Breathing new life into language with Assyrian Circles

How an online language program is nurturing an interest in a mother tongue

July 2020 | Photos contributed | By Yasmeen Altaji

CHICAGO — The multi-person “tile” view of this Google Hangout bears a handful of faces.

Among those visible: a college student in Heidelberg, Germany; a Baghdad-born aspiring singer; a San Jose-based electrical engineer in training; and a mother of young children (their presence evidenced by the occasional off-screen giggle). Each of these characters, with backgrounds seemingly stark in contrast, have gathered to further one common, simple interest: speaking Assyrian.

This is the scene – albeit a virtual one – at Assyrian Circles, a new online forum that promotes active speaking and preservation of the Assyrian language. 

At the forefront of the virtual gathering, guiding her mosaic of students, is the program’s founder, Diana Atureta.

A marketer from nine to five, a visual artist at home and a passionate Assyrian speaker all throughout her life, Atureta has become a pioneer in modernizing the instruction of her ancient language.

Native to Toronto, Atureta grew up without much exposure to the Assyrian community.

“My mom would always speak [Assyrian] to me at home and even outside,” she said. “It’s a huge sacrifice when you’re an outsider to the community.”

After years of speaking Assyrian with only her mother, Atureta decided she wanted to change the language-learning game for herself and others in similar situations. 

“Why not have a space where Assyrians can speak to one another in Assyrian?” she said.  “My entire life, I’ve just grown up speaking Assyrian…I want to be part of a bigger community doing what I want to do.”

In 2018, she jotted down an idea detailing a setting where Assyrians, with or without direct access to the Assyrian community, can practice speaking and listening to their language in a safe, inclusive environment. 

Two years later, Atureta took advantage of her being featured on the Assyrian-centric Instagram account Mesoportrayal and told its following about Assyrian Circles. Soon, her vision became a reality. 

Friends and family members who had initially expressed interest in becoming involved in the program were now able to sign up for virtual “circles” (“I wouldn’t call them meetings…[meetings] sounds a little…formal,” she said) by contacting Atureta via the group’s Instagram account. So far, the account has served as a central point of contact, enrollment and organization for Atureta and prospective participants. 

On April 4, Assyrian Circles was born with its first meetup, about 10 people strong. 

Currently, the organization hosts four meetups per month, each two hours long. Participants recite answers they’ve prepared for discussion questions sent prior to the meetups. Atureta encourages participants, regardless of experience, to engage in conversation using as much Assyrian as possible with the exception of word “gaps” that more experienced participants help fill in. 

Participants are categorized into three subgroups: listeners, beginning responders and advanced responders. 

This means meetups encompass a wide range of Assyrian speaking ability. 

Fulla Kakoz, an Assyrian born and raised in Baghdad, Iraq, participates in Assyrian Circles regularly at the “beginning responder” level. Kakoz, whose family is originally from Tel Keppe, said her parents and relatives consciously avoided speaking Assyrian out of fear of discrimination. Often, Kakoz said, her family members self-identified as Arabs.

“I’ve always [spoken] Arabic,” she said, “and I always heard…other members of my family say ‘We speak Arabic. We are Arabs, and we have to speak like that.’”

Kakoz, who is 29, said she only learned of her family’s distinct Assyrian heritage about two years ago. Now, having attended two Assyrian Circles meetups, she hopes to become better-acquainted with the newfound facet of her identity.

“It’s a new experience where I can ask everything,” Kakoz, who also admired the diversity of dialects spoken at the meeting, said of Assyrian Circles. 

She said she hopes learning the Assyrian language will help her connect to her roots.

“This is my mother language. I feel…so bound to these people,” she said. “I may not look like a standard Assyrian, but I’m one of you, and you’re one of my people. We’re just one community.”

Atureta, who nudged at me to publish a version of this article entirely in Assyrian, said that seeing an abundance of Assyrians practicing their language has helped revive her own drive to continue learning and using it. 

“Whether they know [Assyrian] already or are passionate about learning it,” Atureta said, “this is something to commit to.”

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