The Vessel that Carries It on: Armenian Language Classes at Rutgers

With the exception of a few universities in California, and a couple of others throughout the country, Rutgers University, located in New Brunswick, N.J., is unique in its Armenian Studies Department, which offers both Armenian language and history classes. For nearly 20 years, Dr. Asbed Vassilian has been teaching Rutgers students Armenian in a rigorous four-part course that spans two years. This past semester, a group of students, including myself, were enrolled in the final installment of his class, each with a different story and a unique incentive for studying the language.

The Rutgers Armenian Students Association members with Dr. Vassilian in the front right.

My reasoning was simple. Although I have spoken Armenian throughout my life and attended both parochial and diocesan Armenian schools, I didn’t want to be disconnected from the language while away at college. Taking the course gave me the opportunity to be surrounded by Armenian on a regular basis, ensuring that I stayed on my toes. Yes, the beginning levels of the course—when we learned the alphabet and the conjugation of simple words—were more than simple for a native speaker like me. However, Dr. Vassilian kept our progress moving forward at a steep incline until we were able to read authors like Yessayan, Baronian, and Tekeyan by the last semester. The more interesting stories come from my classmates, who all exhibited dedication, perseverance, and a strong desire for knowledge throughout the courses.

Take Kristyn Manoukian, for example: Kristyn heard Armenian from her grandparents and was taught a few lessons here and there as a child, but decided to take Armenian at the college level so that she could solidify her knowledge. “There was no opportunity for me to learn at a day school or Saturday school so this class came as a structured way of learning with individualized attention,” she explains. Many young people like Kristyn didn’t have the chance, for whatever reason, to learn Armenian as a child, when it is the easiest to pick up a language. The program available to students at Rutgers allows for language acquisition and retention past the traditional age for learning. “The class was interesting because everyone had something different to learn no matter what level they were on,” says Manoukian. “We learned more in two years than I have in many of my other language classes.”

Not only are the Armenian language classes challenging and productive, but they also expose others to the Armenian tradition. Many non-Armenians might not be aware of the strong tradition our communities have maintained, but Liz Ferry, who was also a student in the Armenian language class, is just as well versed as the rest of us. Ferry, who is an Irish-American, enrolled in the classes at Rutgers after being intrigued by the alphabet. “I saw the Armenian script and decided to take the class mostly on a whim. I had no idea what to expect,” she admits. Ferry walked into class knowing absolutely no Armenian; however now, after completing all four courses, she is able to read, write, and speak the language with commendable skill. “It’s a strange skill to have since I’m not ethnically Armenian,” she admits, “but I’ve had use for it in my understanding of linguistics.” This summer, Ferry plans to travel to Arizona and participate in the Melikian Center’s Critical Language Institute, where she will study Eastern Armenian for seven weeks.

Although Ferry will be embarking on an adventure learning Eastern Armenian, the courses taught at Rutgers are strictly Western Armenian based. Dr. Vassilian wants his students to learn and propagate the proper usage of words, grammar, and syntax, and emphasizes the current usage of the language in our lessons. Jennifer Manoukian, who recently helped Vassilian restructure the curriculum, agrees that the course revolves around active learning. “The students are given sets of thematic vocabulary with supporting grammar lessons so that they are able to speak confidently about specific topics,” she explains. Since Western Armenian is a non-territorial language (it is not the official language of any nation) the grammar and words we may learn at home from our parents may have variations from the official version of the language. The classes at the university attempt to erase those inconsistencies. “It’s important because these students will have the capacity to use the language at a higher level because they know it in all its facets,” says Manoukian.

While taking these Armenian classes, I was proud of our willingness as a class to preserve our culture through our language. However, by talking to Manoukian, who is now using her knowledge of Armenian in academic settings, I have come to understand that we are not merely preserving our language; we are helping it to continue to evolve, as all languages must do in order to continue being used. “Through our readings of Armenian Renaissance literature, you can tell how much the language has changed up until this point. It’s exciting to think that we are playing a part in keeping it alive, which increases its sentimental and cultural value,” she says.

Vassilian has always stressed this idea to our class: “I’m not teaching Armenian for you,” he’s told us. “I’m teaching it so you can be the vessel that carries it on.”

Lori Cinar

Lori Cinar

Lori Cinar holds a B.A. in English from Rutgers University (2013) and is currently earning her master's degree in Speech Pathology from Columbia University. She remains active in the New Jersey Armenian community, and you may recognize her as the "Medz Mayrig" from the popular theatrical comedy "Pesad Oor Eh? Where Is Your Groom."

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