You know Armenian? Good for you.

The arrival of new people struggling to learn Armenian and a looming language proficiency interview mean many of the thousands of thoughts flowing through my mind in a day are linguistic. Where am I now?

That is always a tough question to answer I think. It’s really easy to beat yourself up. It’s easy to not see progress under the daily microscope. It requires a step back or a slap in the face to see the big jigsaw puzzle you have thus far assembled and not the pile of pieces waiting to be snapped together.

Recently my interaction with the new volunteers has given me perspective on my own language learning. All of the sudden I’m remembering that I used to only understand a few words. Meanings were a distant thing.

Now I can grasp a meaning out of the murky mess that is only partial comprehension in an average conversation. Individual words may sink to the bottom, to my dismay, but more often than not when the sentence is completed the meaning floats up to the surface, albeit a little soggier and squishier than I would like.

I’ve gone from explaining essentially, “I have no idea what you are saying” to “What does that word mean?” or “Can you explain it a bit more?” It could be one of the biggest jumps in language learning, as it gives the speaker something to work with rather than a white flag. The conversation will continue.

My own oral fluency is building, but it seems a bit retarded compared to my understanding. At this point I am able to understand things that I am not able to express myself. It makes sense though if you consider personality and disposition. I am more of a listener than a talker in general. When you add in a certain level of self-consciousness that comes with speaking a foreign language, not knowing a word, struggling with pronunciation, or constantly being misunderstood, the desire to blab is suppressed. I have realized that I am one of those language learners who is too concerned with rules, who tries to make something perfect before saying it, and who doesn’t use the language with reckless abandon. The guy who doesn’t shut up and isn’t concerned about the accuracy of his language is the one who will gain oral proficiency at a faster rate. So I have that personality trait working against me. Regardless, things are going well and I am able to express a lot these days.

There is another thing, as a native English speaker, that just works against you. It’s a beautiful thing and an annoying thing all at once. Everybody wants to speak English. We are the lingua franca right now. Despite what the old guy next to me on the marshrutka thinks, Russian is not the most important language in the world. Nor is French, any more. For the time being (I’m guessing we should be safe for our lifetimes), it’s English. For that we are lucky. We can go anywhere in the world and our native tongue is the most likely understood foreign language. Kids everywhere learn English in school. I think the Germans know English better than we do. So it’s cool because it makes the world accessible to us. It’s our party and the rest of the people on planet Earth have to study a bunch to be able to join in. But, it is also a big handicap for us to learn foreign languages. First, it diminishes the need to even learn a language at all. On top of that, when we are somewhere like, say, Armenia, there are going to be a bunch of people who speak English and seek us out as English speakers.

I can’t tell you how much better my Armenian would be if I wasn’t able to use English on a daily basis at work. I’m not complaining – it has made life a lot easier for me – but it is a big factor in language acquisition.

There is another related piece though. I have gotten very very good at speaking basic, clear, no frills English. Any foreigner who is fairly proficient in English, but who has limited interaction with English speakers, will have a lot of difficulty understanding us. Think of the variety of English that exists. The UK, the US, Australia, Ghana, Belize…the language is different in every place. If I use my normal, comfy American English, my words will just be lost. The other end of it is understanding what a foreigner wants to say in English. That is also a skill that must be practiced.* Knowing the speaker helps, but even more helpful is knowing the speaker’s native tongue. And that leads me to…

*We (Americans) are undoubtedly some of the best at sympathetic listening, if we choose to be. Your nationalistic uncle who denounces all American immigrants (despite the fact his family at some point immigrated as well) might not be able, and sure as hell isn’t willing, to do it, but what other nation has practice hearing people from all over the world try to speak their language? All the accents, the funny ways of saying things, the false-cognates…we are able to listen to foreigners and fish out what they are trying to say. Believe me, in other countries they will burst out in laughter when you attempt to mutter something in the local tongue, just out of the pure novelty of hearing someone who is foreign trying to speak their language.

The Way We Say Things

Many times it isn’t just a matter of knowing the word you need for a situation. Knowing a language means knowing how those people express an idea. This is that no-man’s-land where direct translations fail.

American English: Stop here.
Armenian: Stand here/ Keep here.

The lights are on.
The lights are burning.

Light a candle.
Fire a candle.

Will you tell me?
Will you say me?

I don’t have anything.
I don’t have nothing.

You are winking at me.
You are doing with your eyes me.

I took a test.
I gave a test.

There are lots of other little quirks you just have to know too, just like any language.

There are 2 ways “to think” in Armenian. I need to, I must, and I should are one single idea in Armenian.
If you are playing soccer, that’s not the same as playing piano. No one will tell you to “Sit down please” or “Please eat”….just “EAT!” or “SIT!”

That last one takes a lot of getting used to when Armenians with bad English are trying to be nice and end up yelling at you to do things!

I’ve learned a substantial amount of Armenian. However, those words will all one day fade away. The lasting and deeper lesson learned during this time has been about the process of language learning and the experience of being a foreign speaker. With that has come an empathy and respect that will last a lifetime.

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