Shushan Karapetian

A Critical Exclusive: The Language Doctor Is in: Shushan Karapetian’s Language Therapy

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LOS ANGELES — You would have to be deaf or half asleep not to hear the obvious excitement in Shushan Karapetian’s voice as she interviews guests on her hit new podcast, “Language Therapy with Dr. K.” The program’s stated goal is to bring to light the role that language plays in the construction of identity, even as it constantly evolves, morphs and changes into something ever more complex and interesting.

In one episode, while comparing notes on bilingualism with noted Swiss scholar, François Grosjean, she compares notes from her own fascinating research on heritage language acquisition.

In another episode she is ecstatic and congratulatory with standup comedienne Mary Basmajian for using down and dirty sex talk and terminology in Armenian on her own video series “Vartoush Tota.”You are making enormous contributions to keeping Armenian alive and vital!” she exclaims to Basmajian’s evident surprise. Then on another podcast, while interviewing a young cultural worker with a small case of the nerves, she is supportive and guides her to the idea that dance terminology mirrors the linguistic.

Clearly Karapetian is a woman on a mission. As deputy director of the maverick University of Southern California (USC) Institute of Armenian Studies, she is part of a cutting-edge group of scholars, journalists, and media professionals who are changing the ways we perceive and interact with Armenian culture and language. Under the leadership of Salpi Ghazarian, since 2005 the USC team has encouraged new avenues of research, publications and public service, a combination think tank, digital media network, and investigative journalism hub on all things Armenian.

Hence on another episode of “Language Therapy,” listeners are introduced to calligrapher extraordinaire Ruben Malayan to discuss the idea that the way a culture graphically represents its language and texts to the world is a key differentiator, in the Armenian case going back all the way to Mesrop Mashtots and our first scribes.

Before coming to USC, Karapetian completed both her undergraduate and graduate education at UCLA. She then held a dual position as associate director of the National Heritage Language Resource Center, and lecturer of Armenian Studies in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. It was there that she developed an expertise on the role of Armenian as a “pluricentric heritage language,” while also focusing the intersection of language and identity in the Armenian transnation.

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Her dissertation, “‘How Do I Teach My Kids My Broken Armenian?’: A Study of Eastern Armenian Heritage Language Speakers in Los Angeles,” was awarded the Distinguished Dissertation Award by the Society for Armenian Studies in 2015. Karapetian is also unique in the Armenian world in her eagerness to reach out beyond the walls of academia and apply her findings to effect concrete change — both within the community and in the broader world-at-large. These activities include leading a cutting-edge research partnership with the Glendale Unified School District’s Dual Language Immersion Programs (in seven languages!) and collaborating with the Armenian Communities Department of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation on Armenian Language Revitalization initiatives.

Karapetian’s “Word of the Day” is another favorite of mine, and quite a few other Armenian linguistics nerds that I have spoken to of late. The concept is deceptively simple. But more than just translating words from Armenian into English (or vice-versa), Karapetian also provides such goodies as each word’s etymological roots and formation. She also makes sure to provide both Eastern and Western Armenian variants for a word when they differ and asks her students leading questions such as: “How did your family say this word in Iran (or Armenia or Glendale)? Thus viewers have the option of simply writing down the translation of the word or delving into Ancient Iranian roots and how a word may have evolved over the centuries. Confession: this past year, I filled almost an entire 100-page notebook with new words-of-the day. Had my undergraduate institution hired someone as compelling as Dr. Karapetian to teach Armenian, I would have been fluent in Armenian long ago!! In the following interview, I ask Karapetian a few key questions about her career and the development of Armenian culture and language in the 21st century and beyond.

 

Christopher Atamian: Shushan, what is the origin of “Language Therapy with Doctor K” and what are its goals?

Shushan Karapetian: Given my academic background in Armenian Studies and research on heritage languages, I would constantly be approached by friends, family, and often strangers with questions about language. Anything from: “How do I make sure my kids speak Armenian?” to “Which Armenian is the right/best/better/purer one?” to “My husband’s accent is annoying me, what can I do?” to “Why do we not have a word for x?” One day, it just became obvious, that these language issues had wide-reaching relevance for so many people. And they needed to be framed and communicated in a relatable, compassionate manner. At this point, I had been teaching Armenian Studies courses for nearly 15 years and had come to realize just how much healing was necessary to remedy the damage and painful associations so many had developed with Armenian. Hence the “therapy” component. It needed to have a cathartic element to help undo and understand a lot of the hurt, anxiety, sense of failure, and confusion. And to reintroduce the joy and playfulness of Armenian.

While the focus is on language in the Armenian context, I also want to drive home that so many of the phenomena we think are uniquely Armenian – whether they be “tragic” or “exceptional” or “mundane” — are not so unique.  Language is a part of the human experience, and we are a part of the wider world. The dynamics that impact the Armenian experience are just as relevant for speakers of other languages and vice-versa.

AMS: Tell me a bit about your “Word-of-the-Day.” I love that you get into etymology, synonyms and antonyms, and how different parts of the diaspora may use different terms to refer to the same thing.  So refreshing.

SK: Again, this started organically. When I joined the team at the Institute, students found out that I was the “language expert” and would frequently pop into my office and say, “Shushan, what’s the English equivalent for this particular idiomatic phrase in Armenian?” I would step out of my office into the large, shared room where all our student workers sit and do a mini lesson on the white board. One day one of the students recorded it to share with a friend and Word of the Day was born!

I have several objectives with that series: 1) Make learning Armenian engaging! I want viewers to feel that engaging with Armenian is stimulating, witty, smart, and cool. 2) Normalize the Eastern/Western element without sensationalizing it. Celebrating the diversity, not lamenting it. 3) I also intentionally provide the etymology of the English word to demonstrate how easily and frequently English borrows and how enriching that is. It’s a way to indirectly demonstrate to “purist” Armenians that borrowing is natural and normal!

 

AMS: What I like best about your podcasts is the obvious enthusiasm, energy, and love for the Armenian language that you bring to them. How have your various podcasts been received? And who is your core audience? Have you received any surprising comments or feedback?

SK: The intended audience is wide and diverse. Everyone from the academic community at USC and at large, in all kinds of disciplines: Armenian Studies, Linguistics, Anthropology, Sociology, Diaspora Studies, Migration Studies, Bilingualism, Psychology, you name it. And everyone who is interested in smart conversations about language.

The reception has been overwhelmingly positive. From the very first episode, I’ve received private messages, phone calls, notes, and emails expressing listeners’ excitement and relief that these topics are being broached in a constructive way. Language teachers and learners find comfort in shared difficulties and more importantly, renewed energy in innovative practices and solutions. And your average frustrated diaspora parent, who has been forcing their child to go to Saturday or Sunday school, at their wit’s end, saying thank you for making me feel less guilty as a parent.

 

AMS: Can you once and for all explain the difference between Western and Eastern Armenian? Dialects? Different languages altogether at this point?

SK:  Any time I teach an Armenian Studies class, I tell my students, if you get nothing else from my class, I want you to leave knowing the following:

Modern Armenian is a pluricentric language, with more than one standard version, without precluding the unity of the language. Think English in England, the U.S., Australia, India, and elsewhere; French in France, Canada, and elsewhere; you get the point. We of course have a third literary standard, Classical Armenian or Grabar (“literary”), but at this point it is only used as a liturgical language.

Eastern and Western Armenian are both equally beautiful, standardized, literary languages that make up modern Armenian. Neither is a dialect of Armenian, though we are blessed by the wealth of dialects we have. Neither is better/purer/older/more authentic/more right than the other.

Both were standardized at around the same time, by the second half of the 19th century. The work was carried out by intellectual elites, comprised of graduates from European universities. Imbued with notions of romanticism, nationalism, and social progress, they became aware of the need for a common, efficient, and purified language. The Armenian community in Constantinople became the vessel for the purification and standardization of Western Armenian. The formation of Modern Eastern Armenian had a more polycentric development, in important centers of learning such as the Lazarian Academy in Moscow and the Nersisian School in Tiflis, with the dialect of Ararat serving as the basis.

The two standards share a common vocabulary and similar rules of grammatical fundamentals, but also feature concrete phonetic, morphological, and structural differences. We all know that certain consonants sound different (e.g. բ, պ, փ in Eastern Armenian are pronounced b, p, p’ but reduced to p’ and b in Western Armenian), verbs are conjugated differently (ես կը պարեմ vs. ես պարում եմ), etc. There is also the issue of orthography (spelling) as Armenia went through an orthographic reform during the Soviet period. So, we have two modern standards and two spelling systems.

How different are they and are they mutually comprehensible? If you have a solid foundation in one, have had some exposure to the other, and are open to accepting the other as part of YOUR literary heritage, you should not have a major problem. For English speakers in the U.S., think about reading the Economist (based in London) and seeing color spelled as colour or theater as theatre or hearing Brits say petrol instead of gas and loo instead of bathroom.

 

AMS: Is Western Armenian gaining a foothold in Armenia? Do you think that it will eventually also be taught in schools? As conversely, same question for Eastern Armenian in the Diaspora. Is a “hybrid” Armenian evolving in a place like Glendale today?

SK: In terms of the role of Western Armenian in Armenia, I would encourage your readers to listen to the episode with Vahakn Keshishian. This is precisely the topic of our discussion as we demonstrate that Western Armenian has always had a presence in Armenia, with Yerevan now functioning as one of the main intellectual and cultural hubs of Western Armenian literary and cultural production. Can Armenia do more? Absolutely. There are immense opportunities with Syrian and Lebanese repatriates (diaspora repats in general) who bring immense linguistic and cultural knowledge with them. I would love to see Western Armenian incorporated in the national curriculum.

There is definitely a shift toward offering Eastern Armenian tracks in diaspora schools in parallel with Western Armenian. As for a hybrid form of Armenian evolving in places like Glendale – I think in terms of your casual spoken vernacular, perhaps – it’s common to hear Armenians having conversations that include features of both standards, without any discomfort. But in terms of a new literary variant, I don’t see it yet.

 

AMS: Should the government of the Third Republic recognize Western Armenian as a second official language, in addition to Eastern Armenian?

SK: The constitution of the Republic of Armenia recognizes Armenian as the official language of the Republic. It does not specify Eastern Armenian; however, as we all know, Eastern Armenian with Reformed Orthography functions as the de facto dominant language. Instead of recognizing Western Armenian as a second official language, the government could use it in standard curricula, embrace it as part of the public linguistic landscape, encourage the publication of more books, broadcast more programs in Western Armenian and so on.

 

AMS: Talk to us a bit about Armenian Bilingual Programs in the L.A Public Schools. These are quite successful, I believe. Can these programs be extended to places like Detroit, Boston, and NYC where other strong if smaller concentrations of Armenians also exist? Is funding the main issue?

SK: The establishment of Armenian-English Dual Immersion programs in public schools over the last decade (at both GUSD and LAUSD) has changed the educational landscape, both ideologically and practically. The main objective of these programs is to develop functional bilingualism and biliteracy along with academic language. In other words, Armenian is taught both for language acquisition and content instruction. Instead of Armenian used only for Armenian language, religion, and maybe history, children learn math, science, social studies, art, chemistry, and all their school subjects in both English and Armenian.

Dual-immersion programs in general in the US are highly successful. By the 4th grade, cohorts in dual immersion programs, who receive half their instruction in English and half their instruction in the target language (in our case Armenian) outperform their monolingual cohorts in math (this we all knew) but also English (this blows most people away). The reason? Because they have higher metalinguistic awareness!

 

AMS: French K-12 Lycées and “Écoles Bilingues,” for example, do a great job of producing graduates who are truly bilingual — many of whom have even become renowned writers and academics in France. Do you think that Armenian schools can achieve this same level of success?

SK: If Armenian schools adopt an immersion model as presented above with the right vision, it is certainly possible. Adopting a dual immersion model in Armenian schools is challenging for a number of reasons: 1) it requires strong and visionary leadership that positions Armenian as a prestigious, worthwhile language to discover the world; 2) it requires a cohort of well-trained and flexible teachers who believe in the model; 3) it requires a cohort of parents who can put their own insecurities aside (immigrant complexes we all share) and embrace bilingualism as something essential for their child’s cognitive and social development; 4) it requires a community that invests in and prioritizes language as the main guarantor of cultural survival and vibrancy.

 

AMS: I imagine that textbooks are also an issue. The ones I used were simply dreadful — reading the phone book would have been more exciting, lol!

SK: Textbooks are certainly an issue. Imagine it from a child’s perspective. Colorful, multimedia curricular materials for their English language subjects compared to dull, outdated, black and white copied sheets for Armenian. The subliminal message is that Armenian is not sophisticated or prestigious or fun enough for colorful textbooks. This situation is of course changing. In most day schools, children have colorful, beautifully bound Armenian language textbooks. Where two tracks are offered, textbooks are adapted to support both standards. The issue now is to have textbooks outside of basic language acquisition to support content in Armenian (math/science/ social studies/etc.). The dual-immersion programs adapt textbooks from Armenia to make sure they are age appropriate, context appropriate, and proficiency appropriate.

 

AMS: Shushan, what is the ideal role of Armenian Studies programs at the university level? How are we doing on that score and what could we do to improve them?

SK: The role of Armenian Studies programs at the university level is huge. It is to make sure that the Armenian experience is integrated into the world experience and that the world is integrated into the Armenian reality. The field has been making immense strides in this direction. It is no longer Armenians doing Armenian Studies for Armenians but scholars at large taking an interest in the Armenian experience because it enriches world knowledge. We have cutting edge scholarship coming out from some of the best universities in the world. The biggest challenge facing Armenian Studies at the moment isn’t the lack of scholarship or the excellence of that scholarship but developing a pipeline for these scholars so that they have fruitful career opportunities. We have a handful of Armenian Studies programs, most with one full-time chair position, requiring a senior scholar. We do not, however, have the infrastructure, that turns new PhDs into senior scholars with post-docs, assistant and associate professorships, junior scholar positions, etc. This is something we need to work on.

 

AMS: Okay, so I have to discuss your Mary Basmajian episode — she kills me! Vartoush Totah—“hasd vorig Vartoush — I completely agree that she is doing crucial work — half my Armenian sex vocabulary comes from her show. I think she is helping a generation to get over the shame in Armenian society associated with sex and their bodies. I mean have you ever heard an Armenian talk sex over kebab or give love making advice over baklava and surj?

SK: Or teach the alphabet using curse words — that’s the premise of her “Vulgar Vocabulary” series! Again, this goes back to decompartmentalizing Armenian. So many of us have grown up with a compartmentalized perspective of our languages. English/French/Russian [insert your dominant language here] are appropriate for all topics while Armenian is ok for some (church, family, genocide, grandparents) but not for others (sex, abstract ideas, higher learning, technology, cool/fun stuff etc.) Mary breaks those artificial boundaries while making you laugh and having a great time while at it. She is also breaking gender boundaries (a woman cursing!). Mary and a generation of comedians are doing excellent work, snapping us out of this limited worldview of our language.

 

AMS: Until recently there was a real and perhaps justified fear that this might be the last generation to write and publish in Western Armenian — people like Zahrad and Krikor Beledian and Vahe Berberian.  But lo and behold we now have a new generation that has consciously decided to keep literary Western Armenian alive. I am thinking of Christian Batikian in Istanbul/Paris for example, and people like Jesse Arlen in Los Angeles, who learned Armenian in college and now writes gorgeous Armenian poetry and prose. Is this a renewal or the dying throes of Western Armenian?

SK: I think this is a renewal. All the names you mentioned are cultivators of Armenian, who have the freedom to create in a playful, free, contemporary Armenian, unshackled from the label of an endangered language focused on preservation. Interestingly, during the pandemic I’ve noticed an unprecedented interest in Armenian, particularly Western Armenian. Look at Aghvor Paner (aghvorpaner.com), look at the London Institute of Armenian Studies, social media pages and ToTalk Armenian (www.totalkAmrenian.com) and dasa2.com. Here, one must highlight the amazing work and support of the Gulbenkian Foundation. What they are doing in supporting the cultivation of Western Armenian is a game changer.

 

AMS: Do you also write creatively? Any comments or new projects on the horizon that we should know about?

SK: I write creatively all the time, nonstop, but unfortunately only in my mind! It very rarely makes its way to paper or the screen. I used to write creatively in college, but then academic work and life took over. The joke in our household is that this will be my retirement project!

I am actually working on a very exciting project now. It is a very nuanced look at the Armenian language, from an angle we are not typically accustomed to seeing it from. The short version is that I am exploring the language of masculinity. In my research on Armenian as a heritage language, particularly in the LA communities, I noticed that there is one domain in which Armenian reigns as the ultimate prestigious language. Among urban male youth in LA, using Armenian is a powerful means of displaying one’s machoness, projecting one’s prowess. I am investigating and documenting the visual and linguistic codes of this segment of our communities, whether it’s the tattoos on their bodies or their preferences for colloquial vernaculars. Decoding the detail of urban youth’s visual and spoken language tells us much about their priorities, preoccupations, and passions. It’s a kind of coming-of-age exploration for Armenian urban youth, with an interesting focus on the intersection of language and masculinity.

AMS: Thank you Shushan!

 

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