On the occasion of February 21 International Mother Language Day, we focused on the initiatives working for making Western Armenian a living language. We spoke to Ani Garmiryan, who is responsible for the "Promotion of Western Armenian" program of Gulbenkian Foundation.
With Armenians' migration to different places in the world after the genocide, preserving the language became a more important issue. Today, every generation is faced with difficulties that are peculiar to the places they live and there are initiatives for making Western Armenian a living language in various fields. Being the official language of Armenia, Eastern Armenian is somewhat protected, but Western Armenian, which is spoken in Diaspora, Turkey and Middle East, is in danger due to natural assimilation.
In 2014, Gulbenkian Foundation Armenian Communities Department released the plan for a five-year project which aims “creating a viable future for Armenians, where Armenian language and culture is protected.” We spoke to Ani Garmiryan, who is responsible for the "Promotion of Western Armenian" program of Lisbon-based Gulbenkian Foundation about the condition of Western Armenian around the world, their projects and plans for the language.
As part of the five-year program of Gulbenkian Foundation, what are the projects that were planned to be realized and supported?
This is the 3rd year of the project and one of our main objectives is to promote Western Armenian. I got involved in the foundation thanks to this project. Gulbenkian Foundation provides financial support for schools, teachers and students in Middle East and Europe. The schools in Canada and in the US are included in the programs in part. According to the new plan, a course was set for the development of the language. We are planning projects for empowering Armenian and transferring it to the new generations.
What is the condition of Western Armenian in different countries? Do you plan to develop different projects and solutions for different places?
In Lebanon, Armenian continues living socially, it is spoken in and outside home, used in written language, but it is mostly limited to the issues concerning Armenians. There should be some studies for seeing and creating the world within that language. Last summer, we started a project with this purpose. We invited 45 high school students from Lebanon and organized a summer camp with the purpose of encouraging them writing in Western Armenian for Wikipedia. We also wanted them to gain confidence. By writing and translating and more importantly, by realizing that they can write, they achieved a good job. They continue writing. We want to organize a similar camp in France this year. We will invite students from Europe and Turkey and organize a summer camp for almost 60 students. In western countries, Armenian is taught as a second language and this causes a difference of methods. We shouldn't hesitate to suggest second language methodology, when we talk about Armenian education. Every language that is learned in a positive way helps learning a new language. However, we should treat the students from Iran and Armenia and the students from the US and Canada differently. Since in the latter countries, people speak Eastern Armenian and there are communities with thousands of students.
What did you manage to achieve in 2 years?
There was a report prepared by Dr. Hourig Attarian for Gulbenkian Foundation about the condition of the schools in Lebanon. Thus, we started from Lebanon. There are 26 schools in Lebanon and they are the schools that the foundation helped most. We thought about how we can provide help to those schools in terms of language education. We formed a local committee consisting of 9 scholars who study on language. Our suggestion was this: before doing anything, we should present a survey with hundreds of question to everyone constituting the school community (teachers, students, workers, families, graduates) that will enable them to express their thoughts about the school and evaluate themselves. 23 schools participated in that survey. Everyone was able to see themselves in the mirror with their strong and weak sides. They realized that they can handle most of the deficiencies themselves. And with the committee, we will provide joint projects considering the complaints about Armenian education in which many schools can participate. In addition, we are working with Howard Karagözyan Foundation in Lebanon for providing equal education for the children with learning disabilities. We believe that we can provide education about this issue for teachers as well.
You visited Turkey last year. What kind of a course was set for promoting Armenian in Turkey?
We formed a committee in Turkey. I met with school principals. As we did in Lebanon, we will start with an evaluation survey. We invited 16 schools for participating in the survey. With the help of the results of the survey, we will work with the local committee for launching projects for schools in Turkey. Also, 7 Armenian schools in France will participate in the survey and evaluate themselves.
What are the results of the meetings that were held as part of the program?
On September, we organized a conference with INALCO Institute and Anahid Donebedian which many linguists, scholars and teacher from 13 countries attended. We held round-table meetings for 2 days for discussing how we can modernize the Western Armenian education. There should be more studies like this. In various places, there are people who carry out nice works with individual initiatives. With the help of current opportunities of communication, we want to create a medium in which they can get together and work. We planned a workshop in Portugal which 40 educators and scholars will attend this summer. Writers, illustrators and people who work for children will come together and share their creative projects. We should think about developing creative methods for teaching language with the help of theater and music. If we succeed in that, everyone could inspire people about language in their homelands. It is important to revive the creative power of language. However, there is a great difference between the current methods and these projects I have just mentioned.
There are few Western Armenian teachers and the methods and tools are outdated. How can we achieve improvement in that field?
This is the most important issue for me. Panicking with the fear of losing the language leads to pessimism and losing faith in the power of language. When you try to teach everything, cultural aspect weakens. You should make that language interesting. For instance, you can choose an event happened in the world in accordance with the age of the children and talk to children about it and investigate the words related to that event. Armenian should be more than a language spoken in the courses; children should think in Armenian. Starting to think in a language is not easy. Making children memorize some concrete nouns shouldn't be the only goal; necessary terms in every field and abstract nouns should also be taught. In this way, the language can become a scientific language. Another important point is that the children should speak Armenian when they are playing. 26 years ago, we organized a workshop called “Mgnig” in Paris. We wanted to create a place where children would love to came in which people speak Armenian. At the beginning, children from the families who speak Armenian at home were coming there. They were going to French schools. We wanted to make Armenian an organic language that children use when speaking to each other. If speaking a language doesn't seem natural for children, they would stop using it in a short while. We didn't ask them to sit down with a pencil and paper. Our purpose was to develop the things they like doing in the workshop. Mgnig became a enjoyable place for children. Today, the first and second generation who were raised there use Armenian when talking to each other, though they completed their studies and started working. Now, they are running Mgnig. At the same time, they opened themselves to the world. Some of the members of “Collectif Medz Bazar” are from Mgnig. We didn't want to be limited by a ghetto; we opened ourselves to the world.
How should we approach to language for reviving its creative power and opening it to the world?
Everyone should start from where they are. If we couldn't make children love the language and use it when they are dreaming or joking around, then there is a problem. Mgnig slowly created itself at the center of France. Let me give an example. One day, while children were playing in the workshop, they began to speak French. I didn't force them to speak Armenian. I wanted to understand why they turned to French. All children were playing the same game in their schools. We realized that and suggested games in Armenian. There is another example that I often give. One day, we were walking to the subway with children and I realized that they speak French and started to listen to them. They were curious and interested in politics, but they didn't know how to speak about politics in Armenian. We were telling stories to them in Armenian, but they were interested in politics. Names of the political parties and political terms are long. I collected Armenian newspapers and created a game by putting the words related to the topic together. This is exactly the thing that adults should learn: understanding the things in which children are interested.
Spelling is another difficult issue in language education. What kind of a method can be adopted for teaching how to spell?
I think that we have to improve ourselves in learning psychology. If we say, “this is too hard”, then things would become harder. This is true for every language. There are many issues that are more important than spelling. You should hear the language first, then love it and start joking around and dreaming in that language, make up words. Children should hear and see Armenian. I am talking about seeing before learning how to read. They should make relations between what they see and nice pictures. For instance, they should read all the books by Anahid Sarkisyan. If a child meets a language before the age of 4, plays using that language and feels herself belonging to that language, she would be open to that language when she starts to go to school. Then, she will learn how to write. She might spell wrongly, but you shouldn't discourage children. In Mgnig, we were careful about not using negative words like 'amot' (shame), “çar” (naughty) or “skhal” (wrong). When a child writes as she hears, it is natural to make mistakes. In Armenian, the understanding of reading and writing is outdated; it is from 12. century. They see reading as deciphering. On the other hand, in the world, reading is understanding. If children doesn't know too many words in a text, you shouldn't make them read it. For instance, you can give them 10 poems and talk about the ones they liked. Children can contribute to their learning process. And we see writing as copying. However, writing is to write down what you think. This is what we should encourage. Children shouldn't be afraid while they are writing down their thoughts. We should give children some time to learn. You can improve your spelling only by reading. In Mgnig, we weren't grading or make children memorize anything and they learned how to spell very well.
Using new technologies became indispensable for language education. What kind of projects can be developed?
If a language exists everywhere and is developed by modern technologies, then people would use it all the time. We should consider this when we talk about Armenian. There is no Armenian on the walls and streets. Today, even our songs are in Eastern Armenian. New technologies are useless, if we don't know what to create with them. Translation is very important for the development of a language. Our foundation supports translation projects. Soon, we will release a list for translating the works of modern thinkers and authors into Armenian. This project is about Turkish and Eastern Armenian. Digital applications about games and language are welcome. We are in contact with TUMO Center in Armenia for understanding what we can do with new technologies.
Is it possible to develop projects outside school in order to prevent Armenian from becoming only a language for education in Turkey?
History of the language of Armenians in Turkey is more complicated. Western Armenian is an Anatolian language; Turkey is the motherland of Western Armenian. From this perspective, we call Armenian that is spoken in Armenia and Iran Eastern Armenian. And Armenians who had been living in Ottoman Empire and then spread to Diaspora speak Western Armenian. We should acknowledge the importance of Western Armenian without ignoring the other one. This is a language that has no land but has a rooted culture. First of all, we have to protect Western Armenian; its dialects are forgotten, but it lives as a second-order language. Gulbenkian Foundation welcomes projects of people who want to learn and teach Armenian outside school.
Lastly, we want to ask about Aleppo, which was a place where Armenian is not only spoken, but also produced. How will the migration from Aleppo affect the language?
Armenians in Syria are going to Beirut, Europe and Armenia. What would happen in Armenia? Eastern Armenian might become dominant. Children get used to the language of local children; this is inevitable. Armenian state and NGOs should handle this situation seriously. Local institutions should take the lead for using Western Armenian in Armenia.