Language Policy and Mother Tongue Debate in Iran

17 August 2016

This month we are publishing Who’s Afraid of Multilingual Education? by Amir Kalan which explores multilingual education in Iran through a series of conversations with leading multilingualism scholars. In this post, Amir explains why the language situation in Iran is so unique.

Who’s Afraid of Multilingual Education?More than 70 languages are spoken in today’s Iran, yet by law all school textbooks are written in Farsi (Persian). Farsi is also the only language of instruction throughout the country, even in non-Persian areas with vibrant linguistic lives and solid cultural identities. My new book, Who is Afraid of Multilingual Education?, tries to discover how ideological discourses in Iran have allowed the dominance of monolingual schools despite empirical evidence that advocates otherwise. The book examines arguments that doubt the effectiveness of mother tongue-based multilingual education in Iran and, through conversations with four respected international scholars, it compares the Iranian situation with global experiences with challenges of establishing multilingual educational systems that regard students’ plurilingualism as a valuable resource rather than an obstacle.

A focus on multilingualism in the Iranian context is worthwhile due to a number of reasons. Despite the current official systematic resistance against the demands of Iranian ethnic minorities for classroom instruction in students’ mother tongues (which has left Iran well behind India and even China, Iran’s civilizational cousins) Iran has a long history of multiculturalism and multilingualism. Diversity has always been an integral part of social life in the Iranian Plateau since the very beginnings of the formation of greater Iran (through Iranian empires) up to the contemporary Iranian society. On the other hand, minoritized Iranian populations – to the best of our knowledge – have not experienced the violence similar to what has been imposed on minority cultures in the West through colonialism and imperialism, such as attempts to eradicate aboriginal cultures and racial segregation in education systems. Up until the early 20th century, when the Iranian government of the time imported Western educational models along with European nation state ideologies, Iranian languages organically mingled and interacted in learning centers as well as everyday social interactions. Who is Afraid of Multilingual  Education? asks what discourses advocating mother tongue-based multilingual educational have rendered a heresy over the past 100 years in Iran despite the multilingual fabric of the country. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, Jim Cummins, Ajit Mohanty and Stephen Bahry critique these discourses in the book drawing upon examples of the experiences of minoritized students in different parts of the world.

The arguments against mother tongue-based multilingual education discussed in this book include nationalistic one-language-one-nation discourses that deem the dominance of a single language a necessary factor in creating a national identity; political visions that advocate that imposing one single language on minorities would empower them by providing them the ability to communicate and to trade their skills and products in larger markets and thus “succeed” in life; linguistic theories that attempt to prove some languages are naturally wired to be superior to other languages and thus are to be shared by all the members of society regardless of their linguistic backgrounds; economic speculations proposing that mother tongue-based multilingual education is an appealing and perhaps moral idea but too expensive to put into practice; and finally, post-colonial and anti-imperial anxieties that help the state treat legitimate demands for receiving education in the medium of students’ mother tongues as separatist desires.

Unfortunately, empirical evidence supporting the benefits of multilingual education for students and society at large is often comfortably ignored by politicians and mainstream media. Traditional academic publications also often fail to find their way out of closed professional circles and remain unread by the public, typically fed by more popular but less accurate forms of dissemination such as TV shows and mainstream news websites. As a result, Who is Afraid of Multilingual Education? reviews the issues that the international language research community has struggled with in a more accessible interview format. Hopefully, the inter­views offered in this book and the analyses that follow them can open new horizons in the mother tongue debate in Iran, establish better communication between Iranian and international educators, and contribute to the ongoing conversation about multilingualism in the inter­national research community.

LDLR covers 2016For further information about this book please see our website. For other books in our Linguistic Diversity and Language Rights series take a look at the series page on our website.


English Language Education in Iran

18 March 2013

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.


English in Post-Revolutionary Iran: From Indigenization to Internationalization

25 February 2013

Following this week’s publication of English in Post-Revolutionary Iran, we asked the book’s author, Maryam Borjian, to explain a bit about its background.

Maryam Borjian, author of "English in Post-Revolutionary Iran"

Maryam Borjian, author of “English in Post-Revolutionary Iran”

Post-revolutionary Iran was envisioned with a homegrown, indigenized model of English education – an indigenized English free from the influence of the English-speaking nations. The indigenization movement began some 30 years ago at the onset of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

The founding of the Islamic Republic in Iran marked the beginning of a new era in the country’s political landscape. Iran, which had been under the geopolitical influence of the West since the early 19th century, turned away from its Western allies, the United States, in particular, to follow an anti-Western, anti-imperialist ideology. The dream was to achieve ‘self-reliance’ and ‘self-sufficiency’, not only from the capitalist West but also from the communist East. In the words of the grand revolutionary motto of the time, it was to be an Islamic Republic ‘self-sufficient’ (kod-kafā) from the West and the East (na sharqi, na gharbi).

Grand Bazaar of Kerman, 17th century, Kerman, Iran  © Maryam Borjian

Grand Bazaar of Kerman, 17th century, Kerman, Iran. Photo courtesy of Maryam Borjian ©.

Within such a climate, the attitude towards foreign languages was profoundly negative and they were treated as ‘suspicious subject matters’ and ‘the enemies of the people’. Among foreign languages, English was considered the most unfortunate as it was closely associated with the United States, ‘Great Satan,’ and its closest ally, the United Kingdom. The intensity of hostility towards the West and to European languages could perhaps be best explained by the closure of the Iran–America Society and the British Council, the most active centers of English language teaching (ELT) in pre-revolutionary Iran. To eliminate all variables associated with cultural and linguistic imperialism, all foreign language schools were closed and foreign teachers and professors were expelled from the country. A state-run publishing house, aka SAMT, was established to produce indigenized, homegrown textbooks, in which some aspects of English were selectively accepted (phonology, morphology and syntax), whereas the cultural elements of the language were all removed.

As such, a new form of English was born, a form that some may regard as a ‘flat, lifeless and context-free language’, which has been taught to generations of school children via the state’s approved homegrown English textbooks ever since.

The indigenization movement, together with anti-Western and anti-imperialist sentiments, has continued to dominate the political and educational discourse of post-revolutionary Iran for the better part of the past three decades. Yet, despite the state’s 30-year-long constant efforts, the existing system of English education in Iran is not entirely indigenized. Rather, it is marked by two diverging forms of English: (1) the indigenized model that is used by the state-run education programs, and (2) the internationalized or Anglo-Americanized model, which is used by private-run education programs throughout the nation. The latter model is the one currently in vogue and most demanded by Iranians.

English in Post-Revolutionary Iran

English in Post-Revolutionary Iran

English in Post-Revolutionary Iran explores the politics of English language teaching and learning in post-revolutionary Iran from 1979 to the present. The book examines the nation’s English education at the two levels of policy and practice to explore the process (how and what), causes (why) and agents (who) of the two diverging trends of ‘indigenization’ and ‘internationalization’ within the country’s English education. The book explores the ways in which English education has been perceived by various stakeholders both at the national level (politicians and policymakers, and at the subnational level (professional associations, university-based and privately based language programs, English professors, teachers and students) and the catalysts that have sparked off receptiveness or hostility towards foreign lessons, ideas and norms on the part of each set of stakeholders. Although it is presumed that supranational forces have been absent from the realm of English education in post-revolutionary Iran, the book equally takes into account the implicit and explicit contributions of various international and transnational organizations (the World Bank, the UN developmental agencies and the British Council) to the internationalization of the field of English education in the country.

To read more about the book, please visit its page on our website here.


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