Armenian vs. English: One Mother’s Story


By Silva Maserejian Emerian

Rapido, James! Rapido,” I heard my 4-year-old son, Silas, call to his 18-month-old brother last summer. I cringed inside. We’re Armenian, I thought. Speak Armenian!

I speak our native tongue. My husband, although he is Armenian, does not. Growing up in Watertown, surrounded by Armenian cousins and friends, my sister and I were constantly told to speak Armenian. “Eeraroo hed Hayeren khosetzek” (Speak Armenian with each other) my parents, uncles and aunts would persistently remind us. I attended the AGBU school in Watertown and the Armenian Memorial Church, and feel blessed that, 25 years later, I have retained the ability to speak, read and write in Armenian.

But what about my children? I spoke Armenian with my boys when they were infants. But as soon as they began to speak, it was in English. How could I blame them? “Zoo” beats “gentanapunagan bardez” any day. As hard as I resisted, it became easier and easier to respond to them in English.

And then my guilt set in. Why am I not trying harder? Couldn’t I find Armenian workbooks somewhere to help them learn? Why am I not reading to them in Armenian? Am I being lazy? When they are older, will they question, as my husband did with his parents, why I didn’t persevere in teaching them our language?

My kids are going to grow up not speaking Armenian — and it is all my fault.

Friends chimed in with their two cents. Some think it doesn’t matter, because in this country they will only need to speak English — it has become the universal language. When would they speak Armenian anyway? I know one couple who both speak Armenian to their three children, yet, even though the kids understand it, they still choose to speak only speak English to their parents and to each other. Another family spoke only Spanish in the home until their daughter was 5, and as soon as she started school, English became her primary language.

My mind won’t bend that way, no matter how much I try to convince myself of it. Speaking Armenian matters. Knowing your native tongue matters. If you choose not to speak it, that’s fine — but at least you have the choice. Being Armenian is not just an ethnicity; it’s our identity, and language is a crucial element of that identity.

Speaking Armenian does not make us Armenian, but it does enrich us and enlivens our heritage. Will my sons need the ability to write a dissertation in the Armenian language? Probably not. But wouldn’t it be nice if they could have a conversation — with others or each other — at some point in their lives? What will it take to get them there? It is up to me to figure it out and to make it happen. Because it is worth it.

I am working hard to speak Armenian more often with my boys. When I say something and they look quizzically at me, because they don’t understand, I repeat it in Armenian and then English. It used to crush me that they couldn’t understand what they heard, but now I feel motivated to try harder. And when they do say something in Armenian, I feel hopeful again.

The next time Silas says “rapido” to James, I won’t hang my head in shame. I will teach him to say, “shood ureh” instead.

(Silva Maserejian Emerian is a full-time stay-at-home mother of two boys and a freelance writer/editor. She currently lives in Fresno, Calif. and does not miss Boston winters.)