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The Challenges of Learning Western Armenian

Learning an endangered branch of any language is no easy task, but for a monolingual English speaker who is not of the language’s heritage culture, it holds unique challenges.

Before my introduction to Armenian literature several years ago, I’d had no exposure to the Armenian language. For a variety of reasons, not least that I wanted to be able to read the works I was editing in their original language, I decided to embark on a language learning journey that has since led me down paths I never expected to tread. Due to my somewhat unique experiences in learning Western Armenian (see this article for more information on why I decided to learn the Western language branch rather than its Eastern cousin), I am keen to share the five biggest challenges I have faced and how I overcame them, along with three things that I thought would be challenges (but weren’t), in the hope of encouraging others who might be considering embarking on learning this beautiful yet challenging language.

Five Biggest Challenges and How I Overcame Them

1. For those who are not of Armenian heritage, no prior knowledge of phonology

This may not be a challenge for anybody who has grown up in an Armenian household or community, but for the non-Armenians out there who are interested in learning the Armenian language, this is one of the biggest challenges you will face. For more common languages, we have typically had enough exposure to the language or its native speakers to have developed an instinctive (if stereotypical) idea of what the language is supposed to sound like (i.e., its phonology). For example, even if we’ve never learned Italian, we recognise its melodious rise and fall of speech. But if you haven’t had considerable exposure to Armenian, it can be difficult to know what the flow of speech is supposed to sound like, even once you’ve learned the correct pronunciation rules.

In the early days of my learning, I would listen to recorded dialogues, record myself saying the same thing, and send the recordings to my teacher (or even my fellow translator here at Sophene) for feedback, but would inevitably be told that my intonation was not quite right. I ultimately overcame this by adopting three strategies. First, I considerably increased my exposure to the language. On my drive to work every day, I listened to recordings in Armenian (even if I didn’t understand what was being said) to allow myself to become more familiar with the language’s intonation and stress patterns. Second, I continued with intensive listening and recording activities. Although I was initially unable to ‘hear’ where I was going wrong, this helped to train me to recognise the subtleties in the language that I had been missing in the early days. Third, my teacher would consistently correct my speech, demonstrate where to place stress in words, and explain how to adjust the intonation of a sentence.

Even though I am still working on developing my speaking ability — and have a long road to go — I am pleased to say that my intonation is miles ahead of where I started.

2. Learning vocabulary

The Armenian language is unique in many ways, partly due to it having developed along its own branch in the Indo-European language tree. This uniqueness gives Armenian its beautiful sound and alphabet, but also makes the language more challenging than many other European languages. One of the greatest challenges in this respect, particularly for English speakers, is its vocabulary – in particular, its lack of crossover with, or borrowings from, the Romance and Germanic languages. When an English speaker attempts to learn French, they will be pleasantly surprised to find that the two languages share around 50% of roots for core vocabulary, which makes recognising and learning new words relatively easy. On the other hand, English and Armenian have less than 1% of common roots, which means that learners have to do a lot more memorisation!

Learning vocabulary is still something that I struggle with, but I am slowly improving. A few strategies that have helped me include extensive reading and learning vocabulary in context. That is, I don’t just make flashcards with single words on them; I always include an example sentence so that I learn how the word is used as well. The best example I have of this is the word նայիլ, because I first heard it in a sentence from dialogue that I'd listened to in the early days of my learning, and that sentence has stayed with me ever since («Մայրի՛կ, նայէ՛, ձիւն կու գայ։» which means, "Mum, look, it's snowing!"). Perhaps because I live in a place where it never snows – or perhaps because my mother doesn't know a single word of Armenian – I can't help but find it amusing that this sentence, above far more relevant ones, has so firmly entrenched itself in my memory. However, if nothing else, it serves as proof of the incredible power of context in learning.

3. Sentence structure and grammatical cases

Where English is a subject-verb-object (SVO) language with three cases, Western Armenian is a subject-object-verb (SOV) language with six cases. Although it does not take too long for an English speaker to understand simple sentences in Armenian, it is considerably more difficult to construct compound sentences where the case system becomes much more important. I am still working on this, but two learning activities that have helped in my progression include extensive reading (have you noticed a running theme yet?) and lots of writing. Importantly, when I practice writing, I send the products of my attempts to my teacher for feedback and corrections. When I first started doing this, it was a little demoralising to constantly get track changes across every paragraph; however, slowly but surely, I began to see fewer corrections as I internalised the grammar of the language, and that’s a great feeling.

4. Paste tense conjugations

Although present and future tense conjugations are not too difficult in Western Armenian, the language has several past tenses that must be learned relatively early on, and some are not very intuitive for English speakers. Even though English has equivalent past tenses, the way we use these tenses in English can differ from their usage in Armenian. For example, we only need to include a negative time expression (“never”) if we wish to absolutely negate the past perfect tense in English (e.g., “We had never gone into the woods”). However, to make the same absolute expression in Armenian («Մենք երբեք անտառ չէինք գացած»), we need to include both a negative conjugation of the verb («չէինք գացած») and the negative time expression («երբեք»). In other words, we need two negations in the sentence, rather than one.

This has led to me use past tenses incorrectly in Armenian because I tend to think about their English usage, rather than their usage in Armenian. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for this problem. It simply involves studying grammar, reading lots of example sentences and paragraphs, and not giving up when my teacher tells me (yet again) that I have used a tense in the wrong way in a given writing or speaking exercise.

5. Finding learning resources

Of all the challenges in learning Western Armenian, this is the most frustrating one. As the endangered branch of the Armenian language, there are few good learning resources for Western Armenian (e.g., textbooks for self-instruction and graded readers). I feel lucky to have stumbled across one of the very best resources early on in my learning journey, the AGBU’s Armenian Virtual College, which provides excellent instruction in both Eastern and Western Armenian for all levels of language learners, ranging from complete beginners (like I had been) through to advanced learners. But it is still difficult to find good resources that are suitable for adults to supplement what AVC can offer. To save other adult learners the trials and tribulations I have faced in the search for resources, I have compiled a comprehensive Western Armenian resource list for what I have found so far that you can review here.

Three Things I Thought Would Be Challenges (But Weren’t)

1. The alphabet and learning to write

When I first found out that I would need to master a new alphabet of 38 letters to learn Western Armenian, I was a little intimidated. But after discovering the beauty of the alphabet through calligraphy and թռչնագիր artwork, the learning process became a joy rather than a struggle. I would recommend that new learners focus on learning to handwrite the alphabet before resorting to typing. Learning the written script will help you to appreciate the beauty of the letters far more than typing, and the repetition will aid memorisation. I also recommend embracing your inner child and downloading an Armenian alphabet song (like this) to listen to as you learn to write. If you sing along (yes, I did this!), it will help to develop your pronunciation, too.

2. Pronunciation

Unlike languages such as French or English, Armenian has a consistent letter-to-sound correspondence and stress pattern. This means that once you have learned the alphabet and the various rules of pronunciation (e.g., diphthongs), you should be able to pronounce almost any word you come across without having previously heard it. Of course, in the early days this can still be difficult as there are several sounds in the Armenian alphabet that we don’t have in English (e.g., խ and ղ), but trust me when I say that it does get easier as time goes on.

3. Gender

One of the absolute joys of the Armenian language is that it is essentially gender free. This means that you don’t need to learn genders for every new noun you are faced with (as in some other European languages), and you don’t even need to learn gendered pronouns. Hurrah for small victories!

Are you considering learning Western Armenian? Have you gone through the learning process yourself? I would love to hear about your challenges with the language and how you have worked to overcome them.