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I Don’t Want to Hear About It. It Makes Me Feel Guilty

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Dr. Arda Jebejian, Sociolinguist, Nicosia, 25 March 2012

 “We must know the white man language to survive in this world. But we must know our language to survive forever.”
(Darryl Babe Wilson, a Native American)

The recent well-justified alarm that western Armenian is among the world’s thousands of endangered languages (that is, predicted to die in the next 100 years), important though it is, prognostications foretelling disaster are not enough. What this language, culture and people need is the development of therapeutic undertakings and approaches. 

The case of endangered languages is just a short-cut way of referring to endangered cultures and cultural identities, especially in an era where globalization, definitely not a culturally neutral or impartial phenomenon, has rendered reversing language shift an unequal struggle for linguists. 

As an Armenian sociolinguist, not only am I committed to pursue the goals of strengthening my own endangered language, culture and identity via objective persuasion and advocacy of positive attitudes to foster intergenerational continuity but also to seek a reasonable compromise with respect to the culturally stronger dominant languages neighboring Armenian diasporic communities.   Admittedly, such a combination of sensitivity and of priorities is difficult to achieve; hence, the demanding task of strengthening endangered languages. 

Linguists have identified thousands of the world’s languages that are endangered because of a recognizable syndrome that yet varies in kind and in degree from one endangered language to another. Similarly, the cures must also vary. 

The bulk of Armenian diasporic communities were formed after the 1915 Genocide. Since then, the impact of forced dispersal, survival in host countries, and the dominant majority languages on the status of their language, and the linguistic and attitudinal behavior of their members has been tremendous. 
 
Seven years ago, when I began researching the vitality of western Armenian in Beirut, Lebanon, the findings almost shocked the Armenian community but slowly generated an awareness of the current trends in language maintenance, language shift and transmission of their ethnic, minority language whose alphabet, like the Ten Commandments, was bestowed on Mesrob Mashdots in a divine vision.
 
What unfolds is deterioration in the status of western Armenian and the oral fluency of its speakers. The generational disparities in attitudes and perceptions demonstrate that along with the significant changes in the way different generations of Armenians grasp their ethno-cultural identity, there are also considerable differences regarding feelings of loyalty to their ethnic language, homeland, and heritage.   

After 97 years of diasporic existence, some Armenian communities seem to have developed a defeatist, pessimistic stance towards the preservation of their ethnic language, with a stubborn conviction that

*      I am French. Why should I speak Armenian?
*      What good will it do me in France?
*      I am American. I feel American. The fact that my ancestors were Armenian a 100 years ago has no significance to me.
*      Why do we always have to make it hard on ourselves? We have to move on with our lives. 
*      Who cares if nobody ever speaks Armenian any more?
*      We will never go back to Armenia or western Armenia. What’s the good of wasting time, pressuring our kids, demanding that they speak Armenian?
*      I don’t speak Armenian but I feel Armenian.
*      Let’s admit it. In today’s world, Armenian is a useless language.
*      Armenian is so difficult. English is much much easier.
*      English is my mother tongue now. I do everything in English and don’t need Armenian.
*      Forget it. It’s a lost case. Have you ever heard how Armenians speak Armenian in Armenia? Let them worry about their language.
*      I don’t want to hear about it.   It makes me feel guilty.               
*      Life is already hard. Don’t make it any harder.
*      I wasn’t born in Armenia. Why should I speak Armenian? 
*      How is Armenian going to help my children find a job? There’s no future in Armenian.

Indeed, there is very little a sociolinguist can do when faced with such attitudes emanating from members of a group whose ethnic language is endangered.
At this moment, many Armenian children are not being taught Armenian, and parents do not realize that soon it will not be there to be revived. As a sociolinguist I must make this as clear as possible, but it may not change many minds. 
Rightly, linguists assert that besides being linguistically expressed, behaviors such as  
  • education,
  • the religious beliefs and observances,
  • the self-governmental operations,
  • the literature,
  • the folklore,
  • the philosophy of morals and ethics,
  • the medical code of illnesses and diseases,
  • childhood socialization,
  • establishment of friendship and kinship ties,
  • greetings,
  • jokes,
  • songs,
  • benedictions, and
  • maledictions,
are usually enacted through the specific language with which these activities grew up, have been identified, and intergenerationally associated. Hence, as efforts and awareness campaigns are directed at slowing down environmental damage, similar efforts should be directed at helping the world’s endangered languages and cultures, including western Armenian and culture, for any reduction of language diversity

diminishes the adaptational strength of the human species
constitutes a huge intellectual loss
reduces the most direct glimpses at the creativity of the human mind
lowers the pool of knowledge from which people can draw
impoverishes the richness of cultural diversity
represents an incalculable loss of scientific data
causes loss of traditional cultures and identities
stultifies human creativity
leads to totalitarianism.

Joshua Fishman, the prominent linguist, describes the proponents of ‘one language, one culture’ as “reductionists whose ‘realism’ reduces human values, emotions, loyalties, and philosophies to little more than hard cash and brute forces.” Alts’iisi, a Navajo, puts it this way:

When the words of all people become one, then the world will come to an end. Our language is holy, and when it is gone, the good in life will be gone with it. When the old ones said that the world would end with the disappearance of our language, they meant that the young people could not hear, understand, and heed the teachings, words of encouragement, expressions of love, scoldings, and corrections that were offered by the parents and elder relatives; nor would they be able to pray. Without prayers, our lives cannot be good, for without words there can be no prayers.

Facets of the problem are many; however, below are 3 tables, containing lists of activities that could be engaged at the levels of individual, family, and community to maintain and revitalize western Armenian and to reverse language shift:
 
Table 1 What one person can do
 
 
 
  1.  
Develop a positive attitude towards Armenian and Armenianness.
 
 
  1.  
Listen to Armenian songs.
 
 
  1.  
Attend Armenian cultural, social, political and religious events.
 
 
  1.  
Be proud of Armenian heritage.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage family members of converse in Armenian as much as possible. (Code-switching is perfectly normal.)  
 
 
  1.  
Visit Armenia alone or with Armenian or non-Armenian friends.
 
 
  1.  
Become a member of an Armenian cultural or political organization.
 
 
  1.  
Avoid finding fault with Armenian culture and constantly praising the dominant one.
 
 
  1.  
Marry with an Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Speak Armenian with your children.
 
 
  1.  
If you already speak Armenian, encourage others to speak it, too.
 
 
  1.  
Do not make fun of people struggling to speak Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Attend church regularly.
 
 Table 2 What families can do
 
 
 
  1.  
Develop a positive attitude towards Armenian and Armenianness.
 
 
  1.  
Do not be ashamed to celebrate Armenian culture.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage bilingualism in your children as it increases their cognitive development and thinking.
 
 
  1.  
Help your children and other family members to resolve the ‘shame issue’.
 
 
  1.  
Remember that bilingual children are more intelligent than monolingual ones.
 
 
  1.  
Be an example to other families by encouraging them to speak Armenian whenever possible.
 
 
  1.  
Organize parental support groups that focus on speaking Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage your children to listen to Armenian songs on Youtube and their i-pods.
 
 
  1.  
Introduce your children to other Armenian children to maximize their chances of speaking Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Organize family-based summertime language immersion activities.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage your children to marry Armenians.
 
 
  1.  
Avoid shaming of non-speakers and limited speakers who must struggle to speak Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage parents and grandparents to speak Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Celebrate Armenian national and religious feasts.
 
 
  1.  
Attend church regularly.
 
Table 3 What communities can do
 
 
 
  1.  
Encourage elders to promote Armenian language speaking.
 
 
  1.  
Organize cultural events that utilize and promote the Armenian language.
 
 
  1.  
Put up signs in Armenian in different community settings.
 
 
  1.  
Inform Armenian parents and individuals about the virtues of bilingualism.
 
 
  1.  
Rekindle parents’ interest in Armenian issues.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage parents to speak Armenian with their children.
 
 
  1.  
Produce cultural events that would imbibe pride in the young generation.
 
 
  1.  
Organize trips to Armenia.
 
 
  1.  
Eradicate rivalry among the political parties.
 
 
  1.  
Make Armenian culture known to the dominant culture.
 
 
  1.  
Organize community seminars that utilize Armenian to focus on and solve other issues and problems.
 
 
  1.  
Develop programs for parents to learn and utilize Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Make community members aware of Internet sites that teach Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Organize community focused meetings about western Armenian being an endangered language and the importance of its maintenance and revitalization.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage individuals and organizations to explore Armenian speaking methods that will work in their own communities.
 
 
  1.  
Air speakers’ testimonials in support of the Armenian language.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage intermarriage and discourage exogamy.
 
 
  1.  
Create “If you care about Armenian, use it” and “I speak Armenian to my child” posters, bumper-stickers, radio ads, T-shirts in Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Publicize as much as possible information on the endangered status of western Armenian.
 
 
  1.  
Encourage positive attitudes towards Armenia.
 
These are far from being exhaustive lists, but hopefully they get across the message that optimally all efforts must be exerted to instill pride in the Armenian language and identity and create a linkage system, whereby young Armenian parents, adolescents and children utilize the Armenian language or relearn it and transmit it intergenerationally.
 
To end, the following succinct poem, “Mother’s Last Word”, by Alice Baghdasarian puts the issue of endangered languages and language loss into perspective:

Take my message to the world, my child.
To my people, my blood and my bones.
Tell my people how hard it was to save our Language.
Tell my people that our Language has to be alive, as long as we breathe.
Tell them it has to be the Language of the heart and mind.
Tell them it has not to be replaced.
Tell them it has to be passed to our next generations.
Our Language has to be alive
Or else, we’ll die.
 
 
 
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Comments

Familiarity with Armenian Language

It is hard for me to fathom that after reading the article, Ara K. Manougian would conclude "Dr. Jebejian is unfamiliar with the Armenian language".

Ara's assertion that "western dialect is also known as 'Krapar' or classical Armenian" reminded of a saying attributed to President Abraham Lincoln: "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt."  

Western Armenian a Dialect

The first paragraph of this article indicates that Dr. Jebejian is unfamiliar with the  Armenian language. The Western dialect may appear to be “endangered” in the diaspora, but Armenian language, I would guess, is far from facing a real danger of becoming extinct in the next 100 years. As long as Armenia is a viable country, where Armenian is taught in schools as the primary language, the Western dialect which is also known as ‘krapar’ or classical Armenian is in fact taught to school-age children, thus is not in as much danger as this article claims.

What we should find alarming is the widely accepted division that Dr. Jebejian makes within the Armenian people, creating an East vs. West division. At the end of the day, Armenians have a common language known as Armenian and if I’m not mistaken, there are about 200 known dialects. I would guess that 80% of the words used in the common Western and Eastern dialects are the same. The other 20% in many cases come from the same root, thus many times one can figure out what is being said. I speak and understand Western and Eastern Armenian (I was born and raised in the United States), as does my wife (born and raised in Artsakh). Our 4-year-old son switches between 3 dialects, depending on who he is communicating with.

If Armenians are really interested in preserving their language, culture and traditions, they need to stop dividing our people into clans and work on being more inviting, uniting our people as one tribe.

At the end of the day, we are all Armenians, be that “Western” or “Eastern” and do share a common language, culture and tradition which we should all celebrate.

As for the issue of Armenians in the diaspora not speaking Armenian, this does not only exist with the "Western Armenians" but all Armenians and should be a concern to all living in the diaspora.

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