Overcoming the Language Barrier

AYF Youth Corps volunteer Nicole Sabbagh in Armenia
AYF Youth Corps volunteer Nicole Sabbagh in Armenia

AYF Youth Corps volunteer Nicole Sabbagh in Armenia


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.

AYF Youth Corps volunteer Nicole Sabbagh with a camper in Armenia

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.


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  1. Hratch said:

    One suggestion, don’t make it a habit to use the word “Jan”. Contrary to popular belief, it is not an Armenian word. It comes from Turkish ‘canim’ which literally means ‘my life’.

    • raf said:

      “jan” is, in fact, a Persian word.
      I don’t speak Turkish but I am fluent in both Arabic and Persian. When I read a Turkish text I can pick up tones of Arabic and Persian words. And I am more than sure “jan” is Persian, they even have some derivatives in Persian for that.

      • Hratch said:

        Regardless of origin, it’s still inappropriate for Armenians to use it constantly. Might as well include it in the Armenian dictionary along with Aziz!

        • Random Armenian said:

          Don’t forget “kef” :)

          Also there are a lot of Persian loan-words in Armenian. Do you want to stop using those too? Or just the ones that were recently adopted from other languages, rather than ones centuries ago.

          • Hratch said:

            If you use it everyday of every week, then perhaps it does not qualify as a loan-word anymore. Like everything else, if you repeat so many times it becomes believable, especially to the youngsters. I doubt that most young people who have picked up by ear know the origins of these words. They simply accept as part of the Armenian lexicon.

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  3. Ararat said:


    I have to disagree with you on one thing and that is the fact that language is not just a means of communication. Language is also culture, music, poetry, etc. that brings distinct groups of people closer together and through such means they can relate to one another and identify themselves as a unit distinct from others.

    One other but very important role that language also plays among people, other than being a means of communication, is that it acts as a shield against assimilation in foreign lands!

  4. Edward Demian said:

    Having learned Western Armenian at the Mechitarian Seminary, the Armenian they teach is devoid of most foreign words. I have a hell of a time understanding others who intersperse their speech with forreign Words. Its not so bad when western words are used, but Russian is a problem. So is Persian. For example.
    Train Vs Shokegark
    Televizor vs Herades
    The purity of the language needs to be preserved. Otherwise, we’ll end up with hundreds of regional dialects. Like before the Genocide.

  5. areg minasyan said:

    To all out there: Be proud of being and belonging to the Armenian Heritage. Knowing the Armenian language is very essential. If you know the language and read the Armenian literature and poetry you will enter this great nation’s world of wonders to be the heaven of this earth. Read it, listen to the classical Armenian and modern music, learn our Krapar Armenian Classical language, go to Armenian Church, take your kids to Armenian functions, visit Armenia if you are in Diaspora and promise yourself that one day soon and very soon for your own sake return and reside in your AZIZ and or JAN Hayrenik HAYASTAN ASHKHAR and build your final resting nest on this God given land, And, believe me your children eventually will, if educated properly, over time, will use the proper words in their communication with Armenians. Bravo to you Nicole Sabbagh.

    • Levon pauladian said:

      After reading some of these comments, it gave me impetus to also talk about our turkish derived long and ugly last names. I have often talked and wondered out loud, as to how we could form a international committee, (or national to start with) dealing with this ugly issue. This way, to all those who have these impossible sounding names be given the opportunities to legally be helped and facilitated the shortening and simplifying our turkish sounding names once and for all!!!! Here are some examples of these horrible sounding names. Altibarmakian, Karabajakian, Boyadjian, Geouzuboyukian, Chikakian, Adanalian, Ourfalian, Keusseyan, Baboudjian, Chopourian, Chobanian etc. I know some of us would not want to change any name given to us from one generation to another because of certain loyalty and love to our fathers and grandfathers, and I am also no exception. However, It’s time!

  6. armen said:

    Chen haskanum her zer bolore angleren grel,yete hay enk,gone bidi irar he’d hayeren khosank, es el im karziken er, bayz eli shad urakh em for zer neman hater es ashlharum goyutun unen