Armenian Language Dilemma Draws Positive Feedback

NOTH ANDOVER, Mass.—Ten-year-old Meline Almasian doesn’t have the perfect remedy to saving the Armenian language from extinction in America. But she does offer a solution on how to preserve the Mother Tongue and keep it solvent: “Go to church, hear the language spoken, and treat it like a learning lesson,” she says. “If any language dies, it’s only because people let it die. It’s up to all of us to keep the language alive—young and old.”

Meline joined other students from St. Gregory Church in responding to a recent article coined by this writer as to why the Armenian language might be dying a slow death in America. The article received wide circulation in the Armenian American press and drew a fair share of response from readers.

“Part of the problem,” says the youngster, “is that many Armenians don’t attend church and therefore don’t hear the language spoken.”

Like many of her peers, Meline attends Armenian School every Sunday at St. Gregory Church and takes advantage of a 45-minute session from her instructors, dividing her schedule with religious education. It isn’t ample time for a language, considering all the distractions one might face in that given period.

In the case of Aghavny Bebirian, the 18-year-old was raised in an Armenian home where the language is spoken regularly. She tends to be quite fluent, along with her young sister Christina, and feels privileged at being bilingual.

“It’s up to our current generation to take the bull by the horns,” says Aghavny. “I feel fortunate to have the ability to carry this language into the future. We owe it to our ancestors to keep the heritage alive. And the language is an important part of this heritage. To save it, we must learn it, speak it and, more importantly, pass it along to others.”

In the opinion of John Mahlebjian, the 13-year-old sees how the language has evolved over time and insists people must adapt to changes in our culture. “In order to keep our identity, it starts with the language,” he believes. “If we can’t communicate words, we can communicate feelings. If parents don’t use it in the home, it’s hard for their children to learn.”

Armen Almasian, 12, feels the language should take precedence over other church activities and “talking with a priest.”  Others like Anna Shahtanian, 10, feel it begins with the basics—simple conversation—then a more advanced form.

“A number of reasons can be pointed to the lack of Armenian,” confirms Nairi Hovsepian, 15. “The fact that children have grown Americanized has hurt the culture, along with intermarriages and general apathy toward the language. To save the language, it must become more of an option in schools and community life. We owe that much to our survivors and our genocide victims.”

Meanwhile, a rash of opinions have pooled forth from readers around the world including Armenia, showing monumental concern over the welfare of the Armenian language in America.

Siran Tamakian teaches ESL at Watertown High School as well as Armenian 1 and 2. According to Tamakian, Watertown is the only public school in the country that offers Armenian as a foreign language. She teaches both reading and writing. With practically no working tools, she devises her own material, including games and worksheets to keep the students interested.

“Every year, it’s a struggle to keep Armenian in the program,” she says. “It is always slated to become discontinued so that only Spanish, Italian, and French classes remain. Each year, we meet with the superintendent and parents call in to keep Armenian. The past two years, the advanced Armenian curriculum has been turned into a media class so the kids don’t actually learn Armenian. They’re making videos.”

Daniel Devejian suggests we use what technology has to offer us as a way of learning the language through the Armenian Virtual College, but that “total immersion with the language and country itself is a must.”

The AVC offers online courses through the Armenian General Benevolent Union (AGBU) to anyone, anywhere, anytime.  At the moment, there are six languages of instruction, including two branches of Armenian (Eastern and Western). For more information, visit www.avc-agbu.org.

A promotional film by recent award-winning videographer Peter Musurlian explores life at the Manoogian-Demirdjian AGBU School, complemented by the oud interludes of musician Antranig Kzirian. He’s buoyant by the progress being made toward preserving and perpetuating the language.

In contrast, Michael Abladian looked for an adult education class on conversational Armenian and found none. He settled for an “after hours” class at his church which didn’t live up to expectations.

“A noble effort,” he concludes, “but none were professional or even good amateur teachers. It turned into a great disappointment. We were trying to spool up our Armenian for an upcoming trip to Armenia and really committed to learning. The language is dying because few Armenian communities offer credible courses or more rigorous structural classes taught by skilled teachers.”

According to Avetis Sahagian, the problem with Armenians is self-ingrained and one of division. The only way to save the language is to save ourselves first.

“It’s time to adopt Eastern Armenian as the official language for all Armenians,” he maintains. “We have TWO of too many things—two nations (Armenia and Artsakh), two peoples (Eastern and Western), two Catholicoses, and two languages. We need to consolidate and unify. Two distinct dialects cause psychological and cultural divisions. We need to end this self-destructive status quo.”

avatar

Tom Vartabedian

Tom Vartabedian is a retired journalist with the Haverhill Gazette, where he spent 40 years as an award-winning writer and photographer. He has volunteered his services for the past 46 years as a columnist and correspondent with the Armenian Weekly, where his pet project was the publication of a special issue of the AYF Olympics each September.
avatar

Latest posts by Tom Vartabedian (see all)

16 Comments

  1. I think it is wonderful that little Melanie and others like her are able to attend Armenian church and also Armenian lesson classes. Let up please remember that many, if not most, Armenians in the Diaspora live where there is no Armenian church within reasonable travelling distance, and certainly no Armenian Community Centre or opportunity for lessons. Many Armenians live in cities and towns, world-wide, where there are only a handful of Armenians, often only 2 o 3. It is not possible to maintain their language. Here is an outreach opportunity for the Church to address. Why do they not at least have the Badarak in Armenian, and also show the translation into English on-line? And those wonderful Armenian lessons that little Melanie takes at her church, why are they not on-line for those who don’t have the good fortune of the same opportunity? Why would it be so difficult for one of our churches to offer this basic service in language and faith preservation? What holds them back? The cost of implementation is minimal. Every Church probably has willing volunteers. Just transfer on-line those lessons that Melanie is now receiving. Armenian Weekly – Tom – please keep us posted if any of our churches step up to the plate.

  2. I want to add that I absolutely do not agree with Avetis Sahagian. Most of us who live in the Diaspora are here because our families were victims of the Armenian Genocide. Our roots are in historical Armenia, where the language was Western Armenian. We owe it to our murdered families, and to ourselves, and to our children, to preserve the language of our fathers before it becomes extinct. We need tuition-free lessons in Western Armenian on-line.

  3. I would like to suggest that in america we need the families within to start speaking the language more vigourasly, when the kids come home or the parents then all conversation turns in armenian. the education and value starts at home .
    I know there was also a posting about caligraphy and the written letters/language was disappearing, well that would need to be taught in writting and caligraphy classes as an artform. the armenian alphabet is a beautiful artform that needs to be passed down to next generations in respect to the old and historic past.
    look at the asian cultures here or the hispanic comunities , the kids speak the language and draw/write the caligraphic forms.
    maybe a national contest , for writting a poem in beautifully written trchnakeer.

  4. Hratch, remember that Diasporan Armenians are increasingly marrying “odars.” This is a natural outcome of being spread out all over the world, of Armenians living in places where there  are often few, if any, other  Armenians. I have lived in a city of 30,000 population where I was the only Armenian. My daughter lives in a city of 125,000 population with about 4 Armenians. The Armenian parent may have started out with good Armenian language skills, but these deteriorate from lack of use over the years when they have a partner who is of another ethnicity and few, if any, friends who are Armenian. It is not always possible for the Armenian parent to teach the children their own language. We need to pay attention to those who now want to  learn, whether it is the child who was not given the opportunity, or the parent whose language skills have diminished. We need to offer the help without any judgment or criticism. It needs to be free of charge and easily available on-line. We need to do it soon, or Western Armenian will indeed become extinct. Eastern Armenian is not at risk. I go back to a comment I made in an earlier post on this subject – if we can give people free, on-line Armenian cooking classes, why can’t we offer the same service with language classes? Or do we need to ask Armenian Kitchen to do it? Father Luke Arakelian of the  Vienna Mekhitarist has published an excellent ABC of Armenian book. I don’t know if it is still available, but it would be a good starting point. We need something on line where pronounciation of Western Armenian can be heard. Available tapes and CDs are inadequate – they don’t go far enough; they are too elementary. Eastern Armenian is available free of charge on-line. Why isn’t Western Armenian? For those of you who have excellent Armenian language skills, have you thought of identifying a person who might be interested in learning and offering to help them? We need to “walk the walk.” so everyone who wants to, can “talk the talk.” Does anyone know of reasonably priced cds that go beyond the tourist conversation ones that are currently available? I think it is more effective if the language is heard and spoken along with. Along with the loss of language, goes the loss of our faith. Think of the blood our fathers shed to preserve both.

  5. I disagree entirely with Avetis Sahagian.  What he said (about unity) was completely irrelevant to the situation at hand.  Also, his suggestion would make the problem worse, because that would be imposing a dialect which is foreign to most Armenian-Americans, whose native dialect is Western Armenian.  If their Western Armenian is extremely weak, Eastern Armenian would sound like a foreign language to them.  It would be easier for Armenian-Americans to first learn and improve their own respective dialects (the dialect they can actually use to practise with their parents) before venturing on to a dialect they have no experience in (which would be harder and less motivating).

  6. Hye, when in church, the easiest way to “read” Armenian is in the transliteration (appearing in both English and Armenian).  Most of us know the Hayr Mehr by ‘heart’.
    Too,  in our Bible will appear the transliterations to be read in English. Now, the best part… since you already know the Hayr Mehr (by heart) guess what… you will now be able to read the transliteration which appears with the Armenian alphabet.
    Too, our Armenian alphabet is unique in that it uses one letter for each Armenian sound!
    Also, the ‘fh’ letter for the sound of ‘F” forms a total of 36 letters.
    So, read in Armenian the Hayr Mehr  – Enjoy!!  Manooshag

  7. Hye,
    1 – when my elderly mother was not able to attend Armenian church services I was then given a video/tape for her.  Is this still available?Too, are such video/tapes for learning to read and speak the Armenian language available??
    2 – the arguments for dialects should be resolved and one dialect will be for use the world over thus we will advance – miaseen.  Manooshag

  8. I speak Western Armenian and I understand Eastern Armenian as well. What I have problems with is the transliteration of the g & K,  the B & P. How stupid. The Communists did that to our language, so the Armenians would not understand each other. Eastern Armenian is a primitive regional dialect, not on par with the rich legacy of the Western. Unfortunately, we are stuck with a vibrant Eastern language that is comparable to what English is to some Ozarks, dialect. Sad.

  9. manooshag, you say “when you are in church…” Let me repeat – millions are never in Armenian church. THERE IS NO CHURCH NEAR THEM. THERE IS NO ONE WITHIN A HUNDRED OR TWO HUNDRED OR MORE MILES WHO IS OR WHO SPEAKS ARMENIAN, or who identifies themselves as Armenian.  They have never seen an Armenian bible. They know the Lord’s prayer only in English, not Armenian. Have you ever tried to learn another language with only a purchased text-book, never hearing its sound, never speaking with anyone in the same language, never having anyone help you as you stumble over unfamiliar words, sounds, alphabet? There is no use in offering prizes for children to write poems in “terchnakeer.” Those children already know what the alphabet is; they are not the problem; they are not the ones we need out-reach for. Keep the prizes for someone who is stumbling to wrap their tongue around sounds they have never heard before. Edward Demeian is right on mark, so don’t suggest that anyone listen to the racing garble of reports that comes out of Yerevan on utube or tv programs, where no one ever even pauses between a string of hysterical words jammed against each other. It is completely detrimental to the cause of reaching our people who have no access to Western Armenian. Click onto Armenian Kitchen. Look at the kind, uncritical way they tell our stories and give the recipes step- by-step.  They know there are thousands out there who don’t know what a dolma is let alone lahmajoon, and they want to help them to learn. Why can’t we do this with language? Post WA lessons on computer screens, make cds to accompany each lesson. Just as the recipes are free, don’t charge for the language, except a nominal charge for the cd and book printing. The more who speak it, the better for all of us. Soon, very soon, if not already, it will be too late. There is no use sitting around writing about it. We need an action plan. We need to start in a non-critical, non judgmental way, applauding those who step forward and ask for help to learn. There are uncounted numbers of Armenians who never identify themselves as Armenians. They have already been absorbed into another culture. They are the ones we need to reach. And look around you – the pews are getting emptier every day. And your sisters and brothers are all marrying odars. And their children are saying, “Armenian? huh? What’s that” This is not a time for those who have been priviliged to learn and keep their language to sit back or to brag about their superior advantage. This is a time to reach out and bring everyone into the fold. Or the Turks will have truly won in their desire to eliminate us.

  10. Perouz, then, perhaps we might start with those of our Armenian people who DO attend our church. For myself, I found that my need to attend my Armenian church services (not knowing Krapahr) and yet seeking to continue to be a link today to our past and lost generations of our Christian Armenian heritage. Armenians were first nation to accept Christianity – 301AD (before Romans) and  have never denied our Christian heritage… I enjoy the splendor of the rites and services, some I comprehend better than others… but I feel that by being in church, I feel closer to all my forbears… and to pray, sing and more… as did all my forbears who had once attended St. Girgagos Armenian Cathedral in Dikranagerd. Manooshag
    P.S. And, too, I do enjoy reading in Armenian script when I
    sing our Hayr Mehr.

  11. manooshag: there is no point in “starting with those who do attend our church.” they are already there. They are the fortunate. We need to reach out to those who do not know our language, who do not go to our church, who have no opportunity to do either. There is where the problem lies. There is where we need to start.

  12. Edward Demian and Perouz, the communists had nothing to do with the difference in consonant pronunciation.  That was a natural occurrence.  It happens in dialects of all languages.  English is no different.  What the communists DID do, was mutilating the orthography (-ութիւն to -ություն, յօրինել to հորինել, կը կարդամ to կկարդամ, կ՚որոշեմ to կորոշեմ).  Before 1922, they used to write in the same spelling system as us.  Iranian Armenians speak Eastern Armenian but they write in the correct orthography like us.  There’s a whole documentary about the Classical Orthography.  It’s called Յարութիւն.  I encourage everyone to watch it, especially people in Armenia.

    I also disagree with your notions about Eastern Armenian being “primitive”.  What makes it “primitive”?  Just because it’s not the dialect that you speak?  I’m majoring in linguistics and there is no linguistic/scientific evidence of a certain dialect or language being superior over another (which is also why I find the Armenian government’s attempt to reopen foreign language schools in Armenia in order to “improve” education ridiculous).

  13. I do agree, however, that listening to news from Yerevan is not a good way to learn Armenian because they speak too frickin fast.  I guess they have to read all the lines on the screen in front of them quickly before they move out of the screen to show the next sentence.  You can listen to Western Armenian news at aztagmedia.com.  It’s a bit slower.

  14. Dro, The change in orthography was officially made when communists took over in 1922-1924.  However, it wasn’t communists who came up with it.  It was Khachatur Abovyan, a 19th century writer (1809-1848) who is considered to be the father of Modern Armenian literature, who laid foundation of modern Armenian orthography.  Classical Armenian, the language of the scholars and the clergy, was the norm during Abovyan’s time, but he chose to write in the vernacular to reach the common masses.
    Also, by the way, the Eastern Armenian pronunciation is closer to the classical Armenian.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Armenian_alphabet
    I can bring just few examples on the words borrowed from Latin and Greek and you can see that Eastern pronunciation is closer to the original than Western.  For example names Peter and George in Eastern Armenian are Petros and Gevorg, while in Western Armenian they are Bedros and Kevork.

  15. Khachatur Abovyan did not come up with the Soviet Orthography.  He started writing Modern Armenian, yes, but he did not change the orthography.  I think you’ve gotten them confused.  “Orthography” is the spelling system, not the entire language itself.  He still wrote in the Classical Orthography.  Manouk Abeghian is the one who came up with the Soviet Orthography, under the orders of Soviet authorities.  That’s why it’s also known as the “Abeghian Orthography”.  It only lasted 20 years as is, because all the other writers in Armenia strongly opposed it at that time.  So around 1940, some elements from the Classical Orthography were brought back and the orthography currently being used in Armenia is actually half Classical, half Soviet.  Most people don’t know this (that’s it’s half-half).
     
    As for Eastern Armenian phonology being closer to Classical Armenian, I never said anything against that.  I also think the EA vocabulary is closer.  However, I think the grammar in WA is closer to CA than EA.  For example, in CA the զ is added to any noun or pronoun that’s an object (accusative) in a sentence.  WA has partially kept that, adding the զ to only object pronouns (զայն, զինք, զիս, եւ այլն) instead of just any object.  EA has completely dropped it, to my knowledge.  Some other dialects might’ve kept it, like the dialect in Կանաչեան’s song Նէննիր Նայ (I saw զգարուն and զոսկի in that song).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*