Christina Deirmenjian is on a mission to learn all she can about her cultural heritage. Born in San Francisco and raised in Los Angeles, the 17-year-old began her summer with a two week trip back to her parent’s native homeland of Armenia. Her twin sister and two brothers had other summer plans, so Deimenjian and her father went alone.
Upon returning from what she described as an “incredible” experience the high school senior threw herself into a five-week intensive Armenian language course at UCLA.
It’s a unique class run by the university's Heritage Language Resource Center. Rather than focus on Spanish or French, the program is meant to keep lesser-known languages alive among the children of immigrants. Among the languages taught: Hindi-Urdu, Persian, Russian and Arabic. All of them target teenagers.
Shushan Karapetian, a doctoral student who lived in Armenia until she was 10, teaches the Armenian summer class.
She starts her course by throwing students into a research project using Wikipedia in Armenian. Then she has them make a cooking-show using their smartphones. It has to be a traditional Armenian dish, with a recipe written in Armenian and delivered to camera in Armenian.
Deirmanjian loved this part of the class, even though it took her multiple takes to get it right. In her final video, she's grinning shyly at the camera, slightly lost for words, as she struggles to squeeze garlic cloves through a garlic press. She’s making “jajik,” a traditional Armenian salad with yogurt, cucumbers, garlic, and mint.
"Teenagers are sharp and very willing, they’re very open," Karapetian said. "I feel like you still have a chance to influence them, to inspire them."
Deirmanjian said her parents, both Armenian, always instilled her cultural heritage in her.
“They’ve always kind of taught me the balance that you have between your Armenian side and your American side,” she said.
Armenian isn't exactly obscure in Southern California - it's the 5th most commonly spoken language in Los Angeles. In some neighborhoods in Glendale, Armenian is more common than English. But Karapetian said some younger Aremenian-Americans aren't focused on learning it and that's a problem.
“I don’t think families realize how fast language disappears,” she said. Many Armenian families, she added, “are faced with the situation that their child is English dominant and can barely speak Armenian."
Deirmanjian is exactly the kind of student the UCLA program targets. Her parents spoke Armenian to her when she was little. As a toddler, Armenian was all she knew. But as with many children of immigrants, at some point, English took over.
Kathryn Paul, Executive Director of UCLA's Center for World Languages, said learning your parents' or grandparents' language is a vastly different process than studying a foreign language.
Heritage language learners may not speak the language much, if at all, but they've heard it and come with a level of understanding that a child learning a completely foreign language would not. So, unlike a beginning French or Spanish class in high school, the UCLA program does not start with basic verbs.
Instead it starts with texts fully in the foreign language and at a high level of comprehension - more like the kind of reading materials that high school kids are expected to be able to read in English, only in the heritage language. They also use multi-media, from music videos to reality TV shows. Paul said they want teenagers to realize they can master their heritage language just like they have mastered English.
"It's something they can study, they can do research in," Paul said. Students come out of the course realizing that they can undertake higher-level study in their heritage language, Paul said.