel the happiest person in the world when I’m teaching Lithuanian to beginners and I am happier when I hear positive feedback from them. I love helping people and what’s better than to help motivated people to learn as hard language as Lithuanian.
What are the biggest differences between Sakartvelo and Lithuania that you noticed?
When speaking about the nature, Georgia is full with snow-covered mountains, whereas Lithuania is more flat, but there are a lot of Lakes in Lithuania different from Georgia. When I first came to Vilnius I was surprised how a capital city could be so green – now I know why this country is recognized as one of the greenest places in the world.
In Lithuania I like how the transportation system is well maintained. Busses arrive on time, the drivers stop at the pedestrian crossing whereas it’s a bit problem in Georgia, especially in capital city Tbilisi where there’s a huge traffic most of the time and no possibility for cars to stop and let the pedestrians pass unless there’s a traffic light. I was amazed how people of all ages were riding the bikes in the streets of Vilnius and that is what I really want for Georgia – more bicycle roads and more bicycles on roads.
Even though the countries and people differ from each other, I can say they had more or less the similar history. Both of them had the times of blossom when they were huge countries, but then both of them became part of Russia… But how these two nations are similar to each other is significant love for freedom and not stepping back when you fight for it.
What are your plans after graduation? Are you planning to stay in Lithuania?
Only 2 months are left until my graduation and one thing I know for sure is that I want to stay in Lithuania after my studies. I miss my country and my family back in Georgia, but I realize how much knowledge and experience I can accumulate here and help my country when using it in the future. Happily, I feel fully integrated in Lithuania and this place truly feels like home – I even got accustomed to the cold Lithuanian winter with shorter days and longer nights. After finishing my studies I want to find a solid, full-time job in Lithuania, preferably related to my profession and probably, when having free time, help other foreigners learn Lithuanian language too.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in Lithuania as an international student?
Being an international student in Lithuania and meeting a lot of intelligent and successful people taught me that the time passes very quickly and you have to be very focused, determined, motivated and aim oriented in order to achieve what you want and be successful. Being an international student taught me how to be more open minded, more tolerant and loving of all kind of people.