Between Homelands: Armenians Struggle to Preserve Their Language

Hratch Sepetjian stands in front of his class on a typical day. He gets frustrated when his students do not take the Armenian lessons seriously.

Hratch Sepetjian stands in front of his class on a typical day. He gets frustrated when his students do not take the Armenian lessons seriously. (Andy Vasoyan/KQED)

This week we’re launching a new series called “Between Homelands.” We’ve teamed up with students from USC Annenberg’s School for Communication and Journalism. They’re bringing us stories of people living in California who have come from afar, or who were born in the U.S. but feel like cultural foreigners.

April 24 marks the centennial of the massacre of nearly 1.5 million Armenians that caused thousands of others to flee what is now Turkey. Many refer to this as the Armenian genocide.

Today, Los Angeles is home to the largest population of Armenians in the U.S. While their communities continue to thrive, Western Armenian, the dialect they brought with them, is in severe danger.

Hratch Sepetjian teaches at AGBU Manoogian-Demirdjian School, a private Armenian school in Los Angeles. It works to promote and preserve Armenian language and culture.

Hratch Sepetjian Class Pics 2.27 (6 of 8)
A student asks Hratch Sepetjian a question after his ninth-grade English class. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has Western Armenian on its endangered languages list. Sepetjian hopes his class will help keep the language alive. (Andy Vasoyan/KQED)

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has Western Armenian on its endangered languages list.

“Every day languages die,” Sepetjian says. “I’m not saying it’s close, or soon, or in 10 years, but that day will come.”

Western Armenian came close to dying on April 24, 1915. That is when the Ottoman Empire began systematically killing  Armenians in their ancestral homeland.

“After the genocide, Western Armenian experienced a rebirth,” Sepetjian explains. “We opened schools and orphanages everywhere, and our mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers, who were Turkish-speaking, they taught their children Armenian.”

But that didn’t last, and now some descendants of the survivors have assimilated to the point where they rarely speak Armenian.

Hratch Sepetjian Class Pics 2.27 (1 of 8)
Students in Hratch Sepetjian’s class listen to a lecture in Armenian. The high school is one of about 10 Armenian schools in Los Angeles. (Andy Vasoyan/KQED)

Sepetjian’s student, Erika Saringulian, transferred into the school last year. Although she’s now closer to the Armenian community, she’s worried about getting further from the language. She says she speaks Armenian only in class.

“I don’t talk Armenian with my friends,” Saringulian explains. “None of us do.”

Michael Culhaoglu has been at the school for years. He’s already looking to the next generation to keep the language alive.

“At most, two or three people in this class are going to teach their kids Armenian,” he says. Another student in the class interrupts him, and insists Culhaoglu will eventually speak to his children in Armenian.

“No,” Culhaoglu counters, “because right now you speak to your family in English. So why would you teach it? It’s going to be very difficult, unless you send them to an Armenian school.”

Despite the fact that many of Hratch Sepetjian’s students speak Armenian only in the classroom, he says he refuses to give up.

“As much as we can, we have to keep trying,” he says. “We can’t give up, even if it’s inevitable. We must not despair, we must try to remain Armenian, and Armenian-speaking.”

Between Homelands: Armenians Struggle to Preserve Their Language 24 April,2015Victoria Mauleon

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