Since the Iranian Revolution of the late 1970s, the country’s ruling clerics have castigated America as the "Great Satan," and transformed Iran into an isolated, anti-Western nation.
Why then is instruction in the English language—the language of the "enemy"—on the rise in Iran today? Why, for that matter, is Iran’s state-controlled television network broadcasting programs aimed at teaching English?
These are just some of the issues Maryam Borjian explores in her new book, “English in Post-Revolutionary Iran: From Indigenization to Internationalism.”
Borjian, an assistant professor with the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures, conducted research in Iran during 2007 and 2008, seeking out sources such as universities, private language schools, publishing houses and government archives. Her goal was to examine the impact of the revolution on English language instruction.
Looking at both official policy and current practice, her book gets beneath the surface of Iran and provides readers with a fascinating new way of understanding the complex undercurrents in the nation that many see as America’s most intractable enemy.
Q: What is your own Iranian background?
A: I was born and raised there and spent the formative years of my life in post-revolutionary Iran. I was 7 when the revolution happened.
Q: English was once the most prominent foreign language in the country’s educational system. Your book describes how a new “indigenized English” was introduced by the revolutionary government of Ayatollah Khomeini. What was the purpose?
A: The goal was to create a model of English education, free from the influence of the English-speaking nations. All foreign language schools were shut down and all foreign teachers, the majority of them Americans, were expelled from the country. Soon, a state-run publishing house was established to produce homegrown textbooks, in which some aspects of English were selectively accepted but the cultural elements of the language were removed.
Q: What was this new English like?
A: The "Joe" and "Mary" of the pre-revolutionary English textbooks were replaced by "Mohamed" and "Fatima"—pious Muslims who dressed modestly, attended mosques, and read the Koran daily. Their goal was to learn English—the language of hegemony, arrogance and exploitation—only to empower Iran. A new form of English was born, which has been taught to generations of school children ever since.
Q: Yet you also find that standard English instruction never went away completely, and, in fact, is in vogue in some quarters of Iran, even during the Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s ‘return to revolutionary roots.’ Can you discuss some of the reasons for this?
A: What I tried to show in my book was that the West never went away. For Iranian politicians, the West has always remained simultaneously a source of admiration and humiliation. While the hostility has been demonstrated in loud anti-West sentiments, the admiration has always remained implicit and invisible, discussed behind closed doors.
But the outcomes are quite visible. When Iranian students are sent abroad on state scholarships, the US and UK have been the first choice. In addition, Iranian leaders have worked with Western finance institutions such as the World Bank and IMF. These findings among many others suggest that the West has always served as the reference society, a source of emulation, for revolutionary leaders.
Q: What does your research suggest about the future of Iran and its relationship with the West?
A: All I can say is that now that English is in high demand in Iran, and multilingualism is being promoted in the US, I hope that more people on both sides learn each other’s languages so that they may have a more constructive dialogue.
I recently read the English translation of one of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s speeches, and it seemed like a joke. The English translator failed to properly translate the idiomatic Persian expressions used by Ahmadinejad into English. Such a lack of proficiency in each other’s languages may cause not just confusion and misunderstanding on the part of the leaders but may also lead the world into chaos.