In her previous article, Karmun Khoo was growing frustrating with the Armenian language, but a little context and apricots helped to save the day. This week, she has to introduce herself in front of the entire class.
I sit in front of my laptop with a nervous smile on my face. Marina asks a question, which I do not understand. I ask for it to be repeated, but I get the impression that my classmates are judging me for my incompetence.
We’re all using Skype video chat and it’s two in the afternoon in Yerevan, which means that it’s late in the evening for me. I’m tired and everyone seems to be better at speaking Armenian than me.
Merciful Marina repeats the question in English. “Karmun, can you introduce yourself?”
Well, I think to myself, I know how to say “fifteen years old.” It was in this week’s listening text: Astghike tasnhing tarekan e. Unfortunately, my name is not Astghik, and I am sixteen, not fifteen years old. I’m stuck. I don’t know how to twist the sentence to fit my purpose. I wish I had Google Translate to save me from this embarrassment. The seconds tick past. I hear a cough from one of my classmates. I feel like I’m wasting everyone’s time.
Finally, I collect my thoughts and open my mouth. “Tasnhing tarekan?” I mumble, making the last syllable sound like a suggestion.
“Sorry, we can’t hear you.” Marina responds.
I start again. My tongue feels glued to the roof of my mouth. “Um…”
I have no issues with reading and answering questions on paper in Armenian, especially if they are multiple choice, but listening to a passage and then orally discussing it on Skype seems impossible. Unlike many of my virtual classmates, I don’t have any real-life Armenian friends or family to practice with. I find it difficult to answer questions or read out loud without having prepared beforehand, and my aural comprehension is nearly nonexistent.
This means that even if I can muster up something to say, chances are I won’t understand the questions being asked of me. And even in the event that I do understand the question and answer correctly, my flawed pronunciation kicks in, making me feel self-conscious and reticent.
So, upon receiving a friendly email about the impending midterms, I deem it best to sign up for the “online language practice session” — a Skype call organized to help nervous students like me. Initially, I’m excited to meet this new batch of classmates, but the flickering forum posts on my screen give me pause. I find that many of them have been learning Armenian from a young age or have grown up in an Armenian family, so, while we may be at the same level in terms of reading and writing, they’re far superior at the speaking and listening front.
I know that life is not a competition, and making mistakes in a safe classroom environment is the best way to learn, but it never feels good to be the worst stammerer among a group of alleged beginners.
The conference starts with classmate introductions, which, for me, consists of thinking up sentences in English and laboriously trying to translate them. I have learned some necessary fillers, like “ayo” (yes) and “voch” (no), and I use them to buy myself time.
I realize that even though I can form phrases like “poker dun” (small house), I don’t have enough conjugations and verbs in my artillery to make use of them. Thankfully, I wait for some of my classmates to go first and end up copying their sentence structures. I manage to state my name – Im anune Karmun e – and simply reply “ayo” or “shat lav” (very good) to most of the ensuing questions.
At the end of the practice session, Marina suggests that I need to work on my speaking skills. I commit to calling her once a week, so we can discuss the spoken dialogue in each lesson. Our conversations may be in English for the time being, but at least I’ll have more practice listening to her questions in Armenian.
For my midterm exam in ”Armenian History,” I have to write a report on an aspect of the country’s history that interests me. I decide on the Armenian language, hoping it will offer up some hidden clues that’ll make me improve in my own language learning.
What I find, instead, are intriguing facts about the historic tongue. Philologists say that Armenian was originally derived from Thracian (Greek) and Aryan (Persian) some 6,000 years ago. Still, only 40 percent of Armenian words have roots in these language families, meaning that the remaining 60 percent of Armenian vocabulary is unaccounted for.
Classical Armenian was known as “grabar” and became a major language in Asia Minor by fifth century AD. Its writing system was pioneered by Mesrop Mashtots, a cleric whose importance continues to be recognized by Armenians today.
Grabar eventually evolved into Middle Armenian in the 11th century AD and a poet by the name of Gregory of Narek played an integral role in this second wave of Armenian, with his Book of Lamentations. I hope to read this book some day, after I’m done lamenting about the state of my own spoken Armenian.
I also learn that the greatest development in the Armenian language – the split between Eastern and Western Armenian – was born of suffering. In 1828, the Treaty of Turkmenchay split Armenia between the Ottomans and Russians, leading to a Western center in Constantinople (Istanbul) and an Eastern center in Tbilisi (modern Georgia.)
But, in the end, Armenians used their own language to strike back at the Ottomans: After the Genocide, Eastern Armenian writers removed all Turkish root words from their language, freeing their dialect from unsavory foreign influences.
This last anecdote brings a smile to my face. When Armenians learn that I’m focusing on Eastern Armenian, they usually ask why I’ve made this choice. Some have described it as “more difficult” than Western Armenian, though the jury is still out on that.
I chose to learn Eastern Armenian because it clings more closely to the country’s historical roots, as far as pronunciation and structure. It’s also the official language of the Republic of Armenia and most commercial translations are performed in this dialect. Still, there is a certain beauty to Western Armenian and I feel that should be preserved as well.
With less than one million speakers, Western Armenian has been defined as an endangered language by UNESCO. I find it heartbreaking to contemplate the death of a language – any language — and that is why I’m here.
Yes, my pronunciation may not be perfect. Yes, I might have a fear of speaking up (even in English!) Yes, I may not have Armenian friends and family to practice with. But in the immortal words of William Saroyan…
“It is simply in the nature of Armenian to study, to learn, to question, to speculate, to discover, to invent, to revise, to restore, to preserve, to make, and to give.”
Every human being, Armenian or foreign, can study, learn, and question – myself included. My lack of speaking skills is not an excuse I can hide behind in order to justify an unwillingness to practice. When we start seeing our weaknesses as challenges, we begin to overcome.