BY SEVANA PANOSIAN
Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. – Ludwig Wittgenstein
The Armenian diaspora is slowly raising a generation of silence.
This statement may come as a shock, but it stems from the philosopher and linguist Ludwig Wittgenstein’s treatise on language where he states “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
I remember learning about his theories in graduate school while studying other linguistic theorists like Mikhael Bakhtin, but these words entered the “where are they now” files of my musings and memory until I heard my older daughter correct my younger daughter as she spoke about the importance of being Armenian and her pride in balancing her ability to code switch not only between English and Armenian, but also between Western and Eastern Armenian.
As an AP English Literature and Composition teacher, I focus on language and the ability for my high school students to code switch between different vernaculars and “registers” in English, and every time I teach them, I reflect on my daughters’ ability to the do the same in Armenian. I am proud, I am glad, and I am assured, again and again, that sending them to an Armenian school has not been about the idealistic “maintenance” of an ancient, archaic language, neither has it been about the stubborn attempt to battle the assimilation of a culture – assimilation is an inevitability and quite frankly, a necessary skill as the global world expands and contracts. The magnitude of the decision to send my daughters to an Armenian school comes, quite simply, through the acceptance of Wittgenstein’s theory that if they do not learn to speak, read, and write Armenian, they will be limited and hampered in the development of knowing themselves and where they fit in this world.
For years I have been questioned by parents, peers, and friends who are overwhelmed with the decision to send their child to school. After all, it is a commitment with social, economic, and personal repercussions which are indeed, long term. Will my child make it? Will my child be successful? Will my child be happy and, will they be able to compete with the “super kids” during the current crisis of “super kid syndrome.” I’ve even had discussions with parents who feel that they, indeed, want their child to be bilingual, but that they would like them to speak a more “relevant” language – these are all understandable arguments which are logical and most definitely of importance. There are too many answers for so many questions. However, educational theorists know one constant that children who are immersed in culturally relevant, academically rigorous, socially sensitive, and loving schools do better. Period. The empirical data trumps any trends or hearsay.
However, I’d like to entertain one more idea – and this stems from multiple observations I have made in my immediate community in the Bay Area – observations as simple as noticing that our Armenian Church deacons who are under 25 are all graduates of Armenian schools because, quite frankly, it’s not just about being able to read or speak, it’s about immersion.
I must be one of the lucky ones – although I didn’t have the luxury to attend an Armenian school (there was a Saturday school while I grew up) my father always told me that if I don’t speak Armenian, I can’t think in Armenian. Their generation made sure that I had three hours of Armenian school with Armenian teachers in a formal classroom setting while also making sure I performed in many of the cultural programs the school sponsored. Paregentan, dzenunt, Vartanants, and other holidays were celebrated with educational programs at Armenian school. By having a strong sense of our identity, we inevitably had an easier and more secure time interacting with the numerous cultures our diverse city offers. In San Francisco, we didn’t have the ability to be fully immersed in a community like Tehran, Beirut, Aleppo, or even Glendale where we could, miraculously, adapt to an Armenian community, so we were able to be malleable only because we had such a strong sense of our own identity and language.
On a side note, I have never worried that my daughter’s school KZV Armenian School, is not rigorous enough to compete with any of the best schools in the Bay Area. I am profoundly impressed with the caliber of the instruction in technology, science, mathematics, English, and other content areas. Instruction is scaffolded, is one-on-one, culturally relevant, and integrated through close relationships. The educational “three R’s” are evident and part of the school’s culture and methodology. This article is not about that. However, after having my child’s parent conference with her Armenian language teacher, I came home and remembered Wittgenstein’s theory on language and its profound impact on my children, and its inevitable impact on the future of our diaspora.
I would like to invite parents to begin thinking about the following – if we don’t immerse our children into Armenian communities and also base our children in rigorous instruction of Armenian language, reading, writing, and culture, we will, indeed, have a generation of Armenians who will, as Wittgenstein stated, be silent. Furthermore, if we don’t make the explicit decision and commitment to maintain our language, we will, indeed, limit a dynamic generation who will be shackled by their limited understanding of themselves. As Wittgenstein stated, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”
Sevana Panosian is an award winning high school English Literature and Composition teacher at El Camino High School in South San Francisco.