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Opinion

Column: Armenian is my first language. What happens if I can longer speak it? 

The fear of forgetting your native tongue is a common one, deeper examined in this personal piece.
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December 16, 2021
I knew Armenian, my first language, before I knew anything else. I knew the language before I discovered my hobbies and passions. I knew the language before I knew how to do simple addition and subtraction. I knew the language before I even truly began to know myself. 

When I was a toddler, my grandmother read me bedtime stories in Armenian that she grew up listening to. I became infatuated with her stories. Restlessly, I begged her to repeat my favorite story titled “Curious Annie” to me over and over again until my eyes began to close. Soon, I became aware of the immense power stories hold. Now, after a long, draining day, I sit at my desk, briefly stretch my arms, and write for hours on end, telling my own stories. When I am writing, hours feel like minutes. 

At the age of seven, my grandmother gifted me a beautiful journal with embroidered flowers and leaves on the cover. Running my fingers over the smooth stitching immediately filled me with joy and a sense of security. When I would sit straight against my bed’s headboard, I wrote on the journal’s thick pages for hours on end. The pen I used to write my stories became my secret weapon. Without my language, my pen would have no ink. What happens when I have no supply of ink? I cannot share my stories; I cannot share who I am with others.

Although I now write in English, it was my first language that inspired this passion.

For a few years, I have felt this familiar, integral aspect of life slipping through my fingers. After a day at an English-speaking school, suddenly speaking Armenian at home instead of English is challenging. As a result, I find myself not speaking Armenian as frequently as I used to at a much younger age.

Now, I am faced with the question that is sometimes too difficult to even think about: Who will I be if I can no longer speak Armenian?

I attended a small Armenian school in preschool. There, I was surrounded by children just like me. My classmates grew up hearing the same stories I did. My classmates knew the Armenian songs that I still know verbatim. My classmates spoke my mother tongue. Like me, they grew up immersed in Armenian culture. While around them, I felt nothing but safe and understood. 

After preschool, my family and I decided that it would be best for me to attend the same school as my sister. While this school and the Armenian school I was coming from both had tight-knit communities, this new environment was lacking something important. At that time, I could not pinpoint what exactly my new school was missing. Now, looking back, I understand that there was an absence of the Armenian culture I was so used to being around. Armenian culture gave me both a sense of community and identity.  

The transition between attending an Armenian preschool to going to an English-speaking elementary school was more difficult than I could ever imagine. Being engrossed in an English-speaking environment for an elementary school affected my ability to speak Armenian tremendously.

Once I began Kindergarten, I already knew that the language was getting farther and farther from my reach. When I became more comfortable with speaking English for most of the day, transitioning back to speaking Armenian at home was hard to stick to.

At my elementary school, I was just like my other classmates. But, at the end of the day, as soon as I opened my grandmother’s car door, I began speaking Armenian. The words would flow out of my mouth naturally; nothing was as familiar and natural. Speaking Armenian is as if a soft blanket is wrapping around me.  

One night, after a day at school as a fourth-grader, my family and I were enjoying our dinner together. My dad, speaking in Armenian, asked me the usual question of “How was your day?” Whenever I hear these words escape from his mouth, I can not wait to tell everyone about even the minor details of my day at school. From a difficult math test to a successful soccer match during P.E., I have an abundance of stories to share. 

As soon as I opened my mouth, I unexpectedly found myself stuttering. Panic overwhelmed me, paralyzing me for a few seconds. I had forgotten how to say a word in Armenian. With my dad, mom and sister staring at me, waiting for me to answer, I ransacked my mind for that one word that I was struggling to think of.

Finally, after an awkward moment of silence, I responded, with the rest of the words rushing out of my mouth smoothly. I was confused; how could I forget a word so suddenly? When I failed to remember the Armenian word, I not only was nervous about how my family would react knowing that I forgot a certain word, but I was also scared; scared to admit to myself that speaking my mother tongue was less familiar than it once was. 

From that day on, I found myself, every now and then, having trouble recalling a word. Forgetting one word turned into forgetting a few more over the years. Now, when my family and I gather at the dining-room table for dinner, I feel as though I cannot share every detail of my day because I am too scared I will forget a word in between sentences and immediately disappoint my parents.

In turn, I feel as though I cannot express myself in Armenian. 

Even though dozens of funny stories are waiting in my mind to be told, I cannot tell them to the people I love most. When my dad asks, “How was your day,” can I really tell him how it was? Now, I smile and respond with “Good. I loved my classes today.” I keep my responses short, concise; nothing too complicated. 

When my Armenian vocabulary shrinks, there are fewer words to express myself. 

Eventually, my unspoken stories and feelings that are built up inside of me will have to come out. If not, I will not be able to show my true self to my family and loved ones. 

Not feeling Armenian enough has been haunting me for years before fourth grade. Growing up, the majority of my Armenian friends spoke a “pure” version of Armenian with original words and their meanings. My family and I, on the other hand, speak a mixture of “pure” Armenian and less-authentic Armenian that has been modified by the English language.

From a young age, I have felt disappointed in myself for not being able to speak “pure” Armenian as well as others in my cultural community. 

It is not that I do not want to speak Armenian at home. I do. I want to connect with my roots and culture; it is what makes me who I am. Rather, speaking Armenian is difficult because the words no longer flow out of my mouth. Before I open my mouth, I feel forced to carefully think about what words I am going to say. I fear mispronouncing a word or not remembering a certain word.

What would my parents think? Most importantly, what would I think of myself? If I forget how to speak Armenian, will I forget who I am? If an essential part of my identity is muted, does everything else dissipate as well? 

Ever since I was little, my parents have told me that the United States is a melting pot. The idea that the U.S. is the equivalent of a melting pot comes from how different cultures nationwide eventually meld together and become one.

I would be told this repeatedly to remind myself of how important it is that I continue speaking Armenian — Without language, there is no culture. Without culture, you are pulled into the melting pot, my parents would tell me.

In some ways, I disagree with my parents’ statement that without language, there is no culture. While language is an essential part of different cultures, I am still Armenian if I do not speak the language. I can still be connected to my roots if I do not speak perfectly.

Language is one’s way of reminding themselves of who one really is, but other aspects of my life pull me toward my culture. Eating my grandmother’s Armenian dishes ties me back to my culture. Listening to Armenian songs ties me back to my culture. 

But, in some respects, I also agree with my parents. Without language, a large part of my culture is taken away from me. It took me several years to understand that language is irreplaceable, and if my mother tongue is gone, filling the void in my culture will be impossible. 

Ever since I was little, I, along with my sister, have gone to my grandmother’s house every Saturday for an hour or two. We spend our time cooking, baking and talking. As my sister and I were helping our grandmother stir together sifted flour, oil, sugar, sour cream and an egg to make nazooks, my favorite Armenian treat, my grandmother asked me how I had been liking school.

I have always felt comfortable talking to my grandmother about everything in my life; nothing feels off-limits. I began discussing how I have been enjoying English and history class only to find myself stuttering in the middle of a sentence. Immediately, I tried to rephrase my sentence with words I remembered and felt comfortable saying.

Not being able to come up with another word, I suddenly said “nothing.” At that moment, all I wanted to do was continue talking to my grandmother, to hear her soft giggles and comforting responses, but I knew I could not.

After coming home a few hours later carrying plates full of freshly-baked nazooks, I threw myself onto my bed. Staring at the ceiling, I tried to understand how I was feeling. There were no words to describe the emotions flooding my mind. I could not slap a label onto my feelings like I can when I am sad, happy or angry because the feeling was unfamiliar. 

Finally, once I gave myself a few moments to reflect, I realized that I felt detached from myself and my culture. But, most importantly, I felt detached from my grandmother, the person who I have always felt safe talking to. 

From this day on, I acknowledged that I had to prioritize speaking my mother tongue, as continuing to speak Armenian is the only way I can hold onto the special relationships I have between family members and the relationship I have with my culture. 

No matter how unnatural it may feel, I am urging myself to hold onto my roots, to not let my branches become weak. I never want to forget the stories my grandmother told me when I was younger. I never want to forget the songs I grew up listening to.

Without the ability to speak Armenian, I have no ink. Without ink, I am silenced. Even if I feel that I am not Armenian enough, I am encouraging myself to continue speaking. After all, I knew the language before I knew anything else. 

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