The Incredible Lengths Armenians Go to Avoid Speaking Their Native Language with Me


A miracle happened at Losh cafe in Dilijan a few days ago. I ordered a cup of coffee in Armenian. The barista called out to me in English a few minutes later, "Your coffee is ready..." then stopped herself and started over in Armenian, "Dzer surchy patrast e." (Ձեր սուրճը պատրաստ է։) I am calling this miraculous because it was something I had started to accept as impossible. It was the first time in four years of living in Armenia that a local chose to speak Armenian with me when they had the option not to. I was beginning to think it would never happen and that I would never receive the benefits of practical immersion in the Armenian language, despite being surrounded by native speakers.

Usually, if I go to a grocery store or cafe in town and attempt to ask a simple question in Armenian about one of the items at the register, the cashier will more often than not leave to get someone who speaks English, apologizing to me that she can't help me because she doesn't speak English. Frustrated, I remind her in Armenian that I am, in fact, speaking Armenian (not English). She looks flustered and hurries away from my apparently terrifying presence.

All my Armenian friends who speak English have refused to apply even the smallest amount of Armenian in casual conversation with me the entire time I've lived here. I've politely asked many of them to start using the language whenever they can do so in a simple-enough way or whenever there's not something urgent or important to communicate to me. They all say they will. None of them ever do. Still others, when they hear about the absurd situation of every Armenian I know refusing to speak Armenian with me, promise that they will start doing so. Then they say a few common phrases I've heard a million times already, such as "Barev, vonts es? Inch ka chka?" ("Hello, how are you? What's going on?"). Then they never speak another word of Armenian to me again.

With a few friends, I've even tried to pay them to speak Armenian in my presence. I didn't expect them to teach me lessons, explain grammar, or dedicate regular blocks of time to me. I simply told them I would give them tens of thousands of dram to use Armenian in my presence instead of defaulting to English every time I was around. One refused. One took the money, spoke Armenian for about 20 minutes around me, and then never again.

This is the opposite of what I encountered when I went abroad to live in the Central American country of Costa Rica for a year after high school. Though a fair amount of English is in active use there due to the large American and Canadian tourist and expat population, Spanish is the primary and official language spoken throughout the country. With no official Spanish study or training, aside from looking up the translations of new words as needed, I became conversationally fluent in Spanish under these conditions of natural Spanish immersion.

This situation of forced immersion worked so well because the general Costa Rican population was outgoing and eager to speak Spanish with a foreign tourist like me. Additionally, I dated and spent considerable time with a local woman who spoke only basic English. Communication in our relationship was difficult at the start. I had to struggle to use the little Spanish I knew to talk to her, and she had to struggle to use the little English she knew to talk to me. When I left the country, we were much more comfortable in each other's native language.

Several years later, I entered a relationship with a Ukrainian woman I met while traveling in Europe who already spoke good English. Because of her pre-existing English proficiency, we were able to communicate comfortably in my native language from the very beginning. This sounds like a good thing, but it made it all too easy for her to avoid ever using either of her native Russian or Ukrainian languages with me (neither of which I spoke).

My girlfriend, of course, appreciated the opportunity to practice and refine her English with a native speaker and teacher such as myself. But as I wanted it to be easier for us to communicate, I encouraged her to start speaking small amounts of Russian around me. My goal was to pick up on the sounds and patterns of Russian, just as I had with Spanish years before. And since I was an avid world traveler, I knew it would be useful to be conversationally fluent in another language used widely throughout Eastern Europe.

Surprisingly, getting my Ukrainian partner to use even the smallest amount of Russian with me proved nearly impossible. I thought I was being courteous by giving her permission to speak to me in a language she had been speaking all her life instead of English, a language she had more recently learned and still sometimes had trouble with.

But the exact opposite proved true. I found that if she tried to speak to me in Russian, she would have to stop and think about what she was saying and how easy it would be for me to understand it. She had never had to do this before because she had been speaking Russian all her life. She rarely consciously thought about how the language worked or how what she said would be understood by someone who didn't already know it.

With English, it was different. Because she had consciously learned the language as an adult, she was accustomed to planning out everything she would say. Her competence in Russian was still almost completely unconscious. That prevented her from using it, except in the rapid and unanalyzed way she did with other Russian speakers.

By the end of our two-year relationship, I had memorized by rote only one real Russian sentence: "Ya znayu, chto nichego ne znayu" (Я знаю, что ничего не знаю). It's the translation of a quote attributed to Socrates: "I know that I know nothing." I still, somewhat humorously, default to repeating it whenever someone asks me in Russian if I speak Russian. It's my way of saying that I only know enough Russian to say that I don't know Russian.

So I was very frustrated when I finally moved to Armenia, hoping to learn the local language through practical immersion, but I ran into a similar unconscious linguistic wall. My friends who already spoke English insisted on only speaking English with me. It was a rare chance for them to practice with a native speaker and improve based on my feedback about what they were doing wrong.

I've also now been through five or six professional Armenian teachers. All of them were universally useless at teaching the language at a level beyond the basics of rote vocabulary memorization. It didn't matter how many times I tried to begin our relationship under the premise that I wasn't just looking for the same crappy basic instruction that most Armenian teachers offer. I wanted practical immersion and complex explanations for the rules of the language. Each of them seemed to understand my concerns and sympathize with my situation of having faced the same frustrations over and over with all my previous teachers. Yet, none of them acted any differently once I was their student. In fact, they seemed offended and confused when I reminded them that they had hardly actually used Armenian with me and that 90% of their instruction occurred in English.

Recently, after one of my many public social media rants about how horrible Armenian teachers can be, a teacher from Gyumri named Anahit Gasparyan (Learn Armenian) contacted me, wanting to do a language exchange with me. I would help her improve her English, and she would help me improve my Armenian. Normally, I'd be very interested in this kind of thing. But I'd already been through a few years of bad language experiences with people who thought similarly.

I blew Anahit off the first several times that she tried to talk to me about doing a language exchange. I thought for sure that she would just be another shitty Armenian teacher. Did I really want to go through that again and waste so much time on something that almost certainly wouldn't produce meaningful results? If you've been married five times and all of your exes turned out to be assholes, you'll probably be put off dating for a while because you're just going to assume that everyone out there is an asshole.

Through her pestering and persistence, Anahit finally convinced me to give her a chance. And to my surprise, she was the first teacher to actually listen when I would ask difficult linguistic questions like why she conjugated a sentence a certain way or the precise change in meaning between words. All my other teachers just taught out of a book or told me to memorize lists of words between each lesson (and were consistently surprised when I didn't feel inclined to waste hours of my weeks staring at words that had no practical application in my life). They didn't review concepts or reinforce the knowledge they had already given me, so there was little cumulative progress between meetings. They didn't put words and grammatical concepts into practical use, which would have enabled the consciously learned knowledge to transition into an unconscious habit (i.e., natural language acquisition, the way all young children learn their native language).

Upon seeing how much better Anahit was at adapting to my needs as a language learner, I started to wonder why she didn't bother to tell me that she could teach me in a way all other language teachers in Armenia couldn't. She should have immediately convinced me that she could offer me an experience, a service that no one else working in this area could have. But I realized that she doesn't understand that because she's never learned to think proactively and entrepreneurially. In fact, despite being better than every other Armenian teacher I've met in this country, Anahit was even shy about asking for money for her services. She should have been charging at least as much as the most expensive teachers in Yerevan for private lessons if she could offer better results.

I eventually concluded that my anomalous Armenian teacher, Anahit, suffered from the same psychological malady as the general public of Armenia, which prevented them from speaking their native language with me. They were both terminally self-conscious. Anahit didn't want her students to think critically about her teaching techniques and whether the service she provided was worth the price they would be asked to pay. She didn't want to be beholden to strong claims she would have to make about her teaching ability to charge a lot and really sell herself.

It seems that's the precarious position all my Armenian friends and acquaintances find themselves in when I depend on them to speak their language with me. The responsibility and critical analysis terrify them. The thought of it induces a trauma response that overrides what should be an automatic process of saying simple things in Armenian, the same way they do all day, every day with other Armenians.

As long as Armenians see me as an outsider, an other, and an incomprehensible threat, it will be impossible for me to interact with them on a level field. This principle also applies broadly to how Armenians see their place in a global society. The reluctance to adopt "foreign" yet objectively better ways of doing things keeps the common people here trapped in an obsolete and unnecessarily limiting past. There is no reason for anyone to keep their sense of identity rooted in such an exclusionary perspective. 

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