My Armenian Language Anxiety: Confessions of a Xenoglossophobe

By Christopher Atamian

When I was growing up in the 1980’s in New York City it wasn’t fashionable to assert one’s ethnicity—unless you were a White Anglo Saxon Protestant.  As a result, few of us who were the children of immigrants learned to speak our parents’ native tongues. I was partly an exception. I learned my mom’s Italian but for some reason could never master my dad’s language—Western Armenian. I attended Saturday school and Armenian summer camp, but try as I may I simply couldn’t do it, a fact that haunted me for decades.

On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I walked into a plain-looking Armenian bakery on Hollywood Boulevard, attracted by a neon sign in Armenian letters. The sweet smell emanating from within its bare walls instantly transported me back to my godmother’s kitchen in Morningside Heights when I was a child. The delicate aroma of poppy seed, basil, cumin and recently baked spinach and cheese beuregs wafting through the air created an Armenian Proustian moment.  Looking around, you could tell that you weren’t in some fastidious French patisserie or immaculate German bäkerei. The items were identified in thick hand-written black marker, in Armenian lettering: “choreg, beureg, nazook.” I read each name as my eyes scanned the rows. But as I thought about attempting to speak Armenian with the saleswoman behind the counter, a queasy feeling came over me—not the almost instinctive buzz I experience whenever I am on the verge of satiating my daily sugar cravings.

Why was I so apprehensive about speaking Armenian? Although I could technically read the language and understand it, in public I could barely eke out three words: I could say parev, hello khntrem, please and keesher paree, good night. I could also spew out a whole set of not-so-nice-sounding expletives that insulted most members of your immediate family in all sorts of unseemly ways. The mildest of these insults, “Kaffas mi kooner!” translates roughly as “Don’t f— my head,” i.e. leave me the hell alone. And that was the sum total of my knowledge of Armenian.

Some years after finishing grad school, and still unable to speak my paternal tongue, I decided that enough was enough. I hired a tutor from Beirut who was getting her PhD in Armenian Studies at Columbia University. We breezed through the textbook—a dry white volume with no pictures by Haroutiune Kurkjian—in under three months. I was soon reading simple literature and several years later I was awarded the Tölölyan Literary Prize for my translation of Nigoghos Sarafian’s “The Bois de Vincennes.”

I should mention before moving on that false modesty aside, I’ve always possessed a somewhat uncanny ease for learning foreign languages. I truly love the process, which no doubt accounts for much of my abilities—I will sit for hours repeating verb forms or new vocabulary, or trying to figure out the meaning of a difficult text written in a strange tongue. Some people like to smoke pot to relax, others like to do kundili yoga or lie inside a hot sauna. I prefer to curl up with a grammar book and learn a new language.

Growing up I regularly won the French prize at the Lycée Français although I was born in America. I took Spanish when I transferred to an American prep school and finished third in a national competition with an essay titled Pablo Neruda and the Nature of Things.  By the time I was twenty-one I could speak six languages, and while studying in Zürich after college, I could mimic several Swiss German dialects with ease. And so on with Dutch (sounds like German) and Portuguese (sounds like Spanish). But a puzzling problem remained. If I watched Armenian TV, I would struggle to understand what was being said. Worse yet: whenever someone asked me if I spoke Armenian, I would answer anshooshd (of course), utter one or two stock sentences—and then freeze.  

The woman behind the counter in the bakery asked me in Armenian what I wanted. I answered with relative ease: Yergoo choreg, yerek nazook yev hink baniri beureg.  Two choregs, three nazooks and five cheese beuregs. Then she asked me how I wanted to carry them out and I couldn’t answer. I wanted to say: “Can you put them in a plastic bag for me, please?” I knew the words for “plastic bag” (plastike dobragi) and the expression “could you please put?” (khuntrem gareli e tnel?), yet I couldn’t actually utter the complete sentence. Instead I blurted out something completely unintelligible that might as well have been Hungarian or Swahili. The puzzled woman just stared at me as if she had met an alien from linguistic outer space. Defeated, I switched to English: “Can you just put them all in a plastic bag for me? Shad merci.” 

I slunk back along Hollywood Boulevard to my friend Felix’s house and recounted the whole sordid tale of my most recent attack of Armenian Language Anxiety or ALA. Felix, an Austrian-American WASP who is about as odar or non-Armenian as you can get, looked up and exclaimed: “Well that’s ridiculous, you speak ten other languages. Your German is gorgeous. Maybe you just need some practice. Why don’t we rent you a nice hotel room in Glendale and you just go speak with the natives for a week or two?”  There was no doubt some truth to what Felix was saying. I hadn’t grown up in Beirut or Aleppo—two cities with large Armenian ghettoes—and so I had never lived in a place where Armenian was spoken as lingua franca. But there was something more at play than these facile explanations, something deeply rooted in the diasporan unconscious and transmitted both subliminally and outwardly.

As someone who came from a literate family that had survived the Armenian Genocide and was deeply invested in Armenian culture, I somehow felt as if I carried my nation’s history squarely on my shoulders, like it or not. Part of it also had to do with paternity and its central role in Armenian culture. During my entire childhood whenever someone asked me in front of my father: “Do you speak Armenian?” I would stare dumbfounded as he sternly barked back: “He has no desire to speak his own language.” Having been born in New York City my “own language” was English.

My father and I would get into mind-numbing fights over the topic.  After all I would argue, he had moved to America from Beirut. He had sent me to a French school and not an Armenian school. And he had married an odar. With whom exactly was I supposed to speak Armenian when we spoke French at home? The clincher was always my father’s contentious statement concerning the so-called “perfect Armenian alphabet”: “My son,” he would say, his brow furrowing and his voice dropping an octave as if he were delivering the alchemical secret for turning any substance into gold:  “Each letter of our alphabet has just one sound. Not like your cherished English. Take the letters “o-u-g-h,” for example,” he would continue dramatically. “You say through, but though. You pronounce bough but cough. Does that make any sense? Now that’s a stupid language if I ever heard one.”  Armenian, a perfect alphabet for a perfect language. These linguistic pronouncements he would repeat over and over again, ad nauseum. And yet try as I may, years went by and I still could not speak Armenian. 

As I have recently discovered, it turns out that others also find themselves in a similar linguistic predicament.  A short Google search reveals multiple entries under the simple heading “foreign language anxiety,” which is broadly defined as being overcome by the fear or inability to speak. Linguistic insecurity refers to the negative self-image a speaker has regarding his speech or language ability as a whole. This includes some African-Americans who speak non-standard English and some Haitians whose childhood tongue is Haitian Creole rather than French.

As might be expected, the internet offers up numerous self-help solutions to the problem at hand, including the somewhat tedious: “Give yourself time,” (really?) or the cryptic statement “some people feel motivated when they’re under stress.” Other obvious admonitions include, in no particular order: taking things one step at a time, switching up learning methodologies, changing negative into positive thoughts, and the obvious clincher—travelling to the country in question.  Interesting subsets of language anxiety include schizoglossia, a linguistic or language complex about one’s native language. And perhaps the mother of all language anxieties is xenoglossophobia. This strange-sounding word is made up of no less than three ancient roots: the Greek roots xeno for foreign and phobos for fear, and the Latin words gloss for tongue. It thus quite logically refers to the fear or apprehension that one experiences when learning a second or foreign language.

In my case, my ALA fell somewhere between schizo- and xenoglossophobia, as Armenian was both my “own” language historically speaking and a foreign language since I was born into a Francophone family in an Anglophone city.  And lest you think that I am making a mountain out of a linguistic molehill, researchers Elaine and Michael Horowitz note in an oft-quoted article that these linguistic anxieties can be “a profoundly unsettling psychological proposition” that jeopardize an individual’s self-understanding and make them apprehensive about communicating with others.

These findings resonate with me in many ways. Growing up, whenever I attended an Armenian function people always seemingly divided into two groups: non-Armenian speakers who would stand in the corner drinking coffee eating baklava or shish kebab, and the others who dominated the proceedings as they bulleted away at a hundred miles an hour in Western Armenian. I could barely catch a word of what was being said.

At the root of the problem lay what I believe was a carefully-hidden sense of shame or amot, an unspoken code that held that although none of us had grown up using the language at home or in the street, we should somehow still speak it perfectly. So in my case while I would blithely spit out a long paragraph of German unafraid of mistaking a der for a die or a das, I was petrified to make even the smallest mistake in Armenian. At an almost subneural level my brain hesitated to form any sentence that I searched for—certain death for anyone trying to speak a foreign language. Along with every utterance I tried to make in Armenian came the knowledge that I was trying—and failing—to uphold a 4,000 year-old tradition that was finally dying out.  In 2010 UNESCO placed Western Armenian on its list of “definitely endangered languages” and only some 350,000 people still speak it fluently. The ability to always speak perfectly in any language is of course an illusion in linguistics—perhaps the ultimate illusion. As with other endeavors such as mastering complex mathematics or trying out a new sport, it is only by making mistakes that one can learn a language well. 

Like all anxieties, Armenian Language Anxiety can be overcome. Part of it simply comes from one’s own desire to conquer. Somehow I must overcome the guilt that I’ve inherited about speaking Armenian and accept that making mistakes is part of the process. I understand better now what it must it feel like for some immigrants like my father who come to America and are never able to learn English fluently.

Analyzing my own xenoglossophobia has taught me that part of my facility with languages is simply about loving different cultures, yet with Armenian this has paradoxically become counterproductive. And then Felix pointed out a more disturbing possibility: “Maybe you don’t like being Armenian after all.” This statement opened a floodgate of memories that I had long tried to suppress. Although I lived in a large rent stabilized apartment as a kid, it was located on the very posh aestheticized Upper East Side. Friends would invite me to palatial estates in the Hamptons or to lily white beach clubs where they served Waldorf salads and High Tea and had cabanas numbered by when your family had arrived in America.  And my friends, mainly pale-skinned WASPS or assimilated Ashkenazi Jews, all spoke English at home. I had white skin and seemed to fit right in.

The Armenians that I met Friday nights at St. Vartan’s Cathedral in New York on the other hand were mainly old dark-skinned Armenian Genocide survivors, many of them invalids who had been crippled by Turkish gunshots or worse. As a young child of six or seven these people frightened me terribly. I had no way of processing why they looked the way they did nor any way of understanding how I could possibly belong to the same tribe. And then there was the shame I felt whenever I heard that so many Armenians had been viciously exterminated by the Ottoman Turks. At the time no one explained to me that the Turks had partly been motivated by jealousy over our economic and educational success or that we had heroes who had won historic battles in far-off places like Sardarabad and Bash-Abaran.

With age I’ve learned more about my history and culture, and I’ve overcome any shame that I may have felt when I was younger about being Armenian—to the contrary I am such an Armenophile that many people assume I was born in Armenia. So the next time I visit Los Angeles, things will be different. I plan to go back to that little bakery on Hollywood Boulevard again to get some Armenian treats. I’ll calmly walk in as if I were in any old American cupcake bakery or sidewalk café and smile broadly. And when my Armenian Language Anxiety begins to form in my hippocampus, I’ll simply ignore it and order my choregs, beuregs and nazooks.  And then without missing a beat, I will ask the lady behind the counter in Armenian for a plastic bag to put them in: Khntrem plastike dobragi metch gareli e tnel? Shad Merci.