The Nuances of Teaching Western Armenian

Jesse Arlen returns to discuss his teaching experience with Shushan Karapetian.

Jesse Arlen joins Shushan Karapetian for a discussion of his teaching experience. Among other topics, Arlen details his teaching strategies, advice, and challenges and rewards of teaching Western Armenian. 


Karapetian, Shushan. (Producer). (2019, August 6). The nuances of teaching Western Armenian [Audio podcast]. Retrieved from

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[Shushan] Hello everyone, this is Shushan Karapetian with the National Heritage Language Resource Center at UCLA. Welcome to our new podcast series entirely dedicated to heritage language research, education, pedagogy, and lived experience. My guest today is Jesse Arlen, a PhD student in the Near Eastern Languages and Cultures Department who focuses in Armenian Studies, particularly on medieval Armenian literature. This is Jesse's second visit with us. If you're interested, please check out a previous podcast we recorded on Jesse's kind of linguistic autobiography, his experience as a broadly defined heritage language learner and, more specifically, his experience with writing in his heritage language. But today, we're going to put on a different hat and talk to Jesse about his teaching experience. So, Jesse has been teaching Western Armenian for over two years at the St. James Armenian Church Sunday School and we're going to discuss some of the challenges and the rewards of teaching Western Armenian as a heritage language, ask him about the student population that he works with, some of the strategies that he uses, what's worked, what hasn't worked, and what advice he has for other instructors out there. Jesse, welcome.

[Jesse] Thank you Shushan. It's a pleasure to be back again.

[Shushan] Wonderful. So, tell us, first of all, how you started teaching with St. James and then give us, maybe, some information about who your students are, how often you meet, what's the age range, what's the proficiency range. I mean, I'll interrupt as we go along but...

[Jesse] Of course, yeah.

[Shushan] ... go for it.

[Jesse] Yeah. So, I actually got news of the position through an email sent to our department on list serv. So, the superintendent of the Sunday school was searching for two new Armenian language teachers and they sent a call to the UCLA, you know, Armenian Studies Department basically.

[Shushan] Oh, I didn't know that!

[Jesse] Yeah. So, that's actually how I heard about it and I was intrigued. And I care a lot about being involved, I guess, with the community and the youth in terms of Western Armenian language, whether it's writing, speaking, teaching... whereas, as you mention in the beginning, my research is more in, like, medieval Armenian literature which doesn't have...

[Shushan] application. [laughing]

[Jesse] Well that's your very charismatic approach. [laughing]

[Shushan] Right. [laughing]

[Jesse] Yeah, and rarely bring it alive... but anyways. So, that was kind of my motivation. The school... yeah. It's a Sunday school, fits into the broad category of these kind of community... minority-community weekend school programs. So, obviously being a Sunday school, there's kind of a religious component too and then there's also the heritage and language component or identity and language component.

[Shushan] Let me interrupt you and ask one quick question: Had you had any teaching experience before this?

[Jesse] Well, I had taught when I was a master student as Notre Dame. I had taught... TA'd for classes in Ancient Roman history and then I taught my own class, which was Latin actually.

[Shushan] But had you taught language or Western Armenian?

[Jesse] Not... not modern language. So, I had taught Latin...

[Shushan] Oh, okay. [laughing]

[Jesse] ... which is a little different approach...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... at least the way I was forced to teach it at that school. But I had not taught any modern language before apart from... [pause] Yeah, not really anything.

[Shushan] Okay. So, who are your student?

[Jesse] Okay. So, the school - when I started - had 72 enrolled students, which is a very big number for these kind of Sunday schools. My... I had two classes. The way it was set up was by age group and there would be 45 minute religion and 45 minute language, or one group 45 minute language, 45 minute religion. So, I had 4th to 5th graders in the first class.

[Shushan] That's like 10 to 11 year olds?

[Jesse] Yeah, 10 to 11 year olds and about 10 students, we could say. And then 6th to 9th graders.

[Shushan] I see.

[Jesse] And then again, you know, 10... we could say 10, 12 students.

[Shushan] But you were only teaching just the language class or both the religion...

[Jesse] Just language. So, I would have one group come in - 45 minutes language - then they would go off to their religious class and then the second group - coming from their religion class - would come for a 45 minute...

[Shushan] And the religion class is taught in Armenian or English?

[Jesse] English, English.

[Shushan] English, okay. And the church services... [pause] Are they...

[Jesse] Well, it's a traditional Armenian Apostolic Church. So, the language of, you know, the ritual, the liturgy, the hymns is Ancient Armenian...

[Shushan] ... classical Armenian...

[Jesse] Classical Armenian.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] And so... [pause] But then the homily - the kind of sermon - would be in Modern Armenian and then sometimes, maybe, a little English portion.

[Shushan] Got it.

[Jesse] But usually, Modern Armenian.

[Shushan] So, we talked about the students' age. What about their proficiency? How would you categorize the students.

[Jesse] All across the range of heritage language levels.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] So, you have those who had no real, you know, significant language exposure in the home and this was the family's effort to give them something. You also had those where Armenian was the primary or a primary language in home, because I also had students who... there was German and Armenian in the home...

[Shushan] I see.

[Jesse] ... or Spanish and Armenian in the home, who proved to actually be the best students...

[Shushan] Interesting.

[Jesse] ... in terms of comfortability with the language, and confidence and competence speaking. And they usually were good with, like, speaking but maybe didn't know much of the writing system. So, Armenian alphabet - for those who don't know - there's 38 letters, so it's an obstacle. It's a challenge.

[Shushan] 38 letters, uppercase, lowercase...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... print and cursive.

[Jesse] Yeah, very true yeah.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] Different fonts, of course.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] It trips them up.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] And then I also had, I'd say like, the kind of element between those two extremes, which was some who... they had some listening comprehension from either hearing it from... whether parents or maybe grandparents or relatives but they struggled to produce any language. And then the writing level was a whole other thing. Some people could read comfortably but not understand a word. [laughing]

[Shushan] So, they had the mechanics down...

[Jesse] Yeah, the mechanics were down. They'd been going a lot, they learned to read and presumably write, depending on what you mean by "write," you know, copy things.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] But they couldn't understand what they were reading and, conversely, there were those who, like, could speak it but, like, they didn't read as well or they weren't even interested.

[Shushan] So, you had the entire spectrum...

[Jesse] Oh yeah.

[Shushan] ... ranging from broadly defined heritage language learners who have some kind of familial or cultural or ancestral connection but not real linguistic proficiency...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ... to narrowly defined heritage language learners who grew up with some exposure to the language...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ... who bring some proficiency. But as I always tell my students and the teachers I'm training: The number of students you have in your class is the number of levels you have in your class.

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] Each student's profile is entirely different.

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] Okay. How often does the class meet? Every Sunday?

[Jesse] Yes, every Sunday.

[Shushan] Okay. Okay, and 45 minutes...

[Jesse] Just 45 minutes...

[Shushan] Just 45 minutes, okay. Now let's talk about what your biggest challenges have been.

[Jesse] So many. [laughing] So, yeah. With... [pause] So, one we've already touched on is all these different levels. How do you teach in that short amount of time with such different levels. Second is lack of consistency in attendance. So, you want a program with any kind of language that you want... you want a place to start, things to head towards, and a goal, you know.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] And that can be little individual goals - like one lesson - or, you know, a span of lessons that built on something... you're targeting this certain kind of language ability you want them to master. But when people aren't showing up, you know, how do you do that consistently?

[Shushan] Right, right.

[Jesse] That's the second challenge. The third, just as hard as the other two to deal with in a way, was... [pause] It can't be emphasized enough how important the inner drive and motivation is to learning a language. If you want it, you can learn. If you don't want it, it doesn't matter what situation you're in, what the teacher is, environment, anything. You will not learn if you don't want to.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] And so, some of these kids didn't have much of a motivation. They were their because their parents made them go there and that's a whole other challenge because when you're dealing with adults or even college students, you usually assume they're taking the class because they want to learn...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... so, the motivation is already there, you just have to channel it...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... or bring your approach so it's meeting their motivation. But I had to create a motivation...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... for a lot of these students or at least try.

[Shushan] So, I'm hearing you say that your biggest challenges, generally speaking, first are the different levels in terms of proficiency...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... different levels, different backgrounds... the consistency in attendance, which I think is a huge problem for all community...

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] ... or weekend schools.

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] It's not obligatory, it's not mandatory.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] And finally the motivation since you're working with children who, for the most part, we can guess are there because their parents have made them come.

[Jesse] Yeah. And, of course, there were some who had motivation...

[Shushan] Right, right.

[Jesse] ... but yes.

[Shushan] Okay. Now, can you share some strategies, some tactics, some tools that you attempted that worked or didn't work... kind of lessons that someone else who is setting out to teach a heritage language course may learn from.

[Jesse] Yeah. So, just as you said, it's important... or like, you have as many levels as there are students in the class. In this kind of setting, that also goes for their interests. So, one thing I tried to do was always hear from them what are their goals, what do they want. Maybe they didn't know how to articulate it, so I would try to ask them... just try to find out what they like. Like, do they like... what books do they like, what shows do they like, what do they like to do for fun, for play... what do they talk to their friends about... things like that. And I would try to develop a lesson or material that was... was addressing that like that they had, but in Armenian... using the language, you know.

[Shushan] Two things: One - did the Sunday school give you any materials, any resources, any guidelines, any standards, rubrics... anything? Or was it left up to you to develop?

[Jesse] It was kind of... [pause] So, there... the diocese has, like, a set of books from the 70s and 80s, you know, that... [pause] There's some nice things about it and then some... they leave some things to be desired. But that was kind of, "You can use this if you want," but it was full freedom. I could do anything I wanted.

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Okay. So... [pause] And what you said, I think, is one of the primary benchmarks of good heritage language teaching which is taking into account students interests...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... students needs, students desires. So, something we always say is, "You don't start where the curriculum is or where the textbook is, you start where the student is."

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Right. And in order to do that, you need to know your students.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Did you any sense of who your students were before you walked into the classroom. Had someone maybe surveyed them or talked to them or...

[Jesse] No.

[Shushan] No.

[Jesse] Yeah, just kind of went in there. The first week I went was, like, observation, you know, and introductions and things like that. And one of the things I told them on the first day was, "You guys have a head start on me."

[Shushan] Ah.

[Jesse] Because I started learning when I was 21 from scratch and now, you know, I can speak comfortably, read, write, whatever. So, it's possible, you know.

[Shushan] Oh good, good. And I think, again, another tenth of good heritage language teaching is unfortunately, we don't get a lot of information about our students. And even when you do, every class is new beast, right...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... because you don't know the dynamics. I think one of the first actions that a good heritage language teacher has to take is to get to know your students whether it's by information interviews, whether it's just observing them, talking to them, and really asking them what they want, what they need.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] I think also for kids who are not used to, maybe, being taken so seriously... it gives them a new sense of importance...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... right? That this theater values my opinion, values my interests. Okay. So, you talked to them about what their interests were. You shaped your lessons around those.

[Jesse] Yeah. Another thing I would try to do always was make it so that the language, as much as I could, was not something that they had to go to class to access. So, obviously going 45 minutes a week, maybe once a month for some students [laughing], you're not going to get far.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] So, I would try to always show them ways that if they have this desire or acquire maybe it later, they know where to go to, like, go on their own. Obviously, this falls in the general realm of, like, digital resources or online resources. So, I would show them the whole span of things ranging from online dictionaries to YouTube channels... websites that have, you know, little videos or interactive things, you know, or phone apps - there's a couple, you know... ways that, you know, if they wanted to access the language outside, that they could and they wouldn't feel like they have this desire but don't know what to do with it.

[Shushan] So, you gave them a toolkit of resources that they could access outside of you, outside of the class given the limited time that they had with you.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Okay. What about any specific pedagogical approaches or tactics or strategies?

[Jesse] Yeah. So, there's two approaches I had that worked best and I'll talk about at least one of them. So, this is something... so the... [pause] In the initial days, you know, it was very challenging and difficult, and I would go home thinking, "What am I going to do about this situation," you know. It's very difficult. So, I thought about the success I'd had with learning languages - the particular situation I was in - and tried to brainstorm what would work best, you know. And so, what I ended up trying that worked better than anything else was this language method called, "Where Are Your Keys," that was developed in the 2000s, so very recently, by a guy named Evan Gardner and it was developed specifically and has been used primarily with endangered languages. And the endangered languages its mostly been used with are Native American ones.

[Shushan] And just as a note for our listeners, who may not be familiar: Western Armenian is one of the Modern Standards... one of the standards of Modern Armenian, which is a pluricentric language. So, we have Modern Eastern Armenian and Modern Western Armenian. Now whereas Modern Eastern Armenian is used as the de facto official language in the Republic of Armenia, Western Armenian is a language without a country. So, it's a diasporic language that in 2010 was categorized as an endangered language, you know... making the connection between Jesse's research into Gardner work with endangered languages and it's application to Western Armenian.

[Jesse] Yes. So, what is the method? How does it work?

[Shushan] Yes, tell us! [laughing]

[Jesse] Basically, it's got three primary kind of elements that make it really stand out. One is... maybe four. [laughing] One is a very systematic program...

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] ... of what you learn when and where you go after that...

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] ... starting from scratch. And the second thing is full immersion experience. So, everything is done in the target language. So, how is this able to come about? It's through using objects, what's called in the literature, "total physical response." So, using objects, using commands... actions... acting things out, and providing that kind of context by movement and gesture and all these things in order to allow the next bit of language to be understood and built upon. So, the other thing it does that's very characteristic if you ever have a chance to see this or you search online is it makes very prominent use of sign language. So, the speech is associated with the movements and the signs. What this does is two things: A - it's a memory aid. The more we involve our sense and body with language, the better we can remember it. And two - it allows the language immersion to be maintained.

[Shushan] Ah!

[Jesse] Sometimes, a student might forget the word but they have an easier time remembering the sign.

[Shushan] The sign, uh huh.

[Jesse] So they can do it...

[Shushan] They can't break code. They don't have to break code.

[Jesse] Yeah, they don't. So, they can do the sign and then another students fills in the word or I can fill in the word that their lacking. This requires a lot of preparation on the teacher's end. The teacher has to know sign language for one thing, or at least enough to at least get going and has to know this progression of, you know, what language elements to target when. So, how was I able to do this? It was because I had actually learned to speak Latin from someone who learned to speak Latin this way. Because it's very cliché that, "Oh, Latin is a dead language. No one speaks it." But there's actually a huge revival and lower case, maybe, "renaissance" if you will among... [laughing] among two... for the use of Latin as a spoken language.

[Shushan] Interesting.

[Jesse] And also new production in it and things like that. So, I knew at least the basics with it and yeah. So, basically this method has been applied to Native American languages and Latin - and then with me, Western Armenian but...

[Shushan] Let me interrupt you here for a quick question and comment.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] So, in your review of the literature... the children or learners who have been taught using this method... have they had any proficiency in the language? The reason I'm asking is some would argue that this method, perhaps, isn't suitable for narrowly defined...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... heritage language learners who come with some proficiency and now it's almost like taking them back - putting them in an environment. But as you were speaking I thought, "Well, maybe because these are children, there's kind of an exciting element of a game or of signing.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] How would you respond to a heritage language pedagogy expert who would say, "Is this really suitable...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] "... for this particular group?" What was your experience?

[Jesse] Great question. So, essentially it worked incredibly well with those kind of broadly defined heritage language learners who had no real background to speak of. It also worked even better or, like, just as well for those who had the listening comprehension but the inability to produce language because this... [pause] The student speaks as much, or more, as the teacher in this method. It's not...

[Shushan] So, there's opportunity for input and output.

[Jesse] Yeah. And they hear from each other and me, you know.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] So, it's kind of like a language game that's always going around in a circle and it's best done with, like, four to six people in each circle and then ideally you'd have another circle of four to six. So, you need multiple teachers but I would rotate people in and out, which allowed, again, for just listening for those who weren't necessarily in the game at any one time. But yeah, the biggest challenge was among those who were kind of narrowly defined heritage language learners, who already had some proficiency. They were just a little bored or found it less useful.

[Shushan] And then that makes sense...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... right, it makes sense given their sociolinguistic profile.

[Jesse] What I think this method can work great for is this whole category of, you know, Western Armenian heritage people...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... who have an interest in the language and can't learn it. So, like we, you know, direct most of our efforts I'd say at... [pause] You know, we think about like the private schools and like people who already know the language and this, but we don't think enough, I think, into tapping into this vast number of people we have who have Armenian heritage association, an interest in learning the language, and just view it like they want to. But where can they learn it?

[Shushan] They don't have access, right.

[Jesse] Yeah. There's nowhere to learn from scratch, really. There's very little. And then where it is being taught, the methods are so bad and outdated...

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] ... that they're not effective.

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] So, I think this has a lot of potential, it's just... [pause] The issue is that it requires so much training for the teachers. How would it be possible? So, obviously these Native American languages, like, they don't have language training or something like that... teaching. So, the Where Are You Keys organization has trained, like, facilitators who will come - if the community will pay or support them or whatever - they'll come even live in the community, teach the people the method who are already proficient speakers...

[Shushan] Teach the teachers.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] The potential teachers.

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] Ah.

[Jesse] And then show how the game is played, quote unquote. And that allows it to happen.

[Shushan] So, they'll infect the community with the virus...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ... and then hope

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... it spreads organically.

[Jesse] And what's great about this is it... age... [pause] I've found that age doesn't matter.

[Shushan] I was going to ask, "Do you...

[Jesse] So, language level matters in this sense but age does not. So, like, I had a five year old there who was having just as much fun as a 15 year old and they could interact well with each other, where what I found in so many language settings is: age is an issue. "How do you attract the interest of the high schoolers and the," you know, "10 year olds."

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] Like, "What content do you give them?"

[Shushan] Right.

[Jesse] So, this method is excellent in that regard.

[Shushan] Wow, wonderful. Now if our listeners would like to learn more in depth about Jesse's experience with the "Where Are Your Keys" method - especially in it's application to Western Armenian in a community school context, Jesse, where can they learn about this?

[Jesse] Well, as of yesterday of our recording... which I'm guessing will be a few weeks ago...

[Shushan] Right! [laughing]

[Jesse] ... from the listening time, a new book just came out.. edited... well, an edited collection called, "Western Armenian in the 21st Century: Challenges and New Approaches." And Shushan and I both contributed essays or studies to that collection. It's available on Amazon for a very affordable price, and my contribution does talk about my application of this method in this weekend school setting. And I would say I'd recommend it to, you know, any one with kind of an interest in this because this... [pause] In my research to doing this study, I could not find a single article in the scholarly literature taking about this method.

[Shushan] Wow.

[Jesse] So, it's very new and it's like... it's so eminently practical and is being applied kind of, like, in the trenches. And it is backed with good theory and pedagogy and stuff like this, but like... for whatever the reason, it hasn't attracted the attention of scholars yet. I even reached out to people who I know have a scholarly background and use this method for Latin and was like, "Are there any, like, studies that talk about this?" And she's like, "Not that I've ever seen."

[Shushan] Well, I think practitioners are so busy actually applying it...

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] ... they haven't had the time.

[Jesse] Exactly.

[Shushan] Right. Well... [pause] And I think in general, sometimes there's a disconnect between language research on language pedagogy and then its application in the trenches...

[Jesse] Very true.

[Shushan] ... as you said. So, I'm so happy that you kind of had the forethought to think about it... to actually take the time and write about it...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... so some else can learn, you know. And I always look back at my own teaching experience, and I'm certain you probably share this too, and say, "I wish I had some of the resources I have now when I started."

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] "I would have been so much more confident and comfortable...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... walking into a classroom of the unknown." But then, at the same time, I think developing your own toolkit...

[Jesse] Yes.

[Shushan] ... being put in a situation where you have to...

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] ... there's something to that...

[Jesse] Definitely.

[Shushan] ... to coming up with your own strategies. Okay, is there anything else you may want to share at this point?

[Jesse] I guess just that, like, if someone's interested in this method - maybe application to another language or curious, you know - they have a great website.

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] So, you can just search, "Where Are You Keys language learning method." I think it's, ""

[Shushan] Okay.

[Jesse] And there's, like, sample curricula, videos, you know, of the method being done and, you know...

[Shushan] And we'll put the website under the description of the podcast recording...

[Jesse] Perfect.

[Shushan] ... so everyone can access it.

[Jesse] Yeah.

[Shushan] Thank you so much, Jesse. And for our listeners, I'd like to remind you that we've already recorded one podcast with Jesse with his own personal experience as a heritage language learner and as a published author - this is our second. Please stay tuned for an upcoming new podcast recording with Jesse, talking about his experience at Zarmanazan, which is this very unique education project and Western Armenian immersion program that's created by and supported by the Gulbenkian Foundation. Jesse spent two summers with this program - one summer as a teacher trainee and another summer as a facilitator. It should be a very interesting talk so, stay tuned for that. Thanks Jesse.

[Jesse] Thank you, Shushan.