One Year Anniversary: Studying Armenian

It’s a week or so premature for the 1 year post, but I have indeed been studying Armenian for about a year now. Let me share more than you want to know!

The memory is vivid. New crap laying all over my carpet, in front of my huge Plasma TV. This was to later be stuffed into one of 2 suitcases during a night were I would slightly freak out, cry a bit about leaving home, get myself together before my dad got home with the vacuum bags, and suck it up and decide to jump into the deep-end that was the flight to Armenia. But I digress, crap on my carpet, huge to do list on my desk, laptop and desktop sprawled next to each other trying to frantically transfer pertinent data, checking Craigslist to see if someone would come take my bed that night, and oh yeah, trying to study the little PDF Peace Corps sent me with basic Armenian phrases transliterated into English.

Listen to recording. Listen again. Read transliteration. Try to say it. Repeat recording. Use a Borat voice to say “Welcome to Armenia!” Wonder why all the letters looked like u’s and w’s. I can be there if I close my eyes.

Sun shining in my greasy face. The smell of cigarettes and BO coming from the PCV next to me. Uncomfortable bench chair. Stomach gurgling with advanced diarrhea. Smell of shit coming from the bathroom next door. Beautiful Armenian teacher. Trying to take notes fast enough, yet failing every time. Sweating uncomfortably as I waited for the next break where we would stand around outside together and complain. I can be back in the PST classroom too if I close my eyes.

Incredibly strange dreams. People, Armenians, inside my bedroom while I’m asleep trying to speak to me in Armenian. Me not understanding and being angry that they are watching me sleep. Be worried that they’ll see me in my boxers. I can remember these dreams without closing my eyes.

There was, for a long time, a feeling of hopelessness. There was so much I didn’t know, and so little that I did know. Nothing made sense. I felt no progress. It was very hard to keep studying when you know there is so much to do.

But the small victories were enough fuel to keep going. Positive feedback from the teachers, a few brief moments of understanding with the host fam, and a surprising score on my language proficiency exam. There was a fire inside of me to learn this language. Honestly, it didn’t matter what language it was. Learning a language was as big of a dream as the Peace Corps was. It was a huge component of my desire to join. But as I came to know it, I began to love the Armenian language.

No genders. Yes! No difference between present simple and present continuous. Yes! Completely phonetical alphabet. Yes!

Yet there were things I hated too.

39 new letters to learn? No! Sounds that I can’t differentiate? No! Declensions of nouns? No!! Intense local dialects? No!

The cool thing is, to love something it is not required to love everything about it. I still loathe a few things, but I carry on learning this interesting and beautiful language.

Where am I now? I’m not sure. I can say a hell of a lot more than I could in the fall, but I am not fluent. I get stuck when trying to explain things. I have to take time to think which ending to connect to my verb. Which tense should I use? Is this verb irregular? Should I use dative here? Where was my definite article there? I totally just said “Aram went to the store” instead of the correct, “The Aram went to the store.” English tendencies still predominate in many situations. And that’s just in speaking.

Understanding is a different beast. While I can understand more than I can say, it’s not enough. Depending on the person and topic, I might understand up to 70 or 80%. And then it dips as low as 5%, especially in Vardenis. So that is troubling and depressing at times.

Honestly, I am learning literary Armenian. To learn Vardenis Armenian, I need to know a completely different word for maybe 40-50% of the vocabulary. It’s incredible and daunting. I choose to continue to focus on literary Armenian and just hope to be able to better understand the local barbar as a result.

I can notice a difference when I go to my tutor’s house now. Instead of translating sentence after sentence, we tend to have several big conversations. Armenians from time to time tell me that I’m getting better. And when I go back to Solak it’s always the biggest indicator of progress. However, there is still so much to do, and I am realizing that I might never be as good as I hoped. I guess part of language learning though is being realistic, not beating yourself up, and appreciating the progress that you have made.

Yeah, I’ve talked a lot about language through this blog, but it is one of the most interesting points of being here for me. It’s important for me, even if I will never use it again after August 2012. It’s a challenge and an academic exercise with a huge practical application, which is so cool. If I can stay motivated and dedicate more time to studying, I could be in a very good spot next year.

For now, I can say that I’m proud. I can read and speak a foreign language with intermediate proficiency. I can get by okay with my skills. And it’s allowed me to have some great moments with Armenians!

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5 Responses to “One Year Anniversary: Studying Armenian”

  1. Gail Says:

    Guess I better get busy learning the language before I arrive in September!

  2. Emma J. Says:

    KEVIN!! Love this post. Still trucking along with my local dialect. Keep it up!!

  3. Wayne Burt Says:

    My only regret was that I did not learn the language enough after two years to have an intellectual conversation with my Armenian friends and coworkers. You are already well on your way and have one more year to improve on those skills. You will have a far richer experience just because you have embraced the language. My sincere congratulations.

  4. icenugget Says:

    @Mom – They will be floored if you even speak a couple words. More lessons are in your future! When I tell people that I’m teaching you I get the biggest smiles.

    @Emma – Good to hear you are making progress! Do they have a lot of different dialects in Cameroon? I’m guessing yes. But are they all connected to a mother language or are they distinctly different languages? The advantage I have is that the local dialects here are all based in “normal” Armenian. Think of Vardenis Armenian as something really slangy, like trying to speak ebonics when you are learning British English.

    @Wayne – I don’t think you should regret it too much. From what I saw, you worked really hard on the language during your entire stay. That isn’t true of most volunteers. The fact that you were placed in Vardenis surely didn’t help anything. I was riding with a man from Gavar one time, who told me that he didn’t understand people in Vardenis. For those not familiar, Gavar is the “state capital” and a mere 1.5 hours down the road! Can you imagine if that were the case in the States? Anyway, thank you for the kind words and I hope to work even harder at it as I feel I have slacked off recently.

  5. Two Year Anniversary: Learning Armenian « IceNugget's Blog Says:

    […] just read the one year post about learning Armenian. I have to say it’s nice to be able to read that snapshot because it contains many things I’ve […]

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