Overcoming the Language Barrier
BY NICOLE SABBAGH
During the first week of July I anxiously sat on my 16-hour flight to Yerevan casually flipping through my Armenian-English dictionary with intentions of picking up a few words and phrases before arrival time. I will never forget the stress I felt of going to Armenia and not knowing nearly as much as my fellow Youth Corps participants. Unfortunately, I fell asleep soon after takeoff and slept nearly the entire flight. When we arrived in Abu Dhabi I knew just as much Armenian as when we left—very little.
Once camp began, my intensive Armenian language course was in full swing. Our first location was Martuni, in Artsakh. In the beginning, I could fake how much Armenian I knew, but this didn’t work for long. Kids would run up to me frantically asking questions and I would awkwardly shake my head and answer either “ayo” or “voch.” Half the time that could potentially answer the question; the other times the child would walk away very confused.
I quickly learned that I needed to be proactive if I wanted the next five weeks to be semi-comfortable and productive. I made a notes tab in my phone, and anytime I thought of a word I would need to say in a potential situation, I would add it to the list. Slowly but surely the list grew. I used my phone as reference and walked around with it everywhere I went. One camper even drew a “portrait” of me that included my face and my OtterBox phone case next to it. I referenced this notes tab constantly, but the amount of time I looked at it dropped as days went by. By the last camp, in Proshyan, I was phone free. I was able to communicate with the kids comfortably, answer their questions (for the most part), and bond with them more so than I thought I could have.
Fast forward to the end of August, I sat on my 16-hour return flight and remembered how scared I was weeks earlier; terrified by the thought of working with the kids, terrified that I was going to be “useless” as a counselor, and a burden on the other 25 Youth Corps participants. Thankfully, language is just that, a means of communication and able to be learned. I am forever indebted to the AYF Youth Corps and Sosé and Allen’s Foundation for giving me the opportunity to visit the Fatherland and learn more of the language that my ancestors spoke for centuries. I encourage any and all Armenians in the diaspora to visit the homeland, regardless of your proficiency in the language. Just open yourself up to learning and growing as a person and you will have the time of your life.
Nicole Sabbagh spent the summer in Armenia volunteering with AYF Youth Corps. She is one of four recipients of the 2014 Sosé & Allen’s Foundation Youth Corps Fellowship.