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.
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.