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Dilemma: Learn the Local Language?

Updated: Sep 4, 2018

I always argue in favor of learning the local language if you’re going to live somewhere new—especially if you’re going to be there for two or three years. That said - there are a couple of languages that hardly seem worth the time and effort.

I live in Armenia now, and Armenian language is it’s own, wonderfully unique language that absolutely nobody speaks apart from a couple of million Armenians. And even they are divided between those who speak “Western” Armenian (from what is now East Turkey) and those who speak “Eastern Armenian” (from current Armenia).

But the main reason I don’t speak Armenian is not because it’s a boutique language; it’s because I don’t need it for my job (I don’t have one at the moment). Plus, I invested 6 months in full-time Russian language training and Russian is every Armenian’s second language.


So, I don’t speak Armenian. It’s too bad, really, that my husband speaks it almost fluently and is admired widely because of it. Still, that doesn’t mean I don’t know what’s going on. It may sound strange, but I noticed that with a tiny vocabulary I can actually understand most of what’s being said; for example when my husband has a conversation in Armenian, or when a stranger asks me something in Armenian.


How is it possible that I understand Armenian without studying it? Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that much of communication is nonverbal. But that's not the only thing, because I do recognize some words, which got me wondering which words I know exactly. And since they are so few, I’m going to list them all right here.


After living in Armenia for 12 months, this is all I know:


1. Hello (barevtses)

2. Very good (shat lav)

3. It’s okay (voch inch)

4. Embassy (despanatun)

5. Armenian (hayeren)

6. English (angleren)

7. Thank you (schnorrhakalootsjoon)

8. You’re welcome (ghntrem)

9. Boy (deghaa)

10. Girl (aghtchik)

11. Daycare (manga partes)

12. Neighborhood (taghamas)

13. Let’s go (gnats ink)

14. White (spitak)

15. House (toon)

16. Dog (shoon)

17. Bread (hats)

18. Coffee (tsoort)

19. Water (djoor)

20. Name (anoon)

21. Speak (ghosel)

22. I (yes)

23. We (menk)

24. All (bolor)

25. Grape (ghaghogh)

26. Wine (gini)

27. Yes (ayo)

28. No (che)

29. Without (aranz)

30. But (baits)


Also, I know the numbers for 1-10, the word for 100 (haroor), and for 1,000 (hazar).


So: perhaps these are the only words you need to know in any language to know what’s going on around you? I don't know for sure - I haven't tried it with any other language yet.


I guess the moral of the story is not that you shouldn’t be serious about studying foreign languages. Obviously, you need to learn much more than this in order to be effective at work, and I also think it's important to have a language you can speak somewhat fluently with the local population (English, Russian, or some other lingua franca).


But for all of those who worry about learning new languages, I have some encouraging words: just start with the absolute basics, and go from there! Don’t worry about learning thousands of words and thick grammar books. You can do a lot with just a couple of days/weeks of study or immersion.


#LanguageStudy #LifeAsADiplomat #DilemmasForDiplomats