Columnist Liana Aghajanian

Columnist Liana Aghajanian

On a Saturday morning in a brightly lit classroom at the Burbank Adult School, a group of students are practicing their language skills.

Except it's not English they're learning. It's not even Spanish.

It's Armenian.

Though its Western counterpart has been on an UNESCO endangered language list for a few years, there seems to be a demand for Armenian-language skills in Southern California, a mecca for the Armenian diaspora that has settled more steadily in the area over four decades.

The local linguistic landscape of the area is definitely changing.

Rob Sheiffele is one student in ESL-trained teacher Marina Adamian's 10-week Beginning Conversational Armenian class hosted by the Burbank Adult School that sees the  Armenian language as an increasingly valuable skill.

Having found himself seated at a wedding table as the only non-Armenian speaker not too long ago and coming in contact with the language increasingly in both his professional and social life, Sheiffele thought it was time to start learning.

“I thought it was a practical language to learn,” he said between reciting hard to pronounce words he's mastered. “I wanted to be ahead of the curve.”

Registering at L.A. Valley college was impossible, said Sheiffele, as the Armenian-language classes there are packed, and usually with native speakers.

Cristina Ramirez is taking the class for reasons that hit closer to home: she wants to be able to communicate with her boyfriend's family.

It took her a while learn how to say “shnoragalutuyn,” the Armenian word for “thank you,” but she's made some great gains so far.

“It's a lot easier than I thought,” she said, adding that her boyfriend's family is very excited to help her with acquiring her new language skills.

When Sarita Gomez, a teacher from Burbank, found herself at a local supermarket unable to speak to an older Armenian-American woman who asked for help with pricing, she knew it was time to conquer  Armenian.

She struggled to connect at first, but then realized the intersection of her own personal interests and the culture of her newly acquired skills had another type of language in common, that of food.

“I love to cook, I love to eat, I thought 'that's what I have in common with you.”

Her favorite Armenian treats -  “hats yev paneer,” bread and cheese, usually Feta or “lahmajoun,” otherwise known as Armenian pizza – are quite simple, yet ask any Armenian-American and they'll agree that the simplicity of the meal is what makes it so, so good.

Of course, Sheiffele, Ramirez and Gomez couldn't have come this far without the help of Adamian and her unique teaching style, blending language, history and culture together.

“She's very patient with us,” Gomez said. “She does it so well, that all of a sudden, we find ourselves suddenly speaking.”

Adamian, who makes it a point to teach her students about Armenian history, culture as well as food hopes this is just the beginning and that more courses, including intermediate can be added. A few weeks ago, she took them on a trip to local Armenian landmarks in Glendale, including St.Mary's Armenian Apostolic Church and Sardarabad Bookstore.

“Unless you understand the culture, and history, there's no way you can make a connection to learn the language,” she said.  Something tells me she's absolutely right. 

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LIANA AGHAJANIAN is a Los Angeles-based journalist whose work has appeared in L.A. Weekly, Eurasianet and The Atlantic. She may be reached at liana.agh@gmail.com.