U.S. Students Making Progress in Persian: Popularity of language courses grows to record numbers
By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,
Persian is a hot subject on U.S.
college campuses, with students registering for courses in the language in
Surveys of colleges and universities by the Modern
Language Association have shown large gains in registration for classes in
Persian (also called Farsi): up 82 percent from fall 1998 to fall 2002, and up
82 percent again from fall 2002 to fall 2006. (Enrollment in all foreign
language classes generally rose in those periods, but at a much slower pace: by
17 percent from 1998 to 2002 and by 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006.) The next
four-year survey is due out in 2011, and those in the profession say it's clear
the number of students continues to rise substantially, spurred in part by a
U.S. government effort, begun in 2006, to encourage the teaching of Persian as
well as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu.
Pardis Minuchehr says about half of her students are "heritage
speakers" of Persian, but their proficiency varies greatly, and most
cannot read or write Persian script.
Pardis Minuchehr, a University of Pennsylvania
faculty member and president of theAmerican
Association of Teachers of Persian, said students have a number of reasons
for taking her courses in Persian, but one dominates: About half are "heritage
speakers," who learned only a limited level of the language, or none, from
parents or grandparents who were born in Iran. As young adults, they want to
reclaim that part of their culture and communicate more easily with their
The heritage speakers have a wide range of
proficiency in their grandmothers' mother tongue. Minuchehr said she has one
class designed for heritage speakers, but some of them end up taking the class
for the beginners from other cultures because they know so little Persian.
Others can carry on simple conversations but can neither read nor write in
Persian script, "so we had to start from scratch with them," she said.
Persian is still a long way from being a prominent
subject at most U.S. universities: It accounted for 0.13 percent of enrollment
for fall 2006 language courses, with 2,037 students. Spanish, which has topped
the list for decades, accounted for 52.2 percent, or about 400 times as much.
Arabic had more than 10 times as much enrollment as Persian.
"Persian is a lot easier to learn than Arabic, for
instance. But then there are a lot of people who learn Arabic because of all the
business possibilities," Minuchehr said. "We hope that someday there will be a
free market [in Iran], too, and with the free market there will be a lot more
interest, but we don't know when. We've been hoping for that for the last 30
Students who aren't Iranian American have a number
of reasons for learning the language. A few think it might give them a better
chance for a career in government or diplomacy, though Minuchehr said Persian
gives them no guarantee of a job. Some are satisfying a requirement of their
major in Near Eastern language and civilization.
"We also have some students who are interested in
learning Persian because of their research fields," she said. "So they're
interested in studying Arabic and Islamic studies, or anthropology or
archaeology, and there are some active digs in Iran - for instance, they want to
be part of that dig - and they study Persian to facilitate their going there to
Minuchehr said some students who have taken her
course in modern Iranian cinema then become interested in learning the language
For two weeks in July, though, Minuchehr's classroom
was filled with other teachers of Persian who came from across the country to
improve their instructional skills.
STARTALK, a component of the U.S. government's program on teaching critical
languages, funds summer classes at a number of universities to improve and
expand the teaching of Persian and other languages that the government considers
Fruzan Seifi, who teaches Persian privately in the Los Angeles area,
says most of her students learn the language so they can understand
what their in-laws are saying.
Not everyone who studies Persian enrolls in a
university course to do so. Fruzan Seifi has been teaching Persian privately for
10 years, first in New York and now in Los Angeles, while also pursuing a career
as an actress and teaching acting. Most of her students have an important reason
for learning the language: love.
"They're either getting married or they have a
girlfriend or boyfriend who is Persian," she said. "Most of my students, they
say, 'Just teach us the spoken language' because they want to talk to the
in-laws, to the grandparents who don't speak English" or tend to talk Persian at
family gatherings. The non-Persian speakers are tired of feeling left out.
A few of Seifi's students have business in Iran: "I
have a journalist who is writing a book about the life of women over there, so
she goes to travel there a lot and she needs to know the language," Seifi said.
And some are learning for the fun and the challenge,
"just pure interest in learning a different language that's different from
English or Italian or French or Latin," she said. "They just want to learn a
language that has completely different origins."
Minuchehr and Seifi said the basics of Persian are
relatively easy for an American to grasp; Minuchehr, who lived in Germany before
moving to the United States, said German is far more challenging at the basic
level. But Persian speakers use idiomatic expressions and references to proverbs
and poetry that nonnative speakers struggle to learn. "Literal translation most
of the time doesn't help," Seifi said. "It's the meaning that's different."
Seifi teaches Italian as well, and she said, "For
teaching Farsi, I charge more because I have to use a lot more energy than
Nonetheless, she said, "when my students want to
learn Farsi, I say, 'Oh, it's easy, I'll teach you.'"
(This is a product of the Bureau of International
Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://www.america.gov)
U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP)
engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values
to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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