Reza Shirmarz considers the impact of the Iranian government’s decision to ban English-language teaching
The General Secretary of the Iranian Supreme Council of Education announced last year that it is now illegal to teach English (officially or unofficially) in the country’s private and public primary schools and kindergartens. The news, which came with a threat of serious punishment for those who infringe this law, was a surprise to many Iranian families, who tend to see English as a necessity for their children.
The controversial decision is the upshot of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s intense opposition to the widespread use of the English language among Iranian youth, and the ideology of the current government, which seeks to limit the influence of Western civilisation, including restrictions on social sciences and the arts. The Supreme Leader had stated in 2016 that the promotion of English as the language of science had endangered Iranian culture, and that it should be banned as soon as possible.
On bringing the ban into effect, he went further: “There is no reason for Iranian educators to promote English as the most important language. This will not bring us any considerable benefit…Why should our official curriculum be based on a language in which the Shah and the pre-revolution government had such a great interest? Are we following their rules?” He continued: “We know that other countries make their best attempt to forbid the promotion of any foreign language. They believe that teaching foreign languages is a way of imposing foreign cultures on their domestic cultural life and this might be dangerous for the whole society. Why don’t English-speaking countries promote our language, Farsi?”
The ayatollahs have never been in favour of English, and have vehemently condemned it for political and ideological reasons during various historical eras. Modern education in Iran was officially established around 150 years ago, under the leadership of the Shah, and use of the English language then developed rapidly under the Pahlavi Dynasty (1925-79). This was largely due to the dominance of the US and UK in science, international diplomacy, trade and technology; the close political, social and economic bonds between Iran and the US; and the Shah’s tendency towards socioeconomic progress and military domination in the Middle East.
The more powerful Iran became (both economically and geopolitically) in the last years of the Shah, the more popular English became. The establishment of high-quality English-language schools, as well as the translation of English literature and drama into Farsi, were products of the Pahlavi period. Since then, English has become so important to Iranians that they have shown a consuming interest in it, calling it the language (زبان). So if you ask an Iranian “Do you like the language?”, it means “Do you like English?”.
After the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the language played a new role in Iran, with its increasing role in cultural and economic activities, as well as the globalised digital world. English was already the global lingua franca, so the coming Iranian generations needed to acquire and develop an acceptable level of competence in the language. However, the formal curricula in public sector schools have generally failed to meet this need, so many young learners and their families have learnt English in private schools.
There are similar inconsistencies between the objectives of the state and the teaching methods of qualified teachers in other Asian countries, including China, Korea and Vietnam. In Iran, such deficiencies have not been sufficiently tackled at policy level, particularly regarding the age of initial instruction, inequity of access to effective language education, inadequately trained teachers, and the gap between curriculum aims and pedagogical reality.
According to a study by Haddad Narafshan, more than 70% of Iranian English teachers believe the Iranian government has a negative approach to English-language education, and that curriculum development in Iran has not been conducted systematically and coherently owing to ideological and religious reasons.1
Children start their education aged 7, progressing from primary to junior, high school and pre-university. Some children from better off families learn English even before their formal education begins, because their parents see it as an urgent necessity. All textbooks are developed and authorised by the Ministry of Education.2
Another reason Iranian youth have a particular interest in English is that they have continuously been restricted in their own language, in terms of freedom of speech and the creation of innovative technological and artistic works. Many Iranians have turned to world news in English due to heavy censorship of the domestic media.
Learning the language can undoubtedly boost a young person’s employment and career potential, because it is the go-to language in business, science and on the internet. It has an undeniable impact on the world of business, since many companies use it in order to promote their products or services on an international scale. English has long been the language of finance.
Furthermore, most scientific essays are written in English and more than 55% of online content is in English. 3 It seems impossible and unreasonable for old cultures, such as Iran, Greece and China, to shut the door on the universal phenomenon of globalisation and deprive their nations of advantages such as a faster flow of information and the breaking down of cultural borders.
Protection from invasion
In recent decades, there has been an ongoing debate between Iranian linguists and scholars about how to ensure the survival of Farsi in a globalised world. Historically, Arabic has had a greater influence than English. Around 40-50% of Farsi words have Arabic roots, and direct Arabic loanwords are used widely in Farsi-speaking countries, particularly in daily conversations. Many have been incorporated into the language since the Muslim Conquest of Persia in 651BCE. In contrast, the use of English is a modern phenomenon, previously limited to academic and scientific areas.
Nationalist scholars believe we need to stop using loanwords from any foreign language and depend solely on Farsi; others think we need to allow Farsi to have dynamic exchange with other languages within a predetermined framework. Both groups are concerned about the potential loss of Farsi with regard to the onslaught of English, but they put forward two extremely different solutions, whose long-term effectiveness remains to be seen.
The Iranian authorities’ attempt to come up with a practical solution to the possible decline of the Persian language is unlikely to be successful, especially among the youth, as long as they continue to be denied freedom of speech in their mother tongue. Heavy censorship is pushing younger generations to use another language to express themselves freely, and they have consciously opted to learn English in order to counter the restrictions imposed by both governmental and religious authorities. For many Iranians, learning English, listening to English songs and reading English literature constitute an act of defiance against the ruling powers and a declaration that they want their lost freedom back.
1 2011 research referenced in Kirkpatrick, R (2016) English Language Education Policy in the Middle East and North Africa, Springer, 55
2 Palls, B (2010) Cultural Portraits: A synoptic guide, B&B Educational Consultants