English Language Education in Iran

Following last month’s publication of English in Post-Revolutionary Iran, Jennifer Manoukian, a student of the book’s author, Maryam Borjian, tells us more about the book’s background and content.

Jennifer Manoukian, author of today's blog post

Jennifer Manoukian, author of today’s blog post

Whether at the movies or in the news, Iran has been receiving ample attention in the media in recent months. But in the coverage of Ben Affleck’s thriller Argo and the on-going debates over the Iranian nuclear program, the Iranian people themselves have been pushed into the shadows. In her forthcoming book, English in Post-Revolutionary Iran, Maryam Borjian draws the Iranian people out of the wings and onto center stage through a meticulous study of the politics of English language education in Iran since 1979.

With the 1979 Iranian Revolution came the reversal of the vast majority of policies implemented under the reign of Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, a strong ally of the United States and Great Britain. When the Pahlavi dynasty came to a decisive end and the Islamic Republic of Iran (IRI) replaced it, the state perception of English veered into a different direction. English was now considered suspicious—the main means through which the United States and Great Britain could exercise cultural hegemony.

Tiles from Golestan Palace Complex, 19th century, Tehran, Iran © Maryam Borjian

Tiles from Golestan Palace Complex, 19th century, Tehran, Iran. Photo courtesy of Maryam Borjian ©.

But, despite expectations that English language education would be curtailed after 1979, Borjian shows that the IRI did not reject English education, but in fact emphasized it through a process of indigenization. By producing its own teaching materials and eliminating all foreign cultural elements, the IRI created a homegrown, indigenized model of English education, free from the influence of the English-speaking countries and based entirely on the Islamic tenets of the Republic.

Yet despite the IRI’s more than three decades worth of attempts, Borjian illustrates that the existing system of English education in Iran has not been entirely indigenized. Contrary to the common perception, the educational influence of supranational forces like the World Bank, the United Nations, its various developmental agencies, and the British Council was never eliminated in post-revolutionary Iran. As a result, Iranian society has been marked by two diverging forms of English: (1) an indigenized model used by state-run education programs, and (2) an internationalized or Anglo-Americanized model used by private-run education programs in Iran. In her book, Borjian proposes a new framework to examine the process, causes and agents of these two diverging trends of indigenization and internationalization within English education.

English in Post-Revolutionary Iran

English in Post-Revolutionary Iran

English in Post-Revolutionary Iran is based in large part on data that Borjian collected during her year of fieldwork in Tehran in 2007-2008. She also makes substantial use of archival documents, and official reports, laws, and regulations in her study. To deliver a broad treatment of the role of English and English education in Iran, Borjian takes a multidisciplinary approach by blending scholarship on sociolinguistics, critical applied linguistics, comparative education, and educational policy.

In addition to its contribution to the field of linguistics and education, Borjian’s study also adds to the contemporary discussion of global Englishes. As scholar Ofelia García writes in her foreword, “what makes [Borjian’s] book so unique is precisely that it enlightens us about a context that we know so little about, and uses it to examine the many assumptions that we have had in the global English debate.”

Despite the efforts of the Islamic Republic of Iran, indigenized and Anglo-Americanized English coexist in modern Iran. The government’s large-scale attempts to eliminate any external influence that would lead to dialogue between Iranians and native English speakers have been thwarted by the digital revolution, which has reduced the IRI’s absolute control of information and created new opportunities for Iranians to look abroad to learn English. Maryam Borjian’s English in Post-Revolutionary Iran sheds light on the contentious relationship that the Iranian government has had with English over the past three decades and traces what that relationship has meant for ordinary Iranians.

About Jennifer Manoukian

Jennifer Manoukian is a graduate student in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies at Columbia University.

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