Armenian is not a foreign language to be learned later!

On the occasion of February 21 International Mother Language Day, we talked to philologist and Jamanak newspaper editor Sevan Değirmenciyan, who is also Armenian teacher in Pangaltı Mıhitaryan High School, about the importance of Western Armenian for Armenians in Turkey.

UNESCO declared 2008 as the International Year of Languages and stated that 2400 languages out of 6700 languages that are spoken currently is under the threat of extinction. 18 languages spoken in Turkey is also faced with this threat and one of them is Western Armenian. Though the Armenian society feels concerned that the number of people who speak Western Armenian decreases, young generation's interest in the language gives hope. On the occasion of February 21 International Mother Language Day, we talked to philologist and Jamanak newspaper editor Sevan Değirmenciyan, who is also Armenian teacher in Pangaltı Mıhitaryan High School, about the importance of Western Armenian for Armenians in Turkey. 

What kind of studies are being carried out in Diaspora, after UNESCO categorized Western Armenian as “definitely endangered language”?

In Diaspora, especially the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation has been making great effort. They held many meetings and I attended the last two. In these meetings, we realized that all Armenians, regardless of where they live, have similar problems and concerns. We also realized that we are not alone and stick together. There should be such meetings and studies in Istanbul too. We tend to think that the problems are only in the schools, but there are different classes in Armenian community and they have similar concerns. We can reverse the situation by launching local projects.  

Is Armenian really an endangered language today?

I must say that there have been a lot of meetings, studies and movements which are focused on Western Armenian and this fact shows that there is already an alarm and concern. This remarkable concern indicates a danger. UNESCO made this danger official. 

In terms of Turkey, is this danger really serious?

For Armenians in Turkey, Armenian has came under question as the daily language. Even the children who go to Armenian schools speak Armenian only in classes and they use Turkish outside school. And we also don't know whether they speak Armenian at home. First of all, I want to say that once we begin to see Armenian as a language to be taught, the language is no more a living language, which is a major problem. Children or young people see that this is a language to be learned and has no use in daily life. In part, this is our fault. Armenian is a language that shouldn't be learned; rather, it is a language that should be lived. Children do their homework in Armenian and don't make any effort. Sometimes, we expect too much from children; we expect them to read the works of Krikor Zohrab, for instance. This is not right; it is better if they speak and live Armenian happily. I think that there should be some efforts for encouraging people to feel in Armenian. 

When did Western Armenian become a language not to be lived but to be learned for Armenians in Turkey? 

I think that, in part, this is related to the development of Turkey and Turkish language. Our capacity to compete was limited and once the culture that we live in Turkey reached a level that we cannot catch up, we fell behind. I feel really sad, when people say, “What is Armenian good for?” We shouldn't ask such a question, because we see Armenian as a means of preserving the identity. On the other hand, people who live in Turkey and doesn't speak Armenian are trying to learn Armenian,

 because it is also an important language for Turkish history. I often say this to my students. We shouldn't ask what Armenian is good for; we should know that Armenian is good for many things and we should realize that. We are born with Armenian and thus, we have a natal profession. We can become a person of letters, historian, or we are privileged when we get into university, because we have Armenian. Armenian is more important than English in terms of Turkish history. 

Do elementary schools have an importance for Armenian?

I speak Armenian when I talk to my parents, because this is what I am accustomed to. When I was doing military service, I wasn't able to talk to my parents, because I had to speak Turkish and I rather not to. I think that schools are very important for getting children adopt speaking Armenian to each other. The problem starts in high school; children stop speaking Armenian in high school. They begin to think that they cannot comprehend life with Armenian, which is not right. Armenian is not only an education language; it is the language of love and streets. Students begin to disengage from Armenian, when they cannot see it in daily life and the disengagement becomes inevitable. 

Well, how can we improve this situation?

If the young people don't speak Armenian and if we think that this is their fault, we shouldn't tell them how to write and speak. We always try to correct, but we should abandon this habit, because this is discouraging. We should only say write and speak. I think that children and young people should write and speak Armenian, it doesn't matter whether they do it right. For instance, when they write something, they think that they cannot write it in Armenian. We should encourage them by saying, “Just write, don't be afraid of making mistakes. I won't correct all of your mistakes, but you will get used to write in Armenian and correct your mistakes on your own.”

Armenian is very important for Armenians in Turkey, because here, it is a language of resistance. Speaking Armenian in Turkey is a symbol of resistance itself. We are surrounded by nationalist oppression and just speaking Armenian amounts to resisting something. Young Armenians wrote slogans in Armenian in Gezi Park and Kamp Armen protests. When you wander around in Kurtuluş, you can see slogans in Armenian written on the walls. Such examples indicates that Armenian is not in a grave condition in Turkey; it means that people are conscious about their language. I see young people who make effort for speaking Armenian and this gives me hope. I don't expect every member of our community to speak Armenian, but there is a progression. 

There is another issue. We idealize the past too much. We long for the past, but on the other hand, we realize that many Armenians in Anatolian metropolises are Turcophile. If we can conquer Armenian all over again, we will meet a whole different culture. So, in order not to miss such a great culture, we should learn this language and be productive. 

How can we encourage Armenians in Turkey for being productive?

Production is the second phase. First of all, Armenians in Turkey should begin to live with this language. In the history, there are many writers who begin to write in another language and then start to express themselves in Armenian. For instance, there Mıgırdiç Margosyan. At first, he was writing in Turkish and then turned to Armenian. Rober Haddeciyan is another example. Gostan Zaryan is a very important novelist; at first, he was writing in French and Italian and later, he turned to Armenian. Some Armenian writers in Turkey, like Zaven Biberyan, Garbis Cancikyan, Zahrad,  used a very vivid and simple language. So, young people shouldn't consider producing impossible. They should just make some effort and try to publish their works. 

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Vartan Estukyan