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With the Verve of Words: Learning Foreign Languages in Iran

By Maryam Ala Amjadi, Tehran Times

Dr. Azita Afrashi, Iranian linguist and researcher (Photo by Sasan N. Chegini)

Dr. Azita Afrashi (born 1972) is an Iranian linguist who is an assistant professor at the Linguistics Department, Center for Humanities and Cultural Studies. She has three books on language and semantics and many research articles in national and international journals to her credit. She is also on the board of directors at Iran's Linguistics Association, the Iranian Studies Association and also a founding member of Iran-India Center for Culture in Bareily, India. Afrashi who can speak English, French and Turkish was voted the best researcher of the year at the Center for Research on Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism in 2009.

In an interview with Maryam Ala Amjadi she discusses English language and learning foreign languages in Iran.

Below is the abridged version of the interview translated by the interviewer.

Maryam Ala Amjadi: How far can English language learning in Iran be traced back in history?

Azita Afrashi: Well, English became the language of science and education for Iranians after French. Previously, France and other French speaking countries were primary options for the educated or those who went abroad for further studies. It was much later that Iranians started learning English language as we see it today. Not only for Iranians but also for almost non-English speaking countries in the world, this language was brought to the limelight when methods of English teaching were systematized at the beginning of the 20th century with the advent of the structuralism school pioneered by Leonard Bloomfield in the United States. But I can say it was during the Pahlavi period (1925-1979) that Iranians became more familiar with English and before that French was popular.

MAA: Yes, some people still use the word, "Merci" (pronounced Mersi in Iran) when they want to say thank you. But what was the motivation back then for learning the English language?

AF: Reasons ranged from individual to social. First and foremost was education. Iranians love education and they attach a lot of importance to learning and going to the university. Then there was travelling and the desire to see other parts of the world. We must also not overlook the impact of translators whose good work enticed readers to seek out the original language texts and inspired them to learn more about that language. Also, trade could have been another incentive but English learned solely for that purpose would be formal and pedantic.

MAA: English came to some countries as a result of not very pleasant experiences such as colonialism, war and... Despite its ever increasing popularity, English is not really a common language in Iran. What is the reason behind this?

AF: I think you have to attribute that to the power of Persian language and its supremacy. Iran was invaded in different periods by various ethnicities speaking different languages like Arabic and Turkish. But the Persian language was never conquered by these languages. I think it is remarkable that despite their desire to learn languages, Iranians still want to preserve their mother tongue. This has its own advantages but perhaps sometimes aversion to a foreign language could become an obstacle in learning that language.

MAA:  What challenges do Iranians face when they start learning English?

AF: Language structures of English and Persian are different. The most tangible difference is evident at the phonetics and lexical level. I think even at the highest level of proficiency, Iranians are still challenged when it comes to pronunciation. I don’t have a confident reason why this happens. The greatest challenge is to master the phonetic system of a language, know where to pause, where the stress falls and how deal with intonation. Also the most common complaint is about rules of the language. Sometimes English transcends rules and principles, particularly when it comes to formal and colloquial differences and this is a challenge to Iranians students who want learn by heart or memorize. Next levels are semantics and pragmatics.

MAA: Which fall mostly into the realm of culture.
AF: Yes. As someone who has been in the field of semantics for about 17 years, learning about theNatural Semantic Metalanguage theory was a new chapter in my research. Previously, it was believed although all languages are different at the superficial level, they are similar in terms of semantics. But the NSM theory which originated in Australia, a multilingual country, proposed otherwise. The assumption is since the core of meaning is similar in all languages, then we should all be able to communicate but the present platform shows the contrary. The semantics of each language is not only different when it comes to culture as in what marriage means in one culture or the other but it can also become quite complicated when it comes to simple instances. For example, what we know as "hand" is not similarly defined in another language. Exactly to what extent is this part of the body called "hand"? Where does it become an "arm" for a non-English speaking person? Similarly, what we know as the concept "tree" may have many different designations peculiar to another culture (young tree, old tree, short tree). These are just simple instances and when you deal with emotions and cultural issues, these complications become tenfold. So, English and Persian are also different in terms of semantics and pragmatics.

MAA: What motivates Iranians to learn English in the 21st century?

AF: I still think education is the primary reason. Iranians love the academy and they attach a lot of prestige to it. They want to go for M.A after their BA and pursue further studies.  This is the future they see for themselves and this certainly does not exclude learning a foreign language. Also there is the internet which requires language skills to some extent. Next are other factors like travelling and migration.

MAA: How do you see the general situation of English language teaching in Iran?

AF: There are two sectors. One is private tutoring and the other is the public education system. I think private teaching has been very beneficial as they are always after new approaches and the best instructors. Students still have to overcome challenges in learning. While they don't have much difficulty in reading and comprehension, production and writing is a challenge.
MAA: The medium of instruction at the academia is Persian. Do you think it is better to study imported knowledge in the original language or in translation?
AF: We can deal with this question from two perspectives. When you import knowledge, it is better to use the original language. But when your goal is to nativize that knowledge, not only you need to translate but you will also reproduce that information. At this level, reproduction is not mere import but it also includes a sense of creativity.
MAA: I quite agree but when we want export the same information; we are challenged because of language. For instance, I see some Iranian researchers and thinkers who are challenged to get their views across in another language because they communicate only in Persian.
AF: Very true. Iranian researchers have always faced this difficulty. We have excellent articles written inside the country in Persian, but foreign scholars do not become aware of them unless they are translated. And as soon as one good article is translated and published, you see the feedback and realize how our findings are interesting and important also outside the country. This obstacle does exist. We have, as I said, problems in foreign language reproduction. Of course I can only talk about linguistics which is my field. My professor, Dr. Haghshenas always said it was fortunate that the terms in our field of study were translated and nativized within classrooms. Because they are a product of student-teacher interaction, they seem real. When we use them, we make them ours.
MAA: Another interesting area for me is code mixing (mixing of two or more languages or language varieties in speech). How do you see that in Iran?
AF: Once again, I think it happens on two levels. In the academics, sometimes you don’t find the exact word or term that would express your need while speaking about a specific field, so you prefer to use English. It also happens at the colloquial level, particularly among the youth, like when have stayed abroad for some time or travelled. For some, it is tantamount to being trendy (hip) or belonging to a certain community. So it varies from social to educational reasons.
MAA: I find that at times speaking on certain topics which we would normally avoid in mother tongue is much easier in a second language.
AF: True. It is much easier to speak about Taboos in a second language. Perhaps one reason for code mixing is in case of taboos. We often think we cannot express ourselves fully in a foreign language but it seems as if in some cases, a foreign language is more expressive.
MAA: It is as though the new language provides us with a new space for thought.
AF: True. A space which is fresh and less strained and one doesn’t see oneself under the semantic and lexical pressure of the mother tongue. This applies to all languages, not just English and Persian.
MAA: But this can also cause its own complications. For example, we may feel freer than most native speakers in using some words which may not be as emotionally charged for us as they are for them and this can cause misunderstandings.
AF: Yes. Emotions are relevantly a new topic in linguistics, particularly on a cultural platform. It is very complicated. Concepts like tars (Persian for fear), sharm (shame) and gheyrat (possible translation, sense of honor) have very different connotations in every culture. Sometimes you cannot even find an equivalent for them.
MAA: Can we say if there are no words for a certain concept in one language, then that concept does not exist in that language and culture. For instance, "Gheyrat", I don't think I can convey the meaning to a non-Persian speaker. I believe it to be a very eastern word.
AF: Yes, some emotion words are not even defined in another culture. But as I said the NSM theory proposes that all languages have some fundamental conceptual similarities with the help of which we can rebuild these emotion words. In case of "gheyrat", you can perhaps expand the definition and explain it as possessiveness, because everyone experiences this emotion. Then you further explain that it applies to humans, you love someone so much that you want them for you.
MAA: But then it could be mistaken for possessiveness or jealousy which I believe is not the case. We think with words and express ourselves with words; I have a feeling that if I cannot express some concepts in a certain language because they are not defined in that system, then when I become a speaker of that language, those concepts are nonexistent for me. It is as though you develop a second self when you speak in a second language.
AF: This notion has been dwelled upon by men for centuries, for instance Leibniz proposes the alphabet of human thought. These people are looking for solutions, for conclusions that say perhaps despite all our cultural, ethnic, historical and linguistic differences, we still need to dwell on our similarities because if we as humans have a common alphabet in thinking, then perhaps we can form unison on this basis. Many thinkers, anthropologists and philosophers have attempted the idea. Even artists have tried to creatively diminish these borders of differences in their work. But the question is: how impactful can these attempts be? Globalization as one face of this movement and the internet are posing the same questions: Where it is after all that we all come together? Where are our similarities? Can we ever completely unite over these common points or we shall always be people who are stuck in the middle path, detached from the past and at the brink of the future?
MAA: Language is power. Some believe when you learn a new language, you somehow empower the speakers of that language. As a linguist, do you agree?
AF: I believe learning a new language is always tantamount to having a new possibility for looking at the world and thinking in a new space. When a new language is learned, it is possible that the learner becomes interested in the culture of that language and it is then that dialogue becomes possible. I think as long as people can maintain dialogue, enmity becomes meaningless and because learning languages makes dialogues possible, it would naturally lead to familiarity and friendship.

Other Tongues 
Learning Arabic language in Iran 
Iranians are mostly familiarized with the Arabic language at an early age. In a country where Muslims are the majority, Arabic is the language of the holy book, Quran and everyday prayer. Most children are taught Quranic verses or Arabic prayers at the kindergarten level, although they may not understand the meaning behind the words completely. 
In the official education system, Quranic teachings and theology classes at the primary level include basic Arabic but Arabic as a language per se is taught from middle school when students are about 11 to 13 years old and it continues until graduation and through pre-college courses. Arabic is also one of the scoring subjects in the university entrance test (konkoor), particularly in the field of humanities.
Both Persian and Arabic languages have influenced each other and one can find numerous borrowed words in either languages. Also, Persian literature includes instances of Arabic words, proverbs and anecdotes. For instance, certain poems of Persian poets Hafez (14th century) and Saadi (12th century) include lines and phrases in Arabic. 
Moreover, interestingly many prominent Persian scholars and Iranian polymaths like Avicenna, Mohammad-e Zakaria-ye Razi, Kharazmi, Jaber ibn-Hayyan, Omar Khayyam, Abu Reyhan Biruni, Ghazali and others wrote some of their notable works in the Arabic language which came to Iran after the advent of Islam, over 1400 years ago. 


1-Persian (Farsi) is officially the national language of Iran. In addition to English, students are interested in learning other foreign languages such as Arabic, German, French, Spanish and Chinese. Nevertheless, English continues to be the most desired language. 
2-Foreign languages are not always learned for the purpose of communication. Sometimes, they are studied in order to help students get access to research sources which are in another language. For instance, Persian literature students are interested in studying Arabic for further research but may never use it for communication.
3-Kanoun-e-Zabaan-e-Iran or Iran's Language Institute affiliated to Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults was founded in 1979. Persian, English, French, Spanish, German and Arabic are taught to over 175,000 students during each term.
3- English language is studied in rahnamaei (literally meaning, guidance or orientation), an equivalent for middle school in other countries. Middle school is a period of three years and it covers grades 6-8 for students aged 11 to 13 years old. The government is now considering teaching English language from primary school level. During the first year of middle school, students have one class per (90 minutes) week and for the next years until graduation; there are two classes per week (90 minutes each). Also, at the university level, students need to pass 2 units of general and 4 units of professional English.
4- Statistics reveal that less than 5% of Iranians can speak fluent English. Also, out of 92% university candidates, less than 10% answer the English test section correctly. 
5- In most public schools, teaching English begins with alphabets and reading from books. This is while private institutions, which are somewhat expensive, also focus on listening and speaking as well as reading and writing. 
7- Presently, there are over 5000 foreign language schools in the country, 200 of which are situated in Tehran. 
8- A few television channels air weekly English and Arabic language sessions, particularly for university candidates who are preparing for the annual entrance test.

Bizarre Buzz!
Iranian youth, world's second polyglot!
Ali Pirhani is an Iranian genius who can speak 19 languages.  He was born as the youngest of three sons in a family that had absolutely no knowledge of any foreign languages. Interestingly, Pirhani's journey in the world of languages was self-stimulated and it began at the age of five through memorization of "words as characters" sans teachers or any formal education. After six months of continuous memorization he could speak his first ever foreign language, French.
"Initially, I used to memorize words as distinct characters and gradually these characters were decoded due to my enthusiasm and effort and slowly, I could discover the meaning behind them," he said in an interview.
Pirhani who is an English language graduate (M.A) and a PhD student of international law and a founder of the Asian Polyglot Center, has translated the Nahj al-Balagha into three languages: English, French and German. He says he owes his success mostly to his talent for scheduling, and expertise in making precise "to do” lists. 
Not a believer in formal training and schooling, Pirhani has proposed an e-learning method which enables students to gain adequate competency in a span of 6 months. 
The first world polyglot is Dr. Jack C. Richards of about 70 years old who can speak 23 languages.

... Payvand News - 01/27/12 ... --

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