A Heritage Speaker's Experience with Eastern Armenian

An interview with John Torosyan (University of Cincinnati).

John Torosyan, a graduate student at the University of Cincinnati, discusses his experience growing up as a heritage speaker of Eastern Armenian and then studying it in a formal environment.


Karapetian, S. (2019, August 28). A Heritage Speaker's Experience with Eastern Armenian [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from httpps://nhlrc.ucla.edu/nhlrc/article/206619

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Duration: 00:34:42


[Shushan] Hello, my name is Shushan Karapetian and I am with the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. Welcome to our new podcast series, entirely dedicated to heritage language research, education, pedagogy and lived experience. My guest today is John Hovhannes Torosyan. He's a UCLA graduate who is currently doing a Masters in Physiology at the University of Cincinnati. We're going to chat with John about his experience growing up as a heritage speaker of Eastern Armenian and then, at some point, studying it in a formal environment at UCLA. Welcome, John.

[John] Thank you. Thank you for having me.

[Shushan] So, let's start talking about your language acquisition as a child. Where were you born? Who were your parents? And - most importantly - what languages were you exposed to as a child?

[John] So, I guess I'll start real quick talking about my family.

[Shushan] Sure.

[John] My family was all born in Armenian. So, that's my two brothers, my mom and my dad. And then they all immigrated into America and that's when I was born.

[Shushan] So, you're the only child born in the U.S.?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Okay, got it.

[John] So, I'm the only child here... born here. And I was born in Hollywood, but we shortly moved to North Hollywood. So, that's been where I've been, like, I guess born... or, like, grew up and everything. And over there, that's where I started speaking Armenian. That was my first language just because, like, my family was used to it and that's how we speak at home. And up until now we even speak in, like, Armenian only. But...

[Shushan] Wow!

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan] So, what's the age difference between you and your brothers?

[John] So, my brothers are a little bit older than me. My oldest brother is 33 and my other brother is 30.

[Shushan] And you are?

[John] I am 22... turning 23 soon, but yes.

[Shushan] So, when you were a child, the dominant language of the family was Armenian?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] What about your two older brothers, among each other... among, like, the two of them? Did they ever speak English?

[John] To be honest, I don't remember that well. But from, like, my experiences now... up until now, we speak pretty much Armenian at home.

[Shushan] Wow!

[John] So, I would assume that they would speak Armenian with each other as well when they're at home.

[Shushan] Because typically, birth order makes a really big difference in terms of language acquisition. Research shows that the first born child has the best acquisition and then by the second and third child come around, the first one has transitioned to English. So, then the language among siblings is typically English. But this is a very unique case.

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan] How old were your brothers when your family moved to the U.S. approximately?

[John] Yeah. I want to approximate... [pause] I want to say, maybe, three and six.

[Shushan] Oh! So, they were young.

[John] So, they were young. Yeah. So, they had a lot of upbringing here as well.

[Shushan] Ah!

[John] Because I just remember some videos, like, early videos of, like, when I was born... they were, like, barely... they were barely coming here. So, it's like they were young too. And then I just see, like, videos... only videos of them being really young in Armenia.

[Shushan] I see.

[John] So...

[Shushan] Okay. And did your parents know English when your family moved here?

[John] Initially, no. Because we had... like, my dad had his sister and his brother that were here. So, it's like they came... they knew a little bit more, you know, they kind of, like, brought them in to a home, found them an apartment, and they slowly eased into it. But, like, both my mom and my dad tried really hard to learn English just because they know, like, they're going to need to know it eventually... their kids, and then me eventually. So, they wanted to make as best of an effort as they can to learn it.

[Shushan] So, how would you evaluate their proficiency now?

[John] Oo! [laughing]

[Shushan] Are they... [pause] I assume they're still Armenian-dominant.

[John] Yes, of course. At home, we speak Armenian predominantly but it's... [pause] My dad speaks it a lot better than my mom and that's because he's been doing plumbing and contracting. So, he's been exposed to, like, customers, stores, and everything.

[Shushan] Ah!

[John] He had to speak English a lot more.

[Shushan] I see.

[John] My mom... she worked when I was really young, and then she got out of work for about 8 to 10 years while she was kind of, like, raising me.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] My brothers, at that point, were in middle school and high school so they weren't that big of a deal. But she helped raise me and then once I got into, like, high school and then college... that's when she, like, started getting back to work. So, now, it has been improving a little bit more than what it was but, again, she works in Glendale and...

[Shushan] So, for those who may not be familiar with the situation in Glendale: Glendale hosts the largest Armenian population outside of the Republic of Armenian...

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] ... where 30-40% of the population and 40% of the student body is of Armenian descent. So, you could have a good like in Glendale and just use Armenian. And - most importantly - Armenian is the most widely spoken language above English. More people in Glendale speak Armenian than they do English. English is the second most widely spoken language. So, that's why we're giggling here when he mentions Glendale.

[John] And she does work in a... with a... [pause] She works as a medical assistant in an Armenian doctor's office with...

[Shushan] Of course! [laughing]

[John] ... predominant Armenian patients.

[Shushan] Got it.

[John] So, I can imagine she probably doesn't even use Armenian...

[Shushan] English. [laughing]

[John] ... I mean English at work.

[Shushan] Yeah! Got it, okay. Okay. So, you grew up in a home where Armenian was the dominant language. You were the youngest with two older brothers. Did you go to an Armenian preschool? Do you remember, by any chance?

[John] I did not go to preschool at all.

[Shushan] Okay. Because your mom was home with you, right?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Okay. And then when you went to elementary school, did you go to a public elementary school?

[John] Yeah, it was like five house down from where I lived, so...

[Shushan] Okay. And that was a English-only school, correct?

[John] Yeah, English only... people of all races. There were Armenian students, Hispanic students, White students, Black students... just a variety.

[Shushan] Okay. And then there's this traveling Armenian school that a lot of students have participated in called Mariamian & Davidian, where they go to public schools after school and it's, like, twice a week. Did you do anything of that kind...

[John] I'm not sure. I'm sure if it was that specific school, but in my third grade I did it for that... throughout that year...

[Shushan] It's probably that school.

[John] ... after school... [pause] Probably. Like, Tuesdays... Thursdays...

[Shushan] Yes.

[John] ... something like that.

[Shushan] Yes.

[John] So, I had that experience for one year.

[Shushan] One year.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Do you remember... what do you remember from that experience?

[John] I actually remember a lot.

[Shushan] Oh, good!

[John] I remember how, like, our teacher would always get mad at us if we would basically erase or try to correct any errors because she said it would look a lot more sloppy. Instead, she would say, "Write another one next to it...

[Shushan] Ah! [laughing]

[John] ... and just keep going through that." So, like, whatever letters we would work with.

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] And I still kind of didn't listen to her. I ended up buying, like, a pen that has an eraser. [laughing] So, I would erase the mark and then I would draw it again.

[Shushan] Okay. But you were learning the letters.

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan] You were learning the alphabet.

[John] I actually... [pause] In that one year, I learned the whole alphabet and, like, I was able to use it, and formulate words, and read a little bit.

[Shushan] Okay.

[John] But, like, it was very slow. And then the year after they were like, "Oh, let's move on to the next stages," and I was kind of, like, just being, I guess, not a good kid. And I just said, "No, I don't want to do it anymore." So, I never ended up doing any Armenian until I came to UCLA... any formal learning.

[Shushan] Wow!

[John] But I will say: I think I kept it very well where even the first class I had a UCLA, I was only missing, maybe, six or seven letters. And other than that, I picked those up very quickly. And even then, I would go to Armenia occasionally and I would still have no problem reading. I thought I kept it very well with just one year.

[Shushan] So, you're anticipating my questions. Okay. So, you only had that one year. I assume it's Mariamian & Davidian.

[John] We can assume.

[Shushan] ... but we can verify, yeah. And, again, for our listeners who may not be aware: This is a traveling Armenian school, basically. It's a traveling after school program that targets kids in public school who may not have opportunities for formal instruction in Armenian. And what they'll do is they'll something, like, twice a week for an hour or two and this is at the elementary level.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] A lot of students I've spoken to have had this experience. Okay. So, beside that one year... no formal instruction until college. And then how many times, or how often, did you go back to Armenia?

[John] Since I learned it until UCLA, I think I went to Armenia twice - once when I was 10 years old and then once, I was about 17.

[Shushan] How did that feel, not just in terms of literacy, but were you able to fully communicate? Did people comment on your Armenian? Any kind of experiences? Did you feel out of place or did you feel like you were a fish in the pond?

[John] Yeah. [laughing] Honestly... [pause] So, for me personally, I think I would feel that, like, my Armenian can improve... even now. I've always felt like it's not the best but I do feel like I also handle my own because I always get comments from people saying that they didn't expect me to speak it so well... just because, like, I'm able to use some difficult words or, like, read or, like... I don't know, use the language. So, I never actually felt that, like, I was too far away from it. It was just a matter of everyone in Armenian has lived there their whole life... that's the only language they know...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... or maybe, like, the main language they know.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] Versus me, who... this is, like, my second language but it's also, like, I know it pretty well.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] So, I could still, like, talk to people and just understand. And if I didn't understand anything, I was never afraid to say, "What does that mean?" Or, like, "How do you explain this?" I do remember cases where it's like I didn't grasp knowledge that we have, like, we have stuff here that they don't have. And this is, like, a very early example from, like, when I was 10 years old in Armenian. I wanted milk and cereal.

[Shushan] Uh-huh! [laughing]

[John] So, I asked them for...

[Shushan] Cold milk?

[John] ... well, not the milk part... [pause] I asked them for Cheerios, which would be, like, the Armenian equivalent for cereal. [laughing]

[Shushan] Yeah!

[John] And everyone was confused. No one knew what that was at the time. Now, if you go you'll probably find it.

[Shushan] Yeah. Oh yeah, you'll find it in the supermarkets.

[John] Yeah. But that was... that was a different part.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] Now, the problem is the milk.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] It's like, the milk is very fresh in Armenia. We're not used to that. We're used to pasteurized...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... and just...

[Shushan] And also, they're not used to drinking cold milk.

[John] Yeah!

[Shushan] Right? Usually milk is.. [pause] You know, they use it as something warm.

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan]So, okay. So, there's cultural differences.

[John] Cultural differences, too.

[Shushan] Yeah, yeah. Okay. So, let's talk about your experience at UCLA. How and why did you decide to take Armenian language classes at UCLA?

[John] Again, this kind of goes back to the idea that, like, I knew I didn't know it that well and then given that I only took one year of formal education - which I wish I told myself when I was younger to do more - I really wanted to improve my reading and writing. Because at the end of the day I could speak it, you know. That's what made the classes a lot easier... because I could speak it so I already understand it. It's just a matter of writing it down or, like, being able to read it. It was just, like... [pause] I wasn't sure if, like... like how I could on with my life if I didn't know my, like, mother tongue that well. So, that's why I kind of decided.. I'm like, "Hey, I should probably go to these classes, and learn from it, and just basically improve... like, improve as much as I can." And I did. Like I... [pause] Not only did I... [pause] I picked up the letters very quickly. So, like, that was not the issue. The issue after that was, like, "Alright. Now, I have to differentiate between the individual sounds in words that, like, I commonly use."

[Shushan] Right.

[John] Or it's like, I never realized that this one letter and this word I've used my whole life.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] So, it was just like little things here and there that I was trying to just pick up on and improve. So, that was, like, one experience with that.

[Shushan] How many quarters did you take? Three?

[John] Three.

[Shushan] Did you take a full year?

[John] I took the full 104 cycle.

[Shushan] So, Beginning Eastern Armenian series?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] And even though it's called "Beginning Eastern Armenian series," an overwhelming majority of the students are heritage language speakers and learners, correct?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] In my experience in the last 10 years, we've had a very small percentage of, maybe, foreign language learners, a very small percentage of broadly defined language learners... [pause] But an overwhelming majority of students have had a very similar profile to John's and we would describe them as narrowly defined heritage language learners, meaning that they have had exposure to the language since childhood, they have some proficiency, and - of course - that can be on a continuum of very little to, you know, a lot of knowledge and they bring that to the classroom. What were the biggest challenges and the biggest rewards of studying Armenian in college?

[John] I guess I'll start with rewards...

[Shushan] Sure.

[John] ... because that's a lot easier. [laughing] Rewards is just a better grasp of the language. So, I remember especially in your course where we would learn, like, language according to, like, different areas of our life. So, such as lets saying going... like cooking... or like cooking, like, we're basically... [pause] I learned, like, words that I would never use before but it's like... it made, like, at home life a lot easier. Because, like, when my mom would send me to the store she would say, "Hey, go buy some of this, this and this?" And at first, I would never know what it is. I'm like, " Okay. Can you, like... I'll show you a picture, tell me what this is." [laughing] But now it's like, "Oh! Okay. You wanted this. This makes sense." So, it does make my life a little bit easier, of course. It's like... [pause] It narrowed the little language gap that I have in my own, like, language... my own family.

[Shushan] Good!

[John] So, that's like one thing I noticed. And then other than that, it's just that, like, it broadened my horizon of, like, things I could interact with such as, like... like I watch a lot more Armenian television now, I watch a lot more about Armenian news... comedy shows and everything. So, it's like I get to interact with my language a little bit more.

[Shushan] Good!

[John] Not saying I couldn't before, but it's just... [pause] When it's more enjoyable...

[Shushan] Maybe the depths...

[John] Yeah. The depths...

[Shushan] ... the depths of the interaction.

[John] Yeah. It also makes it a lot more enjoyable. So, it makes me want to actually go after it and try to find it. So, those are some rewards that I found from learning Armenian. Now, for some challenges. I can't really say there was that many challenges. Like, it wasn't really, like... [pause] Like, I would never be looked down upon for, like, trying to learn my language or that, maybe, I didn't know it as well so that's why I'm taking a course. I think everyone in the classes were very supportive of one another and, like, even the people who were in the more advanced classes... [pause] Because I have a bunch of friends who were in those courses. They would never say, "Oh! You didn't know this?" You know, they would be supportive about it and they would help if we needed it.

[Shushan] Were there any issues with you using, maybe, like a colloquial variant of a word and then a professor saying, "Well, that's informal and here's the formal variant."

[John] Yeah, plenty of times. We would use words that we thought we... we thought that was how you said it for our whole lives and then our professor would clarify and say, "No, that's a Russian word." And I would say, like, "I never knew. I thought that was an Armenian word."

[Shushan] Right. [laughing]

[John] Like, you could go use that word in Armenia and everyone would still most of the time understand what you're saying...

[Shushan] Yes, absolutely.

[John] ... just because of the, let's say... like, a Russian influence in Armenia.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] So, that did clarify a lot things. But it did make it a little difficult. Those were, like, the words that were tough to study.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] So...

[Shushan] Right, yeah. Especially because Eastern Armenian is a diglossic language, meaning, like, the formal layer is very different from the informal layer and they're used in different domains. So, native speakers automatically know, right, I can use that colloquial Russian word with my buddies but if I'm speaking to my professor or if I'm giving an interview, right, they would switch to the kind of the authentic Armenian word. But that's an issue that heritage language speakers may have, right?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] They may not even know that there's a complementary partner that needs to be used. Okay. Let's see.

[John] Sorry, can I add one point to that?

[Shushan] Yeah, please do!

[John] Like, another thing with that... [pause] Like, something I realized - but at least I can say for, like, some of my friends in the courses - would be, like, with that... [pause] Like, with that said, the [դուք vs. դու, duk' vs. du 16:06]....

[Shushan] So, formal "you" versus informal "you.

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] So, like, I would refer to like, let's say, a professor or, like, an elder... [pause] I always used the formal version of it. I realize that there is that difference between (inaudible). But it's like, I did have friends who, like, didn't realize that. They would just speak to anyone with...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... with the informal version...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... just because they thought that's what it meant.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] So, like, why not.

[Shushan] That's a very good example.

[John] Yeah. So, that's like one thing I noticed. It wasn't specifically for me, but like at least another thing I noticed in that.

[Shushan] Yeah. A lot of heritage speakers have issues with that. Okay. Did you have an opportunity or did you consider taking Intermediate or Advanced Armenian? Or was it a scheduling issue? Or what was the decision-making process there?

[John] I did want to take more advanced courses. I even really considered the Armenian Studies minor here at UCLA. It was just a matter of timing. I, like... I took this course in my third year at UCLA. So, it's like all I had at that point was my fourth year to take all these courses and my fourth year I had, pretty much, a very packed schedule. I had four, four, and five classes for each quarter.

[Shushan] Wow!

[John] So, I didn't have time for anything else. I could have maybe taken it. Like, it could have fit in my schedule but I wouldn't be able to give it as much effort as I would like. So, I'm just sad that I couldn't take it here.

[Shushan] Okay. Where you... [pause] Did you participate in the Armenian Student Association when you were here at UCLA?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] What role did Armenian... the language play in the Armenian Student Association, if any?

[John] In the Armenian Student Association itself?

[Shushan] Uh-huh. Like, in their activities, and their meetings, and their vision...

[John] Pretty much everything. We would predominately speak English with one another, just because - we don't know - some people might not have Armenian as a first language. They might not know it well or different dialects of Armenian. So, some people had difficulty understanding each other but... [pause] So, that's why in those cases we would use English to talk to one another. But in terms of... [pause] Are you talking about the language or the culture or just...

[Shushan] Both.

[John] ... both?

[Shushan] I guess both.

[John] Because I want to say it had the biggest impact on the club itself, just because, like, everything we would do would be based upon going around the thoughts and the ideas of the Armenian Student Association. So, that could be basically learning more about... like, the language of itself or, let's say, the culture from, like... [pause] We would have like, let's say, the Armenian Wedding... like, the cultural affair. And we would have events where it's like we would have people come and sing - and that could be in English, it could be in Armenian. It could be people displaying their art. So... [pause] And like, a lot of, like, Armenian-based, like, events would be... or like, would occurred throughout the year. I was actually treasurer for the association in my second year for a little bit.

[Shushan] Oh!

[John] So, like, I took that organization near and dear to my heart. Other than just ASA though, I also joined, like, Alpha Epsilon Omega - so, the Armenian fraternity - and I was president for that for, like, my last two years. I joined an Armenian for Health Advancement club...

[Shushan] Oh, good!

[John] Armenians for Health Advancement. So, like, Armenian health organization here. Pretty much everything I did at UCLA was something involved with Armenians. I don't remember joining many clubs or events, or just hanging out with people who weren't Armenian. And that's not because I had a problem with them. It's just because I like to spend time with my fellow Armenians.

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] So, all my friends were Armenian... the people in clubs... my acquaintances... everyone in my classes, like, that I would interact with... everyone was Armenian. And I would like to say, like, I think most of that, too... ASA in, like, the first year... [pause] Because when I didn't know who to interact with... who to do anything with, I would go to, like, a first barbeque night.

[Shushan] Ah!

[John] So, it's like we went to barbeque night... made a lot of friends there... a lot of people who I would take classes with and, you know, just like friends and like future roommates. Everything I did was because ASA and, like, these organizations... they brought everyone together.

[Shushan] That was like a shared cultural heritage...

[John] Yeah. Everyone was, like... everyone's proud. Like, I feel like for Armenians a lot of people are proud to be Armenian. So, it's like when we get together... at first it might be awkward the first day or two. But once everyone gets used to each other and gets to know one another, then it's just like comradery...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... and everyone's just excited to be with each other and just share this culture that we have.

[Shushan] Wow.

[John] Whether it's like the food, the music, the language, the like visual arts... everything. Just... [pause] Everything comes together.

[Shushan] That's great. A question I forgot to ask about your upbringing and adolescents: Were there any extracurricular activities that you did that entailed the use of the language?

[John] To be honest, I didn't do many extracurricular activities to start with. And I didn't have anything involved with Armenian language itself. It was just... chess club in, like, the second year.

[Shushan] In school?

[John] In school, yeah. So, like I did that second year... third year. I did, like... or third grade, I did Armenian classes (inaudible).

[Shushan] The reason I ask is because a lot of students will have experiences like, for example, going to dance, right? It's an Armenian dance troop. Often the instructor is a first-generation immigrant like their parents. So, the common denominator is the Armenian language... or karate.

[John] Actually, yeah. Now that you reminded me, I did actually go to boxing for a year during my six grade, I believe. And that was at an Armenian... like, it was basically all the students in there were Armenian and like the coaches... everyone was Armenian. I want to say they were first generation as well. Yeah. That was actually like... [pause] Yeah, thank you for reminding me of that. [laughing] I completely forgot about this.

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] Yeah. So, I did boxing for about a year... made a couple of friends through that as well. And pretty much, just like the coaches... our lessons were taught in Armenian too, most of the time. So, it was like one hour but it was still like another kind of Armenian lesson...

[Shushan] Exactly!

[John] ... throughout the week.

[Shushan] It's all about exposure, right? The way language develops is with how much input you get. So, how much language exposure you have and then how opportunities you have to produce, right?

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan] So, these are amazing treasure tropes of language.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Okay. Let's talk about now, in terms of language use patterns and domains. When, where and with whom do you use Armenian now?

[John] Currently?

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] So, Cincinnati... no Armenian. [laughing] I don't get the chance to use it because I haven't met a single Armenian there yet.

[Shushan] Wow!

[John] Over there, I don't use any Armenian. But anytime I'm home... [pause] So, currently I'm home or had family over last night... [pause] Any time I'm around family, I use Armenian. Whether that's at home, whether it's at like a gathering... like banquet hall... anywhere... it'll be Armenian. When I'm with my friends, it will be a little but of a mix. So, I have friends that are both... who speak Western Armenian and then Eastern Armenian...

[Shushan] So, that's the other standard. So, Armenian is a pluricentric language. We have Eastern and Western Armenian. John speaks Eastern Armenian. So, when you are with friends who speak Western, what happens there?

[John] It's... there's a little bit of a learning curve. Like, we have gotten used to each other... we... like, we've like learned a little but of slang for both dialects. So, at this point it's a lot better but it's... initially, it was a little bit difficult because like, they would say words or we would always try to play games with one another. We'd say, "Oh, do you know what this means?"

[Shushan] Uh-huh. [laughing]

[John] And then try to basically stump one another... try to see who could get the most complicated word...

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] ... in their own dialect.

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] But like with that, it was like kind of like a growing... it was like we grew...

[Shushan] Yeah!

[John] ... like in terms of like speaking Armenian... because we were able to understand other dialects. But when time came to, let's say, interact with someone who speaks Western Armenian or like Eastern Armenian, we would have that, let's say... the Eastern Armenian friends talk to the Eastern Armenian person versus the Western Armenian friends talk to someone else. So, it was kind of like we helped each other translate any time we would have to. A lot of my Western Armenian friends are in groups like AYF.

[Shushan] The Armenian Youth Federation, yeah.

[John] Yeah. So, basically they would enter... like, they would have lot more... like, they had clubs and everything growing up and I never really did anything like that. And even now, when I look back at it, a lot of those students are Western Armenian in those organizations - not all of them, but they are mostly... predominately. So, it's like.... they had like, those interactions and everything. So, I got exposed to those... like, I did some volunteering events with them. I tried helping them out as much as I can just because at the end of the day, in my opinion, an Armenian is an Armenian. I doesn't matter what dialect you speak, or where your from or whatever.

[Shushan] But when you were volunteering, were you speaking Eastern Armenian? Did you try to accommodate and, maybe, use some Western Armenian pronunciation or vocabulary?

[John] I did Eastern Armenian because I knew I wouldn't be able to do Western Armenian. And it's like, I didn't want to, maybe, say something wrong or whatever because then they'll just make, let' say, jokes about it...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... and then I'll be like... I'll be like... basically they'll make like, fun of me...

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] ... to a certain way. Or maybe they might take it in a wrong way, and I don't want them to do that either.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] I'm just here to support.

[Shushan] Okay. So, you use it with it with your family. And with your friends, you say it's mixed.

[John] It's mixed.

[Shushan] What does that mean? Can you give me examples? Is it mixed based on okay, it's half English, half Armenian regardless of the topic? Or is it like, certain topics we speak about in Armenian? Is there any way you can qualify that?

[John] It's just a matter of, I guess like, how difficult the subject would be to describe.

[Shushan] Okay.

[John] If we're talking about something, let's say, that's difficult like, for me to say in the first place... or for someone else to understand - especially if it's a different dialect - then we would use English.

[Shushan] Okay.

[John] I would say we mostly use English. But then there's the times where we play, let's say, card games...

[Shushan] Like what?

[John] Like Belote. [laughing] So, like, we would play that... like, speaking of, we played two nights ago. And like, we would use Armenian throughout that whole time just because like, it kind of... it matches the scenario... like, it interacts with the game well.

[Shushan] So, for our listeners: Belote is a French game that is extremely popular in Armenia... that is also extremely popular among Armenians in LA who are from Armenia and Lebanese Armenians. Did you know this?

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Lebanese Armenians... [pause] Okay. So... [pause] And this is actually... had you not brought it up, I was going to bring it up. Belote is... [pause] Who did you learn to play Belote from?

[John] From, actually, a friend I met at UCLA.

[Shushan] Did you really?

[John] He's the one who taught me, yes.

[Shushan] And does your dad... or do your brothers play?

[John] Everyone.

[Shushan] Everyone plays.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Right. So, I feel like this is one of those things that's inherited from older generations and it's inherited in Armenian. Have you have seen someone play Belote in... not in Armenian?

[John] As in, they don't speak Armenian or they're non-Armenian?

[Shushan] Doing the game... [pause] No, no, no. Not their ethnicity but... [pause] For example, I remember the first time I googled it and the English language description came up and a French language description came up, and I read both of those and it felt so foreign. Because for me, the world of Belote had always been in Armenian. I've learned the game in Armenian. I've only played it in Armenian..

[John] In Armenian.

[Shushan] Right? So, this is a very Armenian domain for me.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] So, it felt awkward. I was like, what... the French... even though I knew it was a French game, right?

[John] Yes, yeah. So, no. I agree with that. Because like, even then when I play like, with my family... like, my uncles, my dad, my brothers... like, we would speak Armenian and... like, it just matches the game. Like, I feel like there's just some words that you say when you like...

[Shushan] Right!

[John] ... just throw a card down or something...

[Shushan] Right.

[John] ... and it's just fitting for the scenario.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] So, it's like what... maybe it's subconsciously or maybe it's part of the game. I just speak Armenian.

[Shushan] Well, I think also it's just association, right? You've learned this game in Armenian, right? And you've played it in Armenian.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] So, there's an association with the game and the language.

[John] And the language.

[Shushan] I'm sure you can play it in another language, but you've built this...

[John] It's not the same.

[Shushan] You've built this strong association.

[John] Speaking of... [pause] My friend who did teach me... he was older than me. He's always been... he's been about four years older than me. So, when he... like, when I first came here, he kind of got me into the fraternity itself. And he's very, very... like, I would say... like, on a scale of one to Armenian, he's very Armenian.

[Shushan] Okay! [laughing]

[John] So, like, even with him... I would always speak Armenian with him. From UCLA, I've had, maybe, two friends who would just call me by my Armenian name. And he was one of them. We would always interact with one another in Armenian. We would very rarely speak English with one another. So, I always kind of looked up to him like, as a role model. And so, it is kind of like a higher generation teaching me because he was. Like, he was graduating when I first got to UCLA and like, he kind of... like, molded a part of me.

[Shushan] Right.

[John] Especially with Belote.

[Shushan] I think another example I keep remembering is there's this popular game in Armenia called [տասնմեկ, tasnemek 29:20] - 11.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] I don't know if you've ever played it as a child?

[John] I've played it.

[Shushan] Yeah. So, I played it as a child and then my daughter, who's currently 11... my father-in-law taught her the game. And she's obviously English-dominant. She's a fluent bilingual but English is her dominant language. But any time she plays 11, she plays it in Armenian because grandpa taught her in Armenian. So, she knows all the rules. She knows all the vocabulary in Armenian.

[John] In Armenian.

[Shushan] Right? So, these associations I think, are very important to highlight and observe. Okay. So, family... friends... mixed... certain domains like, card games... [pause] Anything else?

[John] Any other scenario...

[Shushan] And then you said that something like, depends on the difficulty of the subject in terms of whether or not you'll use Armenia with friends. Is it the difficulty or is it the domain. Is it any subject as soon as you get to like, an advanced abstract level? Or is it... [pause] Do you know what I mean? I guess what I'm trying to get at is like, everyday stuff... casual stuff... Armenian... and then abstract... theoretical...

[John] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... professional... medical... all of that is English. Is that the divide?

[John] Yeah. So, I guess it would be, maybe, a little bit of both. But so... [pause] In the first case... if it was, let's say, a difficult domain.... essentially like, if I'm trying... [pause] A lot of my friends are also pre-medical just like I am. So, it's like, trying to explain to one another a difficult biology concept would be very difficult. Like, we could potentially do it but it would take a lot of time and like, it could be a lot quicker if we could just use English.

[Shushan] Right, right.

[John] In the other case, it would be... [pause] Let's say I was going to say some sentence. It would be something I know, but there might be one word which I don't know that well. So, then I would just quickly use English for that word and then come back to Armenian.

[Shushan] Got it.

[John] So, I feel that happens a lot in...

[Shushan] Yeah.

[John] ... heritage speakers.

[Shushan] Yeah. Code switching, code mixing... [pause] I think all bilinguals.

[John] Yes.

[Shushan] Even those who say they don't, probably do and they don't notice. And that's very common and very normal. Okay. So, we've kind of discussed what role Armenian has played in your life thus far. What role do you see Armenian playing in the rest of your life? The language.

[John] So, for the language itself... [pause] Eventually, I would want to... not only for myself... but just like, improve it. Because it is one thing for me that I think... [pause] It makes a person Armenian, to a certain extent. Like, I feel like you have to know the language at least to a certain degree - or at least make efforts to learn the language - in order to consider yourself as an Armenian.

[Shushan] To claim the identity.

[John] To claim that you're Armenian. So, with that said, I would want to eventually, say, marry someone who is Armenian and like, I would want to raise kids who are Armenian as well... and just basically be able to pass down the language as the generations go by, just because you do notice how... [pause] As the generations like, in America... like, they go... like, you're going to see that people are eventually forgetting the language and not being able to speak it as fluently, or just at all. So, like, you can see in people who have been here for many years... for many generations... the.. the... I guess like, the great grandchildren... grandchildren... they're forgetting the languages. So, it's... and it's... for them it's not really much of an urgency to learn it. And I would long to keep that urgency in my family and just try to keep moving forward with the language.

[Shushan] And what will you do to ensure that your future children learn Armenian?

[John] First speak it a home, just as I do now. I feel like that's how I learned my Armenian the best. It's just because I use it a lot. And that's because... [pause] So, I'll speak in Armenian with my future children. And then Armenian schools... maybe Armenian programs. If my kid would decide, "I don't want to do this," after one year [laughing]... I would say, "Trust me. Please continue. Don't make the same mistake I did."

[Shushan] Right.

[John] Or like, maybe they'll get the opportunity to learn it in a university setting as well. There's also Armenian schools - private schools - which a lot of my friends did go to. So, I would really heavily consider that. My brothers actually went to Armenian private school as well. I was a public school kid. [laughing] So, like, I would maybe consider taking them to like, a private school and surrounding them... just surrounding them with as much Armenian as I can... traveling to Armenia, making that like, culture known to my kids.

[Shushan] All research-based suggestions, by the way. Yeah. Okay, wonderful. Is there anything you wish I had asked that I didn't ask? Or anything you've thought of in the process that you didn't get a chance to say?

[John] For those listening, if you have not had the opportunity or don't know anything about Belote, I would recommend it.

[Shushan] Yes! It's an amazing game.

[John] And if you could eventually find someone who is Armenian to teach you, it will be a great leeway to learning the language as well.

[Shushan] Yes.

[John] But yeah, I think everything was... [pause] We got to everything.

[Shushan] Okay, wonderful. Thank you so much.

[John] Yeah. Thank you.

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Published: Wednesday, August 28, 2019