[Shushan] Hello. This is Shushan Karapetian with the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. Welcome to our podcast series, entirely dedicated to heritage language research, education, pedagogy and lived experience. My guest today is Michael Abassian, a former UCLA student, and we're going to chat with him about his experience as a heritage language speaker and learner of Armenian. Michael, welcome.
[Michael] Welcome. It's great to be here.
[Shushan] Okay. Let's start from the beginning. Where were you born? Who were your parents? And what kind of a linguistic environment did you grow up in?
[Michael] So, I was born in Glendale, California. [laughing] And my parents were both born in Yerevan. So, my dad moved with his parents and old brother, my uncle, from Yerevan to Los Angeles when he was around 11-12 years old.
[Shushan] What year was this? Do you know?
[Michael] The late 70s.
[Shushan] Late 70s, okay.
[Michael] Yeah. And my mother,same situation, but moved when she was 16 in the early 80s.
[Shushan] Okay. So, both your parents were born and raised in Armenia, and moved as teenagers or early teens.
[Shushan] To LA.
[Michael] To LA.
[Shushan] The reason I laughed when Michael mentioned that he was born in Glendale is because Glendale hosts the largest Armenian community outside of the Republic - 30% of the population is Armenian 40% of the student population body at Glendale Unified School District is Armenian. So, it's no surprise that we're interviewing a heritage lagnauge speaker of Armenian who was born in Glendale, California!
[Michael] Yeah! [laughing]
[Shushan] Okay. And then what was the linguistic environment in your household when you were a child? And also, can you mention siblings: older, younger?
[Michael] Yeah. So, I have an older brother, Jerry. He's six and a half years older than me. The linguistic environment growing up [pause] I think what my parents, and uncles and closer cousins, not just in our home but every time we would move go to our cousins houses was mostly in Armenian. So, there was a lot of Armenian input growing up. And as, you know, we got a little bit older, that kind of shifted towards Armenian/English. And then now, probably, there's still Armenian but it might be a little heavy on the English.
[Shushan] So, when you were a child and your brother was six and a half years older, your parents spoke to you in Armenian as a child?
[Shushan] But what about your brother?
[Michael] What did my brother speak towards me?
[Michael] So [pause]
[Shushan] Had he already shifted to English?
[Michael] Probably around elementary school and like, middle school. So, he went to an Armenian school from junior high school until the end of high school.
[Shushan] Ah. Okay, okay.
[Michael] So, I feel like there was a bit of resistance there. Like, he still maintained some of that Armenian but I didn't go to an Armenian school until just high school.
[Shushan] Got it.
[Shushan] Your parents came as early teens, which is not typically the case. A lot of interviews I've done or students I've interacted with their parents came as adults. So, by the time, I assume, your parents had children, they were comfortable with English?
[Michael] To this day, they're not comfortable with English.
[Michael] But they're also not that comfortable with Armenian.
[Shushan] [gasp] Ah! Interesting.
[Michael] So, it's this kind of it's this weird situation where they'll speak Armenian in the household but I'm pretty sure there's a lot of errors in their Armenian. It's a lot - it's very informal.
[Shushan] So, some would [pause] I guess we could also classify them as heritage speakers or Armenian.
[Michael] In a sense because when I think about how long my dad has lived in the United States versus Armenia-
[Michael] It's like, the majority of his life has been here.
[Michael] In Los Angeles. So [pause] But he still has like, all these Armenian tendencies, right? [laughing] Like, that Armenian-ness in him doesn't go away.
[Michael] But when it comes to language, I think [pause] And part of it is, you know, like, education level. He didn't finish high school. My mom had a few years of college. So, I think that has impacted a lot as well. So, my input, you know, in a higher level of Armenian has just not really existed. Yeah.
[Shushan] Okay, got it. So, do you remember attending preschool?
[Shushan] And was that an Armenian preschool?
[Michael] Yeah. So, I went to [pause] Well, I didn't go to an Armenian preschool but I did go to an Armenian Saturday school starting in first grade. And that was Narek Saturday School.
[Shushan] For how long?
[Michael] Up until fifth grade.
[Shushan] Okay. And I'm curious if you�ve ever discussed with your parents the decision-making process to send you to Saturday school.
[Michael] So, at the time I really disliked it as a kid. When my mom would like, force me to go, struggle to get out of bed fake like, sickness you know, "I have a cold, I'm not feeling well"
[Shushan] Right. [laughing]
[Michael] She obviously caught onto it, you know. She was like, I don't know who you're fooling. But I think it got to a point where it got pretty bad and my mom was like, 'Okay. I can't force this kid every single time to do this.' And, mind you, my two older cousins that we were really close with also went. So, I had family that were kind of going with me to this Saturday school. I just experience with the teachers -
[Shushan] What didn't you like?
[Michael] It was very yeah, they were like [pause] I was left-handed - I still am left-handed. You have to write with your right hand. This whole...
[Shushan] The Soviet remnant.
[Michael] And then this whole I felt like I was kind of shamed a lot. I feel I wasn't keeping up with my peers, especially the women, the girls in our classes. I just always felt like the girls were a bit better.
[Michael] Academically. Whereas the guys were kind of more with their friends, you know, they were using it as like, a social thing. I was looking forward to like, snack and lunch, you know - I wanted my candy.
[Shushan] Aw! Yeah.
[Michael] So, it just... it didn't interest me. Yeah. The topics... I just wasn't interested in being in the class.
[Shushan] Now, in hindsight, do you wish you had continued?
[Michael] Yeah. I mean, my parents, one way or another, you know, found me back into it. They were like, 'Okay. For high school, you're going to go to an Armenian school.' [laughing] So, I appreciated that. And, you know, at the time I didn't really realize it but my mom would always tell me that, 'One day you're going to look back at it and you're going to thank me.'
[Michael] And today, I do.
[Michael] Four or five years later. So..
[Shushan] So, elementary school and middle school you were in public, in a public school setting.
[Shushan] But up until fifth grade you attended Saturday school.
[Michael] Saturday school.
[Shushan] Okay. And then as you started schooling in kind of the formal American education system, did you notice a graduate shift to English dominance in terms of?
[Michael] Pretty early.
[Shushan] Pretty early on.
[Michael] Yeah. Pretty early.
[Michael] I would say probably around the time I stopped going to Saturday school. All the subjects were basically taught in English -
[Michael] for, you know [pause] And I went to elementary school in Glendale. But for middle school, we moved. So, for one year I went to an elementary school in Glendale and then we moved to the San Fernando Valley, [pause] in which there weren't as many Armenians there at the time.
[Shushan] That was my next question. Right.
[Michael] So, I think move kind of also had an impact. I still found, you know, kind of my niche eventually. But there was definitely a bit of gap where my input decreased even more because, you might not be talking Armenian in the class, but when you come out you're still going to, you know, have that friend
[Michael] guy talk -
[Michael] in Armenian. Yeah.
[Shushan] That's what I was going to ask about, you know, elementary school in Glendale.
[Shushan] There must have been a larger Armenian student body in whatever school you were attending.
[Michael] There was. And so [pause] And I think, you know, even up until elementary school the Armenian was kind of outside of the classroom. If it existed-
[Michael] it was either at home or with my friends
[Michael] you know, playing basketball or something. So, yeah.
[Shushan] Right. Did you attend any or did you have any extracurricular activities where Armenian played a role?
[Michael] Yeah. So, when I was around eight years old, my mom, again, my mom right - she's always been on my case - and I always appreciate it now looking back. But she took me to dance. It was an Armenian dance academy in Burbank. And I walked in there and there was like, a bunch of girls and, you know, I have like this crisis, like identity crisis. I'm like, What's going on here. [laughing] But I but the Armenian guys there that was one huge environment that played a role in continuing Armenian. And our Armenian dance instructors demanded that we, you know, like we communicate with them in Armenian. He wouldn't -
[Shushan] And they [pause] The instruction was in Armenian?
[Michael] Yes. So, the dance instruction was in Armenian -
[Michael] which is a very different domain.
[Michael] To me it's kind of like, different words are being used different input.
[Michael] And so, like terms that I've never, you know, like the name for costume, you know
[Michael] or like, cues even little cues here and there.
[Michael] So, there was that input on the side as well.
[Shushan] Which is amazing because it's its own domain.
[Shushan] And it's not a casual domain. This is...
[Michael] Yeah, it's pretty formal.
[Michael] You know, we would say like, [????? ?????? (Mr. Vardan) 9:25]
[Michael] Like right like, Sir. Like
[Shushan] Right. And speak to him in a formal register.
[Michael] A formal register. And I stuck around with it for about eight years.
[Michael] So, quite a bit. Yeah.
[Shushan] So, the language of communication between instructor and pupil was Armenian. But what about among pupils?
[Michael] It was mixed.
[Shushan] Mixed. Okay.
[Michael] Yeah, it was mixed. I would probably say 50/50, because there was like, this Armenian macho -
[Michael] you know, like [pause] It's kind of interesting because even among, you know, like high schoolers, it kind of seemed like you would get more respect speaking Armenian as opposed to English. It was like, Oh, like You're, you know, You're more, like, legitimized.
[Michael] (Inaudible) Like, this macho culture.
[Shushan] So, it's interesting because I've observed this in my own research. I've had students who've done projects for a class I teach, called Language and Diaspora, who've lso found very similar observations in that the agency to speak Armenian is very directly linked with this presentation of Armenian manhood or macho-ness
[Shushan] that the more Armenian you speak, the more manly you are. And, you know, I've thought about it a lot but maybe this is kind of a performance of what they've seen their fathers, right? When dad has a serious problem or, you know, the way dad shows his manlihood is typically only in Armenian.
[Shushan] So, they haven't seen other role models of macho-ness. The only one, or the dominant one, has been packaged in Armenian.
[Michael] Yeah. Particularly when it comes to like, issues. Like, if you enter problem solving mode or like, something happens
[Shushan] Conflict negotiation
[Michael] conflict negotiation, right, as an example
[Michael] But even other things. Like, you know, for example if our instructor got mad at us for not dancing correctly after him telling us multiple times, he would say like, "Hey, Hayko." You know, like, call on somebody else. "Take Michael out and teach him how to do it."
[Michael] And that would even amongst our peers that would typically be in Armenian.
[Michael] It wouldn't be in English.
[Shushan] So, I guess, it was the language of authority or the language of...
[Shushan] Hmm.Interesting, yeah.
[Shushan] I think this is such an interesting area of observation. I've told several students: You can do an amazing PhD topic on this.
[Shushan] Okay, okay. So, we had Saturday school, we had dance troop, [pause] And then you said for high school, your mom - [laughing]
[Shushan] enrolled you in a private Armenian high school. What do you think that decision was based on? What were the factors?
[Michael] So, I think language was probably number one or number two. Like, we want you to maintain your language. We want you to keep speaking Armenian. And we want your kids,ideally, right, that's kind of the goal...
[Michael] to also be speaking Armenian.
[Shushan] Right. This intergenerational transmission.
[Michael] Yeah, intergenerational transmission. Also, just maintaining Armenian identity being around Armenians [pause] I think part of it was also this fear, you know [pause] They're even coming from a [pause] Sometimes it baffles me because it's like, you've spent [pause] Both of my parents have spent so much time in the U.S. they're still afraid of using like, losing this [pause] And their I think because of that, they're so afraid of losing this Armenian connection. So, I think part of that I think it was more - (interruption)
[Shushan] We're continuing with Michael Abassian and we were just chatting about his experience attending a private Armenian high school. Can you actually describe what the day looks like? What does it mean to attend an Armenian high school?
[Michael] Yeah. So, we would typically start 8:30 a.m., with Armenian prayer. So, you know, like, the first formal this is in Armenian which is kind of interesting. But very small classes. So, my class - the class of 2013 - in high school, we were 22-23 people. And that was consider one of the larger classes. So, just, you know, I'm kind of trying to say that to give a sense of the environment. It was very close knit - we knew everybody. Sometimes we got sick of people, you know, right? [laughing] So, you have your friends, you have your groups [pause] And the conversations throughout the day, in between classes and on the basketball court or soccer field during lunch and recesses was kind of a mixture of Armenian and English.
[Shushan] What about the curriculum? How much Armenian was integrated into the curriculum?
[Michael] Yeah. So, we typically had an Armenian lagnauge class and an Armenian history class, which were separate lectures five days a week. So, every day.
[Michael] That shifted a little bit as we got older. Like, I think when we were in 11th or 12th grade it got cut down to like, once a week for the history. But the Armenian language was always once a day everyday.
[Shushan] And instruction was in Eastern Armenian or Western Armenian?
[Michael] It was in Western [pause] It was in Eastern Armenian.
[Michael] Yeah, Eastern.
[Shushan] Okay. Just for our listeners: Armenian is a pluricentric language that has two modern standards: Eastern and Western Armenian. And, interestingly, often the case here in the LA community is that instruction is solely in Western Armenian, but an increasing number of the students are Eastern Armenian. So, if I'm not mistaken I think your school was kind of an anomaly in that sense.
[Michael] It was.
[Michael] A lot of the students were comfortable in Eastern. So, that's kind of the language that they were coming from,
[Michael] from their household and what their parents spoke. And I've heard of cases where, you know, sometimes students who have grown in an Eastern household go to an Armenian school that has instruction in Western and there's kind of complications with the transition
[Michael] and kind of learning about that.
[Shushan] But I think this is also a very interesting area of heritage language research, this idea of, you know, second dialect acquisition or a heritage speaker being a speaker of a cognate language. That's not entirely the same, but similar to the language.
[Michael] So [pause] And the other subjects were all in English. Sometimes the teachers were Armenian, sometimes they weren't. So, I also had instructors
[Michael] that were not necessarily Armenian. So, for example, my Social Science - my Social Studies teacher, you know, he wasn't Armenian. So, when we entered his class, there's obviously a lot more English dialogue
[Michael] between the students when it either comes to formal or informal topics.
[Shushan] But the student body and I assume a majority of the administration are Armenian, correct?
[Michael] Yes, yeah. So, even, you know, the principal, vice principal, the secretary, you know [pause] So, if you go down, you get in trouble, you go down to the principle's office that whole process is all going to be happening in Eastern or well, even sometimes in Western Armenian. Because some of the
[Michael] some of the faculty were, spoke Western Armenian.
[Michael] So, there's kind of like, this interesting mix where you're being yelled at, you know, by somebody who's speaking to you in Western Armenian and you speak Eastern Armenian. [laughing] You're like, just nodding your head like, "You're talking so fast and I understand what you're saying!"
[Shushan] Now, in hindsight, how would you evaluate your whole experience in Armenian high school?
[Michael] Well, for me a lot of my classmates when I entered had already been at the school for a long time. So, I kind of was like, the new kind of kid on the block. And I felt I had this sort of insecurity. I felt that my classmates were already so much better than me in Armenian, which didn't turn out to be the case.
[Shushan] Oh, good!
[Michael] Even [pause] I think that it was [pause] I think it became pretty clear to me like, two years in that the proficiency in Armenian from in my classroom was based on how much effort students are putting in and not how long they have been at this school. Which maybe says something, you know. Like, I think it's a complicated factor. Like, there's a lot of - there's a lot that's going into, I think, what develops proficiency in the language. But [pause] So, I kind of went in with this insecurity, but my Armenian teacher was like... I think he had lower expectations for me compared to other students. But I think over time as I kind of stood out a bit more, those expectations pretty much leveled out. So, I didn't get that like, special treatment or [pause] And, in fact, there was, I think for my first semester, my teacher was so like, hinged on this idea of not even giving me an "A" simply because I just was new.
[Shushan] Wow. [gasp]
[Michael] Right? So [pause] And me being a student, that's kind of [pause] By the time I was in middle school and afterwards I became like, this nerd. [laughing] So, I started liking school a lot more compared to, you know, my experience with Saturday school and not wanting to be in class. That completely shifted. And so, here I am, you know, trying, working really hard to try to get these "A's" and I get hit with this "B" on my report card where, it's like, "Armenian", and "Armenian History", I earned "B". And everything else was like, "A-", or "B+", you know, like [pause] So, I think that kind of was like, Oo! This isn't making me feel good about my Armenian, you know.
[Shushan] Did it encourage you to put more effort?
[Michael] A little bit, yeah.
[Michael] I think so. Whether it actually was a positive experience for my like, whether it helped me learn Armenian more, in hindsight, I'm not sure. I don't know. But I think there was a lot of anxiety attached to that experience.
[Shushan] Do you still stay in touch with friends from high school? In terms of like, the social ties. Because I've heard so many parents say, you know, not only do they send their children to Armenian school for the language and the culture and the history, but also for that tightknit family-like environment. Was that also the case for you?
[Michael] It definitely was the case when I was in high school. So, we had a huge like, social component outside of the class. We would go to, you know, some of my classmates would have these get-togethers and parties. I think we're kind of, and maybe this is a bit of an anomaly too [pause] We were one of the classes that didn't[pause] I think it happens through in general, but we didn't really maintain as much contact. I think that there's groups of people that maintain contact and I keep in touch with two or three people, but there isn't [pause] You know, we don�t have like, class reunions, right? We don't [pause] I don't think as a class we don't hold events. So, it's pretty disintegrated and I think everybody's kind of like, gone on to their own paths. Which is interesting, right? Because one of the factors that affected my parents decision was to have this Armenian community
[Shushan] Right, right. Like, a built in community.
[Michael] A built in, yeah. But there's [pause] Even at UCLA as an undergrad, I feel like I got just as much of an experience with joining the Armenian Student Association.
[Michael] If not, even more. Or with, you know, your language classes.
[Shushan] So, let's not get ahead of ourselves.
[Shushan] So, you graduated Armenian high school and then did you immediately come to UCLA?
[Shushan] Okay. And what was that like? Because some people will describe leaving the Armenian private school as kind of leaving a bubble. Did you experience any kind of culture shock?
[Michael] I think [pause] I don't think it was a culture shock because remember that I've been to public school
[Michael] for a long time.
[Michael] So, being around students that weren't Armenian was not [pause] I actually kind of seeked that a little bit. I was kind of tired of being in a very small class, seeing the same people every day. So, it was good to have, you know, be exposed to a more diverse student body. But at the same time, I didn't like being in a class with 300 other students, right?
[Michael] So, I think the size was kind of the issue here.
[Michael] It was transitioning -
[Shushan] The scope, the scale
[Michael] the scope
[Michael] the scale, the number of organizations out here, the[pause] It was all very overwhelming. And I think my first quarter I joined like, five undergraduate organizations all excited and my grades like, plummeted. And I was like, Okay. I'm not ever doing this again. Right? Like, I scaled back a lot more. [laughing]
[Michael] But I think that was kind of the shock for me. It's like, Wow! Time management, and you know, The quarter system. So, there's just like [pause] The different elements of what it means to be a student in general kind of kicked in, not so much the language and the Armenian aspect. I still maintained Armenian contact like, I joined the Armenian dance group my first quarter.
[Shushan] Oh, good!
[Michael] So, right away, right? So, I was in this mindset where I'm around a bunch of Armenians. They're still here, we still have a community here. But there's also this whole other aspect.
[Shushan] What was the decision-making process behind joining the Armenian Student Association or taking an Armenian language class, or an Armenian Studies course? How did that come about?
[Michael] Yeah. So, the decision to join Armenian Student Association was to just meet more Armenians, kind of getting an understanding of, What are we doing here? What is our presence on this campus like? And I kind of took an interest in, you know, I think I was involved in the cultural group of the Armenian Student Association. Because we were broken down into different subgroups. But I kind of was curious to see, What kind of events are we holding? And it was interesting to see the transition between what is like, the stereotypical cultural things in an Armenian private school versus what it's like in an undergraduate institution. So, there's similarities and different, you know, we still have like, the Genocide Week and there's like, I really appreciated the cultural nights, open mic nights, [pause] We have this event called, "Coachellian", where, you know, it's like, modeled after Coachella but you have a bunch of Armenian bands and dance groups that kind of come and celebrate that culture. So, I was like, "I'm here for four years. There's no way I'm going to miss this aspect", right?
[Michael] In terms of taking a language class in Armenian, I think I actually counted how many classes I've taken on my transcripts when I finished and I took a bunch of summer classes. I think there's somewhere around, by the time I was done with my degree, somewhere around like, 56 classes that I had taken.
[Michael] And I looked at it and I said, "One of these was taught in Armenian", right? And it was kind a shock to me. And the other one was about Armenian as a heritage language. So, there was a lot of Armenian input there but it wasn't a language class. So, by the time I was done, when I was well into my third year I was like, I need to take an Armenian language class. And I took it and I was like, "Why haven't I done this? Why didn't I do this earlier?" So, it was a very positive experience being in a class with just [pause] It kind of took me back to high school you know, like, Wow! Being in a class that's kind 20-25 people, 30 people, and we're all talking Armenian. We're getting input in Armenian [pause] But I also felt a little kind of - what's the word I'm looking for - insecure, I guess. I was like, "Do I still have it?" You know, like, "Can I talk Armenian in this formal setting?" I was a little scared, I think. Or like, "Am I going to perform?"
[Shushan] Maybe hesitant? Yeah.
[Michael] "Am I going to perform well enough?" And it turned out, you know, it was fine. I think I underestimated my ability. But there was that anxiety still there, right? Like, Oh! There was kind of this [pause] The instructor-student relationship was so different in a college class than my high school class, that I was kind of going into being a little scarred. Like, Am I going to [pause] Is this what it's going to be like? But then it turned out to be this amazing, you know, experience where you're doing a bunch of group work and that your instructor or professor understand where heritage language speakers are coming from. So, it was like, a total kind of other spectrum.
[Shushan] This always really makes me wonder, you know, the community schools - whether it's a Saturday school or a private day school [pause] They're so essential, in terms of providing high quantity and high quality sources of input and yet, they also traumatize heritage speakers in a sense. I mean, the scars you're talking about, or the hesitancy, or the anxiety - this always comes up, always.
[Michael] And, you know, I want to point out that my teachers in high school were very capable. They knew their stuff. It's not that they didn't understand. There are teachers that are often coming from Armenia or from you know, like, neighboring countries. So, I had some very smart high school teachers. I think it's just the environment and the presentation maybe the way they've been trained as an instructor, maybe
[Shushan] The approach.
[Michael] the approach, the teaching methods [pause] Maybe they're not keeping up to date with the most recent teaching practices.
[Shushan] I agree. I think it's not an issue of their competency or capability in the language, or in the content. But it's the disconnect between their students experiences and the students' worldview.
[Michael] Right, yeah.
[Shushan] I think earlier on in the 1960s or 70s, when the first Armenian schools were established, the teachers were all recent immigrants mostly from other diasporic communities and they taught Armenian as a first language and as a dominant language. And it worked fine for that first generation. But after a few generations when these kids were no longer Armenian-dominant, these were, by definition, kind of, you know, narrowly defined heritage language speakers and learners, that approach no longer worked. And so, the student body has evolved, but the teachers methodological and pedagogical approaches haven't kept pace. And we're not even talking about the fact that, you know, the student body went from an overwhelming Western Armenian population to, now, an Eastern Armenian component
[Shushan] and which also has the Iranian-Armenians that speak a dialectical
[Shushan] form. So, it just really breaks my heart to hear, you know, stories of parents investing time, and money, and resources, and sending their kids to Armenian school, and kids not reaping the full benefits. And also coming out with certain scars.
[Shushan] And then this [pause] You've mentioned the word, "insecurity", at least five times
[Michael] Right, yeah.
[Shushan] in this conversation.
[Michael] And I think even to this day, right? Like, I'll pick up an Armenian book occasionally and I'll read through it. But initially, it's always kind of this struggle to get used to, again, reading it. Maybe that's just, I don't practice it as much. But [pause] And I should more often. But I think there's always that kind of remnant of that experience. And I [pause] A lot of it is also the assignments we were given. Like, the things we were working on. It's like, if you get in trouble, write down this phrase 10, like, 20 times, right? It's just like, What is the point of that? There's different ways of
[Michael] doing, you know, like, a kind of like, a providing a punishment that could be a bit more educational.
[Michael] Or, memorize a poem, memorize that [pause] Like, a lot of memorization that, you know, you're going to forget two weeks later.
[Shushan] Just rote memorization without content.
[Michael] So, I think the teaching of it wasn't [pause] The instructors and the methodology just was not relating what our aspirations are as Armenian-Americans and it's not connecting to what we're kind of interested in. It's like, you're bring up these outdated you know, like, article and [pause] It's just like, We don't relate to this.
[Michael] It's like, I don't know what the point of this is.
[Shushan] Yeah. Okay. So, besides [pause] So, you took one quarter of a language class, right?
[Shushan] And then after that, you took a class that I taught called, "Language and Diaspora: Armenian as a Heritage Language". Which is a content course taught in English about Armenian as a heritage language. And for our listeners, the kind of largest component of the course is an independent action research project. Each student would have to carry out some kind of a study on Armenian as a heritage language or Armenian heritage language speakers and learners. They would have to collect data, analyze it, and then present their findings. So, could you tell us: What were the research questions you were interested in, how you designed your study, and maybe hint at some of the findings?
[Michael] Yeah. So, I had finished a lot of my, you know, human bio [pause] My major was Human Biology and Society. So, I had finished a lot of those classes and, you know, I was like, I need to take an Armenian class while I'm at UCLA. And I've heard great things about the professors, positive experiences [pause] So, I kind of went in there, you know, with the goal of kind of reconnecting and reestablishing this Armenian. And I quickly realized how my Armenian was so limited in a household domain because a lot of the assignments in the classroom were, Well, speak Armenian with this particular topic or project. Do a cooking show in Armenian, right? And here I am like, using, you know, what I think are Armenian names for vegetables and fruits when they're all like, different language. [laughing] They're like, either in Russian or Iranian.
[Shushan] The podcast I did the other day
[Shushan] again, was a student from the same class who brought up this exact same example.
[Michael] Yup. So, here I am in an apartment with, you know, my group and we're like, recording this - I'm wearing like, a pink apron [laughing] and it's kind of this moment were I'm like, Wow. I'm so ignorant, you know. Because we'd [pause] I don't like, I probably should but I didn't cook with my mom. I'm sure [pause] But even my mom uses those same terms, right? Even she doesn't use the Armenian terms.
[Shushan] But I don't know [pause] I wouldn't say it's an issue of ignorance. It's just an issue of register and
[Shushan] you know, especially Eastern Armenian is a very diglossic language - the colloquial and the formal layer are very different
[Shushan] and complimentary distribution. So, why would your mom use formal Armenian words for food items that most people colloquially will refer to in Russian, or in Persian or in Turkish?
[Shushan] Right? So, I wouldn't attach any blame or fault. It just is
[Michael] Right, yeah.
[Shushan] it is what it is. But had you been in Armenian, had you grown up in Armenian, you would have been aware of the formal layer and you would have had the flexibility and the ability to switch.
[Michael] Right. And I think I kind of noticed that with some of our classmates.
[Michael] Because here's this guy, you know, who might be coming form Russian or who has lived in Russia, or in Armenia, for a longer period of time
[Michael] and I'm just sitting there like, amazed at his ability to use these words, right? I'm just like, "Wow! This is really impressive". So, I think that was one huge realization of that, that I kind of found kind of interesting, is this whole domain aspect to Armenian. But my [pause] For the research project, I was kind of interested in, Okay. Here I am having this great experience and yet I feel that like, that shaming experience. You know, in high school kind of [pause] And, you know, I don't think it was ill intended by the way.
[Michael] I think
[Michael] it's just saying what the environment of that teaching system is like.
[Shushan] Yes. I don't think any Armenian private school teacher
[Shushan] is out there trying to traumatize
[Michael] No, no, no.
[Shushan] a student or to [pause] And I think that is a very, very good thing to note.
[Shushan] And I agree with you. And same with parents, by the way. So many heritage speakers have experiences with their family members' nuclear family and wider family,them teasing them, ridiculing them, correcting them. And these have left scars. But by no means are we functioning under the assumption that these parents or family members are doing this intentionally.
[Shushan] So, very valid point.
[Michael] And [pause] With kind of that experience I was asking like, What does... [pause] You know, I've had a lot of friends who have gone to community colleges that have taken Armenian classes there. And so, I was kind of like, "What does this look like over at a community college level?" Because, you know, we're taking undergrad classes. There's going to be a lot of students in a similar age group or people who are just simply interested in that kind of same level of Armenian, maybe introductory or intermediate level. So, I kind of wanted to see [pause] Okay. In high school in my experience, I knew what the experience was like. What does it look like in a community college in Glendale, right, Glendale Community College. So, I [pause] And it was kind of a pretty tough project, I think. Because we were with like, time constraints [pause] It was actually pretty hard to find. A lot of private schools, because I was initially actually a little bit interested in them too, to kind of see, Okay, what different private schools I could go to [pause] And this was spring quarter. So, it was like, May-June.
[Michael] And then a lot of schools were closing already.
[Shushan] And also, our UCLA quarter system functions on a ten-week cycle.
[Shushan] So, it takes a few weeks for the course to introduce these main topics and then students just have a few weeks to find the site. Had we been on a semester system, I think this would have allowed for much more in depth.
[Michael] Yeah, I definitely [pause] I still got a good take away of it but it would have been really interesting to kind of put more effort into the methodology and the number of interviews that I did. So, I ended up sticking to Glendale Community College and I interviewed two or three different professors ad instructors there. And I actually sat in on some of their classes and recorded just the dialogue between the classes. And for one of the classes, I think it was Introductory Armenian, I was pretty surprised, you know. There wasn't this shaming. The instructor was kind of [pause] "Well, instead of saying it this way, how about we think about saying it this way", right?
[Shushan] So, complementary or supplementary approach instead of, "It's my way or no way."
[Michael] Right! And I kind of went in there kind of not knowing what to expect. I hadn't taken any classes at Glendale Community College. I had been on campus but, you know, it was kind of a new environment and a lot of the students there, you know, it's kind of an interesting dynamic because they tend to be a little bit older than, I think, what we usually find. And some of them [pause] So, I wonder if that affects teacher-instructor/student relations. And there's, maybe, some sort of respect factor there, right? Like, of age group and, maybe, the authority. But [pause] So, I didn't feel like there was too much shaming in the experiences that I recorded in the classrooms. But then again, the content that is being taught, and the exercises and activities being done, to me, just didn't feel like it was being tailored that efficiently to the group. And I think it's hard for the instructor, because you have this kind of classroom, you know [pause] Imagine your students are - some of them are very well versed and they're bringing a different type of background and experience to the class, and some of them really need help with basic grammar. So, how do you tailor an activity that kind of fits (inaudible). So, one of the assignments - I remember this actually, now that I'm talking about it - was [pause] This instructor put up a passage from like, an archeological textbook. It was like archeology or anthropology, something like that. And he said, "We need to translate this". So, it's a translation exercise and to my surprise, a lot of people [pause] I think a lot of that is that domain issue. They had no idea how to translate some words, right? Even people who have been living in Armenia for like, half their lives�
[Shushan] Translate from English into Armenian
[Shushan] or Armenian into English?
[Michael] From English to Armenian.
[Michael] Yeah. So [pause] From English to Armenian, right. So, that was kind of interesting to see. And I remember like, sitting there in the back and one of the students turned around to me and asked me for help. [laughing] And I'm just like, shaking my head, like, "Oh, no! I'm not in this class. I don't know what's going on!" Right? And then part of me was like [pause] My kind of ethics kicked in, I'm like, o, I'm not going to help you. But maybe, I don't know. Maybe I should have. But I didn't know the answer anyways.
[Michael] So, here I am just as clueless as they are. But it was a good experience. I had kind of taken myself to a new environment, you know, you see a new student group. And then I interviewed another professor who was very adamant on teaching her students [pause] Well, it was an Eastern Armenian class, but I spoke to her a little bit about, you know, Eastern and Western Armenian, and she said, you know, she was pretty opinionated on having an Eastern Armenian instruction. She just said that, "That's what we need - that's what I do. My students are going [pause] My goal is for my students to be able to work professionally in Armenia or with Armenia", even if you're, you know, like, skyping or doing something. So, to establish connections with Armenia because Eastern Armenian is the language that is
[Shushan] De facto official language
[Michael] De facto, yeah.
[Michael] She was kind of in that mind set. But it did come off as a bit strong because at UCLA, I knew there was instructors teaching both Eastern and Western. And I was taught that both are just as equally beautiful and valid languages.
[Shushan] Oh, good! We did well. [laughing]
[Michael] Yeah! So, I was kind of going in it with that mindset.
[Michael] And I was like, Hm. She's really like, bashing Western Armenian. And I wonder, I don't know [pause] I'm sure there were people that would kind of not feel that way.
[Michael] And I don't think -
[Shushan] I think at UCLA [pause] I'm sorry to interrupt, but not only do we offer both Eastern and Western Armenian, but in both classes you'll find speakers of the other. So, in an Eastern Armenian class you'll find speakers of Western Armenian. In a Western Armenian class you'll find speakers of Eastern Armenian. And we're such firm believers in this kind of complementary approach of, you know, you're a speaker of Western Armenian, I'm instructing you know, my instruction is in Eastern Armenian [pause] We welcome that, right? And what an amazing opportunity for all of the other students to be exposed to another standard, to another variation. So, I think it's a shame if other institutions don't take on that kind of attitude.
[Shushan] And it's not so much about changing your instruction. I think it's about how you engage with students and how you treat what they bring into the classroom. This is an issue with any heritage language class, right?
[Shushan] No student is going to bring you textbook-Spanish or Japanese -
[Shushan] or Korean or Armenian.
[Michael] Yeah. And I'm glad you just mentioned that because what I was going to say [pause] What I kind of realized from the project like, what I took away from it was [pause] To me, it felt like GCC - Glendale Community College - is just such a, it's kind of like, a unique environment, you know, you can't apply it to different community colleges when it comes to Armenian because there's such a high population.
[Michael] But to me, it seemed like the instructor/student relationship triumphed any like, teaching practice I guess.
[Shushan] I see.
[Michael] To a certain extent. So, for example, the relationship is kind of so developed and different - the age groups, right, it's so kind of dynamic where even if a professor did technically call out an error correction and did a little bit of shaming, it was not kind of this, it didn't seem to me that it effected the student or the student even noticed.
[Shushan] But also, you've been using the term "shaming". I've taught at Glendale Community College, and the student body is very different from, let's say, UCLA's student body. One: it's diverse in terms of age, right? I had students who were as young as 16 years old and students as old as 65-70 years old -
[Shushan] in the same class. Socioeconomic status, language background, professional background [pause] I mean, I had a student who had a PhD from Armenia in Armenian Studies
[Michael] Yeah, yeah.
[Shushan] who was just nostalgic and wanted to take
[Michael] An Armenian class.
[Shushan] an Armenian class with a 17 year old half Mexican, half Armenian kid, right? So, I think the impact of error correction on the 17 year old is very different
[Shushan] from a 35 year old or a 45 year old, much less a 35-45 year old who grew up in Armenia, where error correction is the norm.
[Shushan] There's no shame element in this. First of all, they don't have the insecurity
[Shushan] or the anxiety to start off with. Yeah.
[Michael] That's a really good point.
[Shushan] So, that [pause] And I think you're point of the relationships is so important. Because my first experience teaching a GCC, I was one of the youngest people in the room.
[Shushan] Most of my students were older than I was. So, in terms of authority it was a very interesting situation. Even in terms of linguistic register, I would address them in the formal. And had we been outside of the classroom, they could have easily addressed me in the informal
[Michael] Right, yeah.
[Shushan] because I was the younger person.
[Michael] Yeah. And it just occurs to me [pause] You could imagine a situation where you are the younger [pause] Like, let's say you're 17 years old in a classroom where there's people 35, 25
[Michael] who have [pause] You know, you know, who they have a much higher confidence in then you
[Michael] and the professor shame you [pause] It's even worse
[Shushan] Yes, yes!
[Michael] than being in a high school class surrounded by other 18 year olds where it's like, Okay. He's shaming you but, you know, we're all in this together! [laughing]
[Shushan] We're all in the same [pause] That's a very good point.
[Shushan] Yeah. But you're right. I think for the older students, the relationship with the instructor is very different than a typical student-instructor relationship.
[Michael] So, you know, I wish I kind of controlled for that and like, delved into this a little bit more
[Shushan] Yeah, yeah.
[Michael] but the timing of the class was, we kind of ran out of time.
[Michael] It was hard to schedule it, go from UCLA to Glendale Community College.
[Michael] But it would have been very interesting to kind of further explore this.
[Shushan] Now that I think about it, maybe I should have designed it as like, a two-quarter series or a three-quarter series where students had -
[Michael] Yeah. I think with - there's actually [pause] I know some institutions are starting to do like, core classes that run more than one quarter. Or I don't know. The semester system - it's a bit longer so you might be able to pull it off. But this kind of continuation and you know, it will be like, 16 units, a core class where you take
[Shushan] Ah! Uh huh.
[Michael] like, a huge chunk and it's all kind of packaged. But it was a good research experience and it was a lot more challenging than I expected. You know, I'm coming from a biology background. So, I know the complications with biological experiments but here I am over here with a social studies or, you know, humanities topic.
[Michael] I'm just like, Wow! This is... it has its own challenges
[Michael] in different ways.
[Michael] Research is research and you have to control for a lot of the...
[Michael] So, there's a lot of similarities, but also differences that I kind of - that was a good learning experience for me. And just data collection, you know, primary kind of like
[Shushan] Right. Data collection and also data analysis.
[Shushan] I think it's a new type of analysis. A lot of students [pause] Surprising, a lot of my undergrads haven't had much research experience, much less social sciences or humanities. When I told them: You have to code your data, or, You have to analyze it, you know, there's [pause] They have a hard time distinguishing between summarizing the data and actually interpreting
[Michael] Yeah, interpreting. Yeah.
[Shushan] or analyzing the data. Okay. Any [pause] I'm curious about your overall take away from the Language and Diaspora class, because I think for students who [pause] Most of the students who take this class are heritage speakers or learners. And for so many of them, it's so eye opening to learn about themselves, right? So, even the terminology of "Oh! I'm a heritage speaker. I'm not a native speaker", nor should I ever strive to be one, right? Or kind of when we do the unit on anxiety, or we do the unit on language use patterns, it seems that it's such a relief.
[Shushan] A lot of students express relief like, "Okay!"
[Michael] I was just going to say [pause] I came out of that kind of almost like, this weight lifted off my shoulders. Not to sound cliche, but it really was. It was kind of like, Okay! You know what
[Shushan] I'm okay! [laughing]
[Michael] like, I'm normal. Like, I'm not some weird like, sort of product of like, some institutional failure that has, you know [pause] This happens.
[Shushan] Aw, yeah.
[Michael] It's common. And I think it's okay to have [pause] Well, it's not that okay. But at least I knew going forward there's a way I could, kind of counter my broken Armenian, right? Or there's things I could kind of do about it
[Michael] and this sort of understanding that I have [pause] I know why it is the way that it is.
[Shushan] I hope it's not countering it, but accepting it and
[Shushan] coming to terms with it.
[Michael] It's sort of, right! It is coming to terms with it
[Michael] and understanding why it is the way that it is. It's kind of like, this acceptance.
[Shushan] But [pause] And I hope that there is - I hope - that if there was any kind of self-blame or self-inflicted shame, I hope that layer was
[Michael] Yeah! I think, I think that is a very deeply rooted issue. So, I don't that it's completely gone for me but for me to [pause] It would be an understatement to say that this class did not help me with that. It definitely did way more than I expected it to do. I kind of went in there saying, I'm going to take an Armenian class, brush up on my Armenian a little bit, get a language requirement out of the way [pause] I came out of it with like, a completely transformed view of who I am, why I'm taking this class that I am taking at this time, and kind of an understanding of where my language capability is and why.
[Shushan] And the other thing I've had a lot of students tell me - and I'm curious if this was something you also came out with - was that they came out with some kind of ammunition to counter comments or perspectives or [pause] You know, someone will say, Oh! If uncle or aunt says: Well you should be this! And then I'll be like, Oh! Fact one, fact two, fact three, right?
[Shushan] That kind of gave them the strength to now manage interactions, right? Or if they're speaking with someone [pause] A lot of students have issues when they're speaking Armenian to someone who's older or more proficient then they have this overwhelming sense of anxiety, which impacts their performance and so on and so on, that they had a kind of a newfound ability to engage and also handle any kind of commentary, criticism, potential ridicule
[Michael] So, I've heard of [pause] I've had close friends who've been in situations where they're giving a public talk at a party or a get-together where there's a lot of older Armenian parents, uncles, aunts, cousins - whoever it may be [pause] And, you know, you'll go up with the best intentions and kind of give like, this congratulatory speech or whatever it is you want to say, like, a toast or something nice [pause] And by the way, I mention toast - I want to get to that because it's a [pause] So [pause] And they'll say something and they'll hear this comment where it's like, "What the heck was that?" But I think that taking this class, you know that like, "No! I'm not going to let that get to me. I'm going to stand up for myself. I'm going to say something about it." And it's almost like, this educational piece for them.
[Shushan] Right! [laughing]
[Michael] Like, "You're not telling me what's wrong with me. I'm going to tell what's wrong with you!" Or like, we need to meet a middle ground and have an understanding of this issue. I think it's a systemic issue, right, that's kind of led to a lot of [pause] A lot of it is internal
[Michael] between Armenians, amongst themselves and different generations.
[Shushan] Right, yeah. And I think it is very important to use these opportunities as educational moments because again, there is no ill will. No one who teases or ridicules a heritage speaker is doing it with some kind of malicious intent. They're doing it actually [pause] I'm sure if you ask them, they're going to say, "Well, I'm doing my duty", right?
[Michael] Yeah! And I - yeah.
[Michael] That's exactly what I thought. I mean, for them I feel like they feel like they're doing a service.
[Michael] Because it's like, I need to make sure these kids maintain their Armenian
[Michael] and don't lose their heritage.
[Michael] And there's this whole like, fear of, you know, losing their Armenian-ness and... what's the word... being acclimated to the, or...
[Michael] assimilation, right, like, being assimilated to the environment. So, that fear is well-founded.
[Michael] It's reasonable.
[Michael] So, we also understand that now because of the class.
[Michael] Because they do have their [pause] We know why that is what it is, but we're now aware of how it's transmitting it's affect.
[Shushan] Yes. Toasting - talk to me about toasting.
[Michael] So, I have this terrible, like, I'm terrible at giving toasts in Armenian. And it's because I haven't, you know, I haven't been exposed to too many people doing it. But it's just - it's almost like, it's own domain.
[Shushan] Oh, absolutely!
[Michael] Right! Like, there's -
[Shushan] Of course it's its own domain.
[Michael] there's key words that you have to use when you're giving a toast and a speech.
[Michael] And it's like, I flush when I'm asked to give a toast.
[Shushan] Well, first of all, let's talk about what a big role toasting plays in Armenian culture. So, you cannot have a dinner, a get-together without official toasts. And we're not just talking about raising your wine glass and saying, "Cheers!"
[Michael] No, no.
[Shushan] No, no, no.
[Shushan] Theirs are elaborate
[Michael] It is - it's very...
[Shushan] may include poetry, quotes, references [pause] And there's a particular order. There are particular toasts that will always have to be, right, told. And then there's so much creativity. So, there's like, there's a foundational piece that's pretty static. And then there's like, a creative layer that each person can bring to it.
[Michael] This like, I'm surprised that somebody hasn't don't a PhD on this. Like, somebody should do a PhD on just toasts.
[Shushan] Yes! Again, another [pause] Oh! I think a lifetime of PhDs, yeah.
[Michael] So, I've been in experiences in Armenia with people, like, relatives, extended family, who live in Armenia.
[Michael] And, you know, here I am, this American, this [????????? (American) 51:35], right, that's comings. And, you know, it didn't occur to me but I've been in situations where I've been in front of a much older man and he looks, you know, across me and to the guy next to me, his son, and he's like, "Why hasn't he said a toast?" Like, we've already said one. It's time for him [pause] And then the guy next to me - he was a bit more understanding and he said, "You know, he's not comfortable." Like, Don't take it as disrespect.
[Michael] Because it was disrespectful to him. But I wouldn't catch onto that. I wouldn't know that, you know? I wouldn't know that. I mean, maybe I should have, right? Like, if you're - you should have that kind of understanding. But it's [pause] And I've been in situations also here, you know, at peoples' houses where it's kind of [pause] I think that if giving a good toast has so much weight and power tied to - and definitely the whole - I didn't even think about this - order of the way it's done, right? If you're the host versus if you're the guest.
[Michael] And I feel like you never know what's going to be brought up depending on the relationship in a toast, right? [laughing]
[Shushan] Yes! [laughing]
[Michael] You never know how long it's going to go back. I know this one guy who does it very well.
[Michael] He always knows how to get people like, warmed up and, you know, feel that connection at a table when you're eating food and there's culture, and there's language, there's laughter, there's drinks, there's all these things. So, it's a huge, huge, huge thing to be able to give a good toast.
[Michael] And it establishes this kind of, "Okay. We have a good relationship."
[Michael] Because you just said all that about me
[Shushan] Right, right.
[Michael] or about the people at this table. You blessed it. Or, you know, whatever. So -
[Shushan] And it's typically a male domain. So, there may be a connection to this manhood
[Michael] The macho-ness.
[Michael] Yeah, definitely.
[Shushan] performance of masculinity.
[Michael] Yeah. It's [pause] I'm going to make a comment. It's almost like, this [pause] It reminds me of like, this mating thing! [laughing]
[Shushan] A mating ceremony! [laughing]
[Michael] Like, if you give a good toast you're a good mate or something like that.
[Shushan] Yes! Yeah.
[Michael] It's kind of like, this dynamic where
[Michael] Yeah, yeah.
[Shushan] It's a performance!
[Michael] It's a performance.
[Shushan] It's a performance. No question about it. [laughing]
[Michael] So, it's been really interesting to see it in different settings.
[Shushan] We didn't mention trips to Armenia and what that experience may have been like in terms of reckoning with your
[Shushan] linguistic identity.
[Michael] So, my first time to Armenia was in 2013 right after graduating high school. And it was actually a class trip. I think that was a bit of a bubble trip because it's like, you're around, you know, people you already know. And you could actually get by by speaking English because, you know, just as any other interaction you would have with your classmates, it's just in a different country. Although it was obviously a bit more, you know, Armenian. I don't think I noticed the difference that much at that time. It was like, a two week trip. So, not enough time. It was kind of more of like, a tourist
[Shushan] Like, a guided tour.
[Michael] Guided tour
[Michael] like, tourist experience. And even [pause] But I did notice it, even again, still, I had the opportunity to go to visit my moms friends who, like, you know, even she hasn't seen. Like, they grew up together in their elementary school in Armenia. And going to their home environment, and eating and having a toast, right? So [pause] And it was very different. It was like black and white. I'm going from my friends - this comfortable little bubble
[Michael] to somewhere [pause] I think that even they're not sure what to expect from me. [laughing] They're like, Does this guy [pause] Maybe they expect me to speak broken Armenian. But it was kind of like, Okay. You know, He came. We got to know him. We met him. It was interesting. Like [pause] So, you don't really know what you're getting yourself into. Of course, you try to be as respectful as you can, and I think that carries a lot of weight. But when it comes to the language, I think there's a barrier. It's almost like, because you don't speak it fluently or, you know, meet their expectations there's this kind disconnect almost at times.
[Shushan] And, again, I don't know if it's fluently in terms of that flexibility of switching registers.
[Shushan] Because I'm sure if you were just hanging out with peers who were your own age in a very casual, informal environment, you could probably get pretty far. But if you're visiting an adult that you don't know, this automatically sets the scene for a very formal register.
[Michael] Yeah. And, you know, I think a lot of it is not like, general competency in the language. It really is the domain.
[Michael] So, if you spend a lot of time listening to people giving a toast, you'll get good at it!
[Michael] And you'll be able to like, go through it.
[Michael] An actually, I noticed that my second trip because I stayed there for a month. By the time, by the end of like, third week, end of fourth week I was like, "I got the hang of it!" [laughing] I'm starting to speak a lot better Armenian. Like, [??????????? (fundamentally) 56:04] for example, right?
[Michael] I love that word and I had like, never used it. Like, I started using it a lot more. It's like, Oh! Here I'm throwing it around. Like, I feel like I'm speaking a lot better. But my second trip was...it was pretty different because we spent a majority of the time in, you know, a rural village much further from the capital where we spent most of the time for the 2013 trip. And it was interesting to have some of the village kids, you know, be like, You actually [pause] We don't even notice an accent on you. Like, We feel like you speak pretty well Armenian. Then I'd go back to Yerevan. They'd be, No! We notice an accent on you. So, like depending or a dialect.
[Shushan] Interesting, yeah. [laughing]
[Michael] So, it was kind of this mixed response situation where that kind of confused me. Because it's like, am I - do they [pause] Obviously they notice I'm not from here. But what do they think of the way I speak? And so, there's like, some mixed reactions to that. But it is fascinating to see even the diversity, the linguistic diversity of Armenian in Armenia. I don't think a lot of people realize this but depending on what village you go to it's like, they have their own terms
[Michael] their mannerisms, their
[Shushan] And Armenia is such a small country. To think about that you can go from one village to a neighboring one and encounter a completely different dialect.. [pause] And it's interesting that the rural kids were so much more accepting and
[Michael] Yeah. I think part of that was
[Michael] You know, and I wonder if they were just being nice or if it was like, Oh! He's my teacher in like, Health and Bio. So, you know, we're trying to establish this rapport with him. But I think part of it was that their age. I'm sure their parents wouldn't agree.
[Shushan] But their age, but also keep in mind that a rural kid has to deal with very similar anxiety that you do when they go to Yerevan, the capital. Their home dialect is not the standard Yerevan dialect.
[Michael] Right, yeah. I didn't think about that, yeah.
[Shushan] Yeah. So, they face a lot of the same issues.
[Michael] So, I think there was actually [pause] I felt like I was able to relate more to them
[Michael] than I were to
[Shushan] Yes. Interesting.
[Michael] And, for example, it was so difficult teaching in Armenian. Like I
[Shushan] Teaching bio?
[Michael] Teaching bio and health topics in Armenian. And like, I really struggled. And thankfully, there was another girl with me who was a graduate student at Stanford. But she - And she's Iranian-Armenian. So, she's speaking like, this other dialect
[Shushan] Dialect, right.
[Michael] and here I am like, Eastern Armenian, you know like [?????????? (a person from Armenia) 58:27]
[Shushan] From Armenia.
[Michael] From Armenian, yeah.
[Michael] And we're co-teaching this class, but we did it, you know. And I think part of that was the kids were understanding. So, they actually helped us out, you know. And we also had [pause] So, actually one important thing that I think the program really did well with
[Shushan] Wait! So, what's the program? I don't think we ever mentioned.
[Michael] Okay. So, I went in 2017 through the Hidden Road Initiative. So, it's a nonprofit organization that goes through Armenian villages ever year and typically, they do, they teach at schools like, educational outreach. They do [pause] They teach topics in computer science, bio, health, environmental science. Like, sometimes it's really
[Michael] And it targets villages that a pretty neglected. And actually, this past weekend in we're in March of 2019 - it was the 10th anniversary. So, it started off in UC Santa Barbara as like, an undergraduate group, kind of started off. And then it got funding and now it's kind of become this thing that [pause] We help renovate kindergartens. There's like, a scholarship fund that's established to help kids go to school in Armenia. But we had connected with the village and had some of the older village kids also help us out. And that was a huge thing, right? Because it's like [pause] But it's a balance because you don't want the kids getting to comfortable saying like, "Oh! That's Anrush over there"
[Michael] and we know her. She's teaching us? What is she going to do?
[Michael] Right? But from a language perspective like, they were a bit older, typically closer to around 20-21. So, it's like they understand a little bit better what we're looking for and kind of helping us out. And, you know, it's like a local translator. It really is.
[Shushan] Like a, yeah, mediator
[Michael] A mediator.
[Shushan] or a facilitator. Yeah, yeah.
[Michael] It's a facilitator. So, not only are we getting them involved in the teaching process, we're getting their language help [pause] But she's also learning how to teach. So, when we don't go there next, they can run their own classes.
[Shushan] Yes, yes.
[Michael] So, it's kind of
[Shushan] Oh, good!
[Michael] an attempt at trying to establish a sustainable model, yeah. Yeah. So, that was that experience.
[Shushan] Okay. Now that we've gone way over time, which has been the case for most of these [laughing] [pause] Where do you see [pause] What role do you see your Armenian playing in the rest of your life? I mean, we've kind of discussed for birth to - I don't know, how old are you? Mid-late 20s?
[Shushan] Do you think about that? Do you worry about it? Do you strategize? Do you plan?
[Michael] So, I had this experience before starting professional work right after undergrad where I saw kind of a professional figure who's involved in medicine and public health and healthcare, um, and he's Iranian - I think he's Iranian-Armenian, speaking very well Eastern Armenian, right? And I kind of looked up to him and I was like, "Wow! This guy - he knows his stuff." And a lot of it is because he has close ties to Armenia. He's always like, back and forth. And so, for me I've actually been thinking about this a lot recently. I'm about to enter graduate school and I want part of my work to be in Armenia, from a global health perspective. And so, I know now going in that that ability to have flexibility and to say the right words depending on who you're talking to has a big impact on relationships. And so, collaboration between Armenia and the U.S. is going to be huge kind of moving forward - at least for my aspirations of what I want to do, you know, down the line, 15-20 years from now. But I think it's kind of it's giving me a little bit of anxiety now because it's like, "Okay. Realistically, am I going to have the time to brush - like, really get into this and learn this stuff while I'm pursing graduate courses." So, one of the questions I've been asking graduate programs is like, "Can I take undergraduate classes as a graduate student?" Like, language classes [pause] And most of them have been like, "Yeah, sure you can. You know, We don't know why you'd want to be with undergraduates"
[Michael] "but you could do it." But it is something that's in the back of my mind, right? And I know that for the career goals that I want to have, that is going to come up again and again. So, it's almost like, you know, this thing that I'm going to take with me. I know that, I think at least I know that I'm much more aware of it and kind of will figure out how to manage it a bit better. And, you know, maybe be a bit more observant, kind of see what is the dialogue like, maybe asking more, you know "What's the right term to use?" Instead of assuming, right? Because just because I'm Armenian [pause] I'm not a native speaker. I'm a heritage language speaker, which is very different. So, maybe I need to ask the right questions and not have those assumptions that just because I'm Armenian, you know, I would know this. No, you wouldn't know it.
[Michael] You've grown up in a very different environment.
[Michael] So, it's you know
[Shushan] And also, I think placing yourself in the right environment. So, like through the Hidden Road Initiative - the experience of teaching in Armenian, right? As much as you could have prepared for it, sometimes you just need to be thrown into a situation where you need to perform
[Michael] Right, yeah.
[Shushan] and you need to solve a problem. That's why in heritage language teaching, we are such strong proponents of thematic-based curricula, or content-based curricula or project-based curricula, where students are using language for real-life purposes. That's... [pause] There's no better way, right?
[Shushan] There's no better authentic way.
[Michael] Yeah. And, you know, I kind of have this [pause] So, I'm a huge procrastinator and the girl I was teaching with, she was like, the total opposite. She had everything planned out - planned out, right? I feel like when we met and we talked, in my mind I was like, "There's no way I'm going to prep for this. Like, how do I - what am I going to do?" Go on Google Translate and like, look up terms and, you know, print that out and like, bring it with me? Like, no. So, I kind of did go into it kind of with that mindset, that I just need to throw myself into this. I'm trying to and it's giving me a little bit of anxiety to prepare beforehand but, you know what, forget it.
[Michael] We'll see what happens.
[Shushan] Yeah, yeah.
[Michael] And I think, you know, the other girl would agree that like, there's so much that you just [pause] It went off topic.
[Michael] Like, we went there, Okay, the kids don't understand something that we thought they did or they do understand something we thought they wouldn't. So, it's like we have to literally shift the curriculum day by day.
[Michael] So, it's kind of this experience where you're improvising.
[Michael] You really are improvising on the spot and it's
[Shushan] Which is actually such a high-order skill, right?
[Michael] Yeah. Yeah I think so.
[Shushan] Spontaneous communication, improvisation [pause] I think also going to Armenia for a lot of diasporian Armenians who are heritage speakers [pause] I remember one student saying, "Do you know that they do calculus in Armenian?"
[Shushan] This idea of, you know, because their domains have been so restricted that they've built this idea that Armenian is restricted, that Armenian - the language - doesn't have the capacity for calculus
[Shushan] or theology or philosophy. And then they go to Armenia and they realize, "Oh my god!"
[Michael] Yeah. [laughing]
[Shushan] It's just that I haven't had the exposure to those domains or
[Michael] Yeah. But I think that lack of exposure is a huge barrier.
[Michael] Because if we want to connect and collaborate, you know, I come from an interdisciplinary background. So, I have professors in Sociology and Anthropology. If I want to reach out to people in Armenia who are in those fields, I don't feel like I have the tools to do that, you know. I'm not well-versed in that domain. I'm aware now that it exists.
[Michael] I know that it exists.
[Michael] Even in high school if you told me that, you know, you could do calculus is Armenian, I would have been like, "What?" Like [pause] And I'm talking an Armenian language class, right? But I'm obviously learning calculus
[Michael] in English
[Michael] even though my Armenian high school teacher actually would try to teach like, math in Armenian and we'd just be scratching our heads like, "No, go back to it." Like, "We don't know what you're doing."
[Michael] Like, I don't understand you. But it's do-able, right?
[Michael] And I think that's kind of a limiting factor that makes people think Armenian is this outdated language when it's not.
[Shushan] Okay. Before wrapping up, is there anything you wish I had asked or anything you wanted to bring up but didn't get a chance?
[Michael] Let me see. I think we've covered kind of pretty much from like, inception to kind of now and in the future
[Michael] of what I'm thinking. I will say that I wish I had more classes with you and some of the other professors here at UCLA. I think it's keeping an open mind, you know, throwing yourself in situations where it could be good, it could be bad, but go for it. Because I think part of me - part of what was holding me back was [pause] You know, I've had that high school experience "I think I'm done with Armenian for now" and even my [pause] I remember my Armenian teachers telling me: "We don't want you guys to graduate" [pause] Well, they would say, "Well, this is probably going to be your last, realistically, your last experience with Armenian. A lot of you are going to go on and not take another Armenian class but we hope that you do." There was this kind of like, this emphasis on that.
[Michael] Not everybody has that opportunity. So, to be able to have those classes here as an undergraduate was kind of a really, really [pause] You know, again, I majored in Human Biology. I feel like that Armenian class had way more impact on me as an individual and my educational experience than a lot of science classes that I've taken. So, it makes you question things, right? Like, "What produces a student that's kind of feeling confident in doing research and being interactive, and kind of progressing as a student in general?" But in terms of questions, I think you've asked it all. [laughing] Thank you very much for, you know, taking the time to do this.
[Shushan] Thank you. Thank you for sharing your experiences, sharing your wisdom.
[Shushan] And best of luck.
[Michael] Thank you, anytime.