In a strange twist of life events, I learned my mother tongue when I was in my early 20s. Usually, that term is reserved for the first language a child learns, but that's not what they told me when I moved to Armenia.
"Emily, jan, this will not be difficult; it is in your blood, it is your true mother tongue."
Of course Anahit, my Armenian language teacher, was using the English term "mother tongue" incorrectly, but it did give me a fleeting sense of hope. I wanted to believe that because I was Armenian, because my father's family made a journey from these lands over to the U.S. just a few decades ago, that the language would come easily to me—even if I had never learned more than a few words.
I was completely unable to express myself beyond the level of a two-year-old.
That dream of an intangible connection to Armenia was part of the reason that I had decided to move there after graduate school. I got an internship with a local documentary film studio, was promised some support from Birthright, a local diaspora organization, and, bright-eyed, I jumped on a plane; I was ready to immerse myself in all things Armenian, including the language.
But this was before I learned that the Armenian alphabet has 39 characters. This was before I learned that there are letters that require me to make a gargling sound in my throat—with a straight face. This was before I learned that the Armenian language has seven cases, which means I have to conjugate nouns.
It took me two full years before I even felt comfortable having a full conversation in Armenian.
Looking back now, it feels absurd. I was trying and failing at basic communication, simple activities, and everyday life—for years. It was crippling; I lost my sense of self and my identity because I was completely unable to express myself beyond the level of a two-year-old.
These days, when I am thinking about myself, or how I am presenting myself to the world, I am often thinking in Armenian.
It took me two full years before I even felt comfortable having a full conversation in Armenian. But eventually, I started to realize that I was, very slowly, building myself back up—and that my understanding of myself had changed. As I had been re-learning my "mother tongue," I had also been re-learning who I was.
These days, when I am thinking about myself, or how I am presenting myself to the world, I am often thinking in Armenian. And those Armenian thoughts have a distinct personality, they possess certain traits that aren't so present in my English or American consciousness. For example, they are very kopit, which essentially means, "right to the fucking point." I don't sugarcoat things in Armenian, the way I would in English. If you look bad in that shirt, you look bad in that shirt. If I'm acting like a damn fool, I'm a damn fool.
Also, in Armenian, everything (myself included) is just a little pakas, which means deficient or lacking. I could always be trying harder or doing better, the sun could be just a little brighter. But, if you ask me in English? I'm great! Everything is just great!
My Armenian still isn't perfect: I still sometimes accidently tell stories about big, tall penises, instead of big, tall animals.
Over the five years I spent in Armenia, I really felt like I got to grow up and mature inside of the language. Even though I am living back in the U.S. now, I love when I get the opportunity to speak it again. It's like slipping back into the most comfortable coat I own, wrapping myself up in the depths of who I am and the history and experiences that have shaped me.My Armenian still isn't perfect: I still sometimes accidently tell stories about big, tall penises, instead of big, tall animals. But that is what I love about it: it's always growing and evolving, just like I am. With all its eccentricities and imperfections, it is something that is deeply personal and all mine.