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Iran, which is also widely known and recognized as the Persian Empire, and officially known the Islamic Republic of Iran, is one of the world’s oldest and most historic civilizations, beginning with the formation of the Elamite kingdoms dating all the way back to fourth century BCE. Iran is a beautiful and historic country that is located in Western Asia, with a bustling population of over 81 million people. Persian, more commonly referred to as Farsi, is the official language of Iran and as explained by Comrie (1990), the language is part of the Indo-Iranian group of the vast Indo-European family. The Persian language is written from right to left and has thirty-two characters. Some of the other prominent regional languages of the country are Azari (Turkish), Kurdish, Arabic, and Lori. Aside from the ones previously listed, there are also dozens more Persian dialects and tongues throughout the thirty-one provinces, such as Gilaki, Baluchi, and Turkmen. The major foreign languages that are commonly taught and learned in the country are English and Arabic. Prior to 1979, Iran was a monarchy and was being led by the Royal Family. This all changed during the revolution of 1979, which I will be discussing more in depth later on in this essay. The Persian people’s exposure to the English language began initially in the nineteenth century, during the time in which much Iranian youth were sent abroad for educational purposes. According to Baumgardner and Brown (2012), Iran is part of the Expanding Circle in Kachru’s (Kachru, 1992) model of world Englishes. In this essay, I will be discussing four different dimensions of English in Iran; historical, educational, social and business. In the historic portion, I will discuss English in pre and post-revolutionary Iran, and how differently the attitudes towards foreign languages was changed by the government. In the educational dimension, I will discuss how English is used in the 21st-century Persian classroom, as well as how the 21st century has affected the social dimension through social media in the section after that. Finally, I will discuss how English plays a vital part in Persian businesses and corporations.
To get an idea of the political and social climate of the county before and after the revolution, it’s important to understand why the revolution actually occurred in the first place, as English and Western beliefs played a major role. The King that ruled during the ’70s, as well as his father who ruled before him, valued English and Western ideals. English was seen as and treated as the language of modernity and prosperity, which is what the King wanted for his people. It was believed by the Persian people at the time, however, that the King no longer valued Iran’s rich history and no longer wanted to keep Iran’s religious background, but instead wanted to modernize and westernize the country even further that had already been done. Once the public outcry began and the people revolted, the 2500-year-old monarchy was overthrown and the state began to create a new identity for the people of Iran- one no longer attached to the old monarchy. This brings us to the first dimension of this essay, which is historic. Before the revolution, learning and speaking English was a prestigious exercise which opened opportunities. The country had strong political ties to promote the English language, and so there were English schools, British and American Societies and Councils, as well as English language newspapers, and English radio and TV programs, (Baumgardner & Brown, 2012). The major incentive of the revolution was to downplay these imposed Western norms in all aspects of the country’s life and to instead revitalize its ancient Islamic values (Zarrinabadi & Mahmoudi-Gahrouei, 2018). During this time, the state began to follow in the footsteps of post-revolutionary Cuba, China, and Russia and began eliminating all things associated with what they believed to be cultural and linguistic imperialism. Thus, all of the foreign language schools were subsequently shut down, including those teaching French and German as well as English. In addition to that, all foreign teachers and professors, the majority of whom were Americans, were removed from the country. State-run publishing houses were created to produce English textbooks for students that were considered more indigenous to the country by the state. The state believed that this step was needed in order to further distance the youth of the country from the west, by getting rid of all traces of ideological and socio-cultural issues which were believed to be representing Western thoughts, values, motives and ideals (Borjian, 2013). All of the cultural elements of the English language were removed from the English textbooks, as the state feared it was causing a threat to the nation’s ‘tradition’. As a result of this decision, names such as Henry, Simon, Sally, and Elizabeth were completely erased from the school English textbooks and were replaced by new characters whose names were Mohamed, Ali, Fatima, Leilah, who were all devout Muslims. These new textbook characters all had one common goal: to learn English – the language of hegemony, arrogance and exploitation – only so that they could go on and empower themselves and Iran in its new stage of indigenized modernity and development.
The next dimension I’m going to be discussing is education. In Iran, English is the most studied foreign language and the most popular medium of education after Persian (Sadeghi & Richards, 2015). Believing in ‘the younger, the better slogan’ (Dörnyei, 2009), many families will send their children to the private English institutes to ensure their children have a solid understanding of the language so that they can excel in their classes during school. As well as that, most of the private primary schools, English institutes, and even kindergartens teach English to children. The textbooks taught in kindergartens and primary schools are no longer ones that were made by the state after the revolution and are now generally those published by world-known publishers such as Longman and Oxford University Press. Today, the general objective of English language education in secondary schools as stated in Iran’s Reformed National Curriculum is to allow students to gain a comprehensive understanding of the language, and to be able to transfer cultural heritage and scientific findings through different linguistic modes such as oral, visual, and written. The English teaching does not stop at young students however, as for undergraduate students at university there is a three-credit course for all students regardless of their major. For those students who wish to pursue a career in an industry where English is more necessary for achievement, there are many English courses that are offered in all higher education facilities.
The third dimension I’m going to discuss is social. Mass media is believed to be among the common list of the top contributors behind the spread of English language around the world (Selvi, 2011). In addition, Crystal (1997) explained that modern technological advancements, such as film and media have begun to have a considerable impact on the spread of English, while Phillipson (1992) regarded these advancements as a means of English linguistic imperialism. The international channels in Iran broadcast programs not only in Persian but also in languages of English, French, Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, and Spanish. There are three channels that are English-only channels, as well as the two national channels (Channel Four and IRNN) that devote around one to two hours per day to broadcasting news in English. There are national and international radio stations that present their programs in English, and there are also two English-only newspapers named Iran Daily and Tehran Times. The rise of technology began a new interesting shift in English for Persian people; a process in which letters from the English alphabet are used to create Persian words. This is sometimes seen in shop names where only the English ‘script’ might be used for Persian words, rather than an English equivalent. Many people also use English ‘script’ for their text message communications, as it is easier than switching to the Farsi keyboard on their phone or other devices. An example of this could be, “Salam, chetori?”. This sentence is in Farsi, meaning “hello, how are you?” but is spelled out with English letters. This is also helpful for other people, like myself, who cannot read or write in the Farsi script but are fluent in the language, as I can message back and forth with family in Iran without needing to use voice chats or force them to speak English to me. This way they can write fluently in their own language, and I can read it fluently because of the English letters. Based on the Statistical Center of Iran (Statistical Center of Iran, 2013), more than 60% of Iran’s population are Internet users. Today, many Iranians use social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Viber, WhatsApp, and Telegram. The use of these social networking apps and websites have introduced new English words to the everyday communication of the Iranian people. Words such as share, like, follow, comment, crop and block are among the English words introduced into the everyday communication of Iranian social network users. These are some sentences which are authentic examples of using English loan words in the discourse of Iranian social network users:
LOTFAN MANO FOLLOW KON. (Please follow me.)
FAGHAT DOTA COMMENT DORE! (There are only two comments!)
MA DOOST HASTIM ROOYE FACEBOOK? (Are we friends on Facebook?)
KEY MANO BLOCK KARDI? (When did you block me?)
BEZAR MAN AXO CROP BOKONAHM. (Let me crop the photo.)
This is highly interesting as the words are directly borrowed from the English language, as there is no Persian equivalent. For example, while the word “follow” has a Persian equivalent (dombal) the Persian equivalent means to go or come after (a person or thing proceeding ahead). Since using that word does not make sense in the context of social media, the Persian people forgo the direct translation completely and stick to the borrowed English word to avoid miscommunication. As a result of this, there may also be times in which the English translation of the word, such as follow, may also be used in place of the Persian word in the context of coming after, “moshinamo follow kon” (follow my car).
The final dimension I’m going to talk about is business. The English language can play an important role in the professional lives of many Iranian people. Persian job applicants are encouraged to include their level of comfort with English in their CVs, as well as any achievements that they have had while learning English at university. The English language is also widely used in Iranian business discourse. This can be observed in two major areas; advertisements and company naming. Amouzadeh and Tavangar (2008) reported that the use of English in Iranian advertisements is often associated with factors such as reliability, modernity, and Europeanization. Based on research done by Baumgardner and Brown (2012), it was found that the English language was used in almost 53% of Persian advertisements. The research also reported that many words such as gel, soup, cream, and clinic could be found as being borrowed from the English language to be used in the advertisements. In addition to that, the English language can be found in different parts of the Persian advertisements such as the slogan, the captions, contact details (such as email and telephone number), and the signature line, as well as street names, traffic/address signs, parks, and hotels. For naming purposes, English is used in different types of practices. Firstly, the names of some shops and companies in Persian signs are accompanied by the English ones (e.g. Ali’s coffee shop with قهوه خانه علی). Secondly, there are many shops and companies that use English names completely. Some examples are Kentucky House, My Baby, and Oxford (bookstore). Thirdly, there are some business places that adopt lexical items from Persian and English, similar to the idea that was discussed in the social dimension. Some examples are Behsoft, Arya Phone, and Mobinnet.
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In conclusion, despite the revolution and the attempts made to regulate English and stop the spread of it by the state after the revolution, most people in Iran today speak English to some degree, and aspects of English can be found in all places that you look. As Sadeghi (2001) notes, ‘the rate of introduction of western, and particularly English words, loan words into Persian is such that any attempt to stop them is almost doomed to failure.’ The current sociolinguistic climate of English in Iran shows that Iran has the usual characteristics of any other Expanding Circle country, despite all of the various political and ideological tensions. In my personal opinion as an Iranian-New Zealand citizen, I believe it is equally important for Iran to continue moving into more modern times through their use and understanding of their English, whilst also upholding the Persian language.
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