My Journey in the Armenian Language: From Duty to Desire BY Tara Ourfalian

Posted on August. 17. 2023

Speak Armenian, love your culture, cherish your heritage, protect your community…
But to what end?
For many diasporan Armenians, these patriotic words are nothing short of ordinary. They have been ingrained into our hearts and our minds, having become second nature for us all.
As a “lifer” of Armenian institutions, I was raised to always honor and appraise these values, regarding our motherland with the utmost respect and admiration. I was raised to place my culture and my heritage on the highest pedestal because of its sacred and rich history and the countless ways in which it has facilitated the survival of our marginalized race. However, I repeatedly found myself in distress regarding the use of my own language – the same language that constitutes the very essence of what it means to be an Armenian and that has bolstered our community for thousands of years. Despite my intensive language education, why was it that when I utilized Armenian, I refrained from venturing beyond my familiar horizons, from taking risks that challenge the immunity of socially determined margins?
Ultimately, it was the result of a lack of exercise. During my years as a youngster studying at an Armenian school, from preschool to high school, I learned how to speak, read and write in my native tongue. Yet, in doing so, I developed an inclination to isolate the Armenian language – a tendency to place our sacred tongue on a pedestal, guarded from any foreign corruption. This behavior has become increasingly normalized in our diasporan community. As a bilingual diasporan myself, this trend not only impeded my personal language development, but it can also have grave implications for the future of all bearers of Armenian culture.
To reach this realization, I had to live through countless grueling, and oftentimes unpleasant experiences, the significance of which only struck me upon my pursuit of a higher education. And that is exactly what I did: pursue higher education – not one signified by a diploma, but rather one marked by spiritual and intellectual enrichment.
During the winter quarter of my sophomore year at UCLA, I chose to enroll in my first college-level Armenian language course. Putting all of my expectations aside, I joined the class entirely impartial, yet confident in my proficiency with the Armenian language, because I believed that after graduating from an Armenian school, I had to continue to speak, read and write in Armenian. I had to ensure that I did not forget the grammatical frameworks of my language. I had to surround myself with other like-minded Armenian youth who held similar patriotic values. This was my obligation as a descendant of genocide survivors and migrant parents who evaded assimilation. These were my responsibilities to fulfill in order to preserve my allegiance to my heritage.
I started to ponder: what was the purpose of this compulsory duty that weighed so heavily on my conscience? For years, I blindly followed this nationalist messaging that I have been fed since childhood, without taking a moment to consider its intent or ramifications. What exactly would result from speaking Armenian? Why do we appraise our language with such significance? The answers to these questions had finally started to unveil themselves to me.
During our first class meeting, we were given an excerpt from Krikor Beledian’s “Mdmdook”…I was at a loss for words. Grasping little to no understanding of the piece, I wondered how I had gone so long without ever having seen such sophisticated and complex ideas represented in Armenian literature, despite having gone to an Armenian school my entire life. I recognized, in that very moment, that I had intuitively enclosed Armenian within bounds, restricting my ability to harness the full potential of all of its bountiful richness and intricacies to express a higher order of thinking. I had monumentalized and sacralized the language by limiting its application to strictly Armenian-affiliated motifs and ideas. For so long, this predisposition inclined me to establish an inherent classification, whereby I would only utilize Armenian for concepts relating to our history and other cultural associations relevant particularly to the past, while I defaulted to English in order to express myself, create, reflect and analyze ideas pertinent to the present and the future.
Throughout the duration of this course, I encountered countless new ideas and novel perspectives that encouraged me to embark on a transformative journey to relearn and reimagine my mother tongue. It was important to assume responsibility with a willing desire. Making the decision to undertake this language revolution was critical to ensuring that it did not revert to a tedious or undesirable obligation. I welcomed the opportunity with a newfound aspiration to expand the horizons of my bilingual intellect. The result was an explicit testament to the fundamental significance of choosing to endorse this evolution, as opposed to an enforced compulsion originating from the pressure of external forces. As such, my relationship with the Armenian language had acquired a new shape, and I had procured an entirely new outlook on the academic groundwork established and transmitted through our institutions.
My first endeavor was to overcome the unease and timidity that stemmed from my fear of writing in Armenian – my fear of making mistakes, of being criticized for being wrong, of being misunderstood. There had been several instances in this particular course when I struggled to respond to unfamiliar abstractions or vague prompts that we had been assigned to answer on a weekly basis. I found myself repeatedly sitting for hours on end, my eyes frozen on the blank page that loitered on my laptop screen. After several minutes, I would write a sentence, only to erase it and relapse to where I had started. It was a destructive pattern of confusion, self-doubt and hopelessness. I had established an unrealistic expectation to continuously produce a “perfect” product, an exceptional outcome that I was proud to consider impactful and meaningful. But it wasn’t until I learned to accept that this expectation was virtually unattainable that I finally began to defy the bounds of my self-imposed intellectual imprisonment. I stopped fearing, and rather welcomed, criticism as an instrument of progression. Step by step the barriers started to crumble, and I entered a new world of possibilities where my imagination diffused into a realm far beyond the margins of an ethnocentric rationale.
I then knew that the next stride I had to make would be to read my first full-length Armenian book, as that would be critical to expanding the breadth of my vocabulary and enhancing my ability to think critically through the lens of a different language. That book happened to be yet another work by Krikor Beledian, titled The Name Under My Tongue, per my professor’s recommendation. Just as I had anticipated, I came face to face with the same hurdles. I read the first ten pages, then twenty, and then fifty, without the slightest comprehension of what was being said. It became increasingly difficult not to succumb to the temptation of surrender and defeat. However, one lesson in particular allowed me to persevere: learn to not understand. In other words, come to terms with not understanding every term, every sentence or every concept. Avoid turning to a dictionary every time you come across an unfamiliar word; refrain from rereading the entire page even if you couldn’t grasp the meaning; untie yourself from the weight of mastering the material, and eventually, you will begin to see all of the fragmented pieces come together to form a coherent story. Gradually, I learned – or rather unlearned – my process of understanding to develop a genuine deeper comprehension of the texts I had been reading. This allowed me to entirely immerse myself into Beledian’s transcendent world of verbose run-ons and uncover the elaborate postulations that were veiled beneath his assemblage of long-winded passages. As I began to implement these critical adjustments in my day-to-day habits, both within and outside of the classroom, I started to appreciate the value of literature more than ever before, and my love for reading heightened.
Through my experiences as a maturing college student outside of the protected bubble of my upbringing, I have come to a few new realizations regarding the work being carried out by our cultural institutions in the diaspora. It goes without saying that Armenian schools and educational establishments play an instrumental role in setting the foundation to foster generations of bright and spirited youth, of which I am a proud product. However, they appear to lack a salient element of any organization, being a clear vision and a purpose. Instilling the overbearing pressure to keep our culture alive has limited effectiveness if it does not translate into concrete, measurable outcomes. Most Armenian-based instruction emphasizes the importance of knowledge about our culture and the duty to preserve it, but fails to instill the desire of integrating oneself into the culture by consuming it and creating in it. As students, we have been conditioned to serve our language – revering it, as opposed to utilizing it as a space where we can intellectually thrive. Today, this vision has transformed into a fantasy of idealism, while the mission or the means of pursuing it has been replaced by the act of paying respects to the ideal. Although the importance of invoking a vigorous spirit and pride in one’s heritage is undoubtedly necessary, the vision of Armenian community schools has to embody a bold shift that embraces consumers and producers of language products to pave the path for a prosperous future. As diasporans, it is pivotal that we generate producers, writers, poets and inventors, who will continue to enrich our culture and our language with their instrumental efforts.
Despite being a life-long product of Armenian culture, my experience with the Armenian language feels like it has only just begun. As I take on this mindful and willing journey of rediscovery and break down the barriers that had once shielded me from the boundless opportunities my native tongue can bestow upon me, I impatiently await where I will find myself in the coming years.

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