Language is a Bridge
When I first came to Armenia and started to learn the Armenian language I was overwhelmed by the difficult task ahead. I decided I was going to try and only learn the basics for survival because after all, who speaks Armenian?
I spent the first few months just trying to keep up with my classmates, actually invested and interested, but always with the idea in the back of my head that I really didn’t need to try that hard because Armenian is not a language which would serve me in the future, or one that could even look impressive on a resume. I even had Armenians telling me that I better invest my time learning Russian which could someday come in handy. I would forget my Armenian anyway, they would tell me, as soon as I’d gone back to the states.
Despite everything, I invested a lot of time learning the Armenian language, in part because only another person in the community I live in speaks English. I eventually started to notice people's appreciation of me having gone to the trouble of learning their language. I have been thanked for speaking Armenian, which is something that has really blown my mind. I have acquired other languages in my lifetime and lived in different countries and it never occurred to me that people could ever feel gratitude because I was trying to speak their native tongue. I might have felt, on the contrary, fear that natives would think I hadn’t been able to learn the language, that they were judging my mistakes, or my accent, or what not.
But when Armenians started to notice how much importance and time I was giving to their language we automatically started bridging a gap of difference, and they became interested in me as an individual and in where I was coming from. One of the goals of the Peace Corps program is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served,” People showed respect and gratitude to my dedication in something they consider so theirs, and in turn, they were open to me and became genuinely interested in my views. I think language is such an important part of culture. I realized that speaking Armenian has served me as a bridge to the people of this country, and by immersing myself in it as I have done, I can better and more fairly represent the culture of Armenians to the people of the United States. The third goal of the Peace Corps program is “to help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.” Family and friends used to be amazed that I could invest myself into such a completely different language with no connection at all to the languages I have been able to study. Some of them eventually were able to visit me in my village where I introduced them to Armenians and the Armenian culture, and was able to provide and facilitate for both Americans and Armenians one of the most interesting and authentic cultural experiences they will ever have. The Armenian language is hard, of course, but also rewarding and refreshing. Knowing the language turned me into a kind of ambassador, for both countries.
Living in Armenia has taught me the importance that language has, not just on the culture but in the identity of a people. I don’t think I could have been able to immerse myself in the culture and get the deep cultural experience I am getting right now if I had dismissed Armenian as an expensive luxury I couldn’t afford due to the practicalities of time and utility. I have learned that I am not so old to start something new from the very beginning, and ultimately, that there is a pleasure in learning for the sake of learning. After more than two years of living here, I still feel like I learn new things everyday. I love the Armenian language, and I rejoice meeting someone for the first time and looking at their surprised expression because I, a foreigner with no other ties to their country whatsoever, am able to speak their ancient, unique, and beautiful language.