English in Iran

By December 30, 2010Language & tourism

Isfahan University

Even a casual observer of the linguistic landscape in Iran will have to conclude that Iranians have a collective fetish for English. Almost all public signage is bilingual in English and Persian, even in cases where it is hard to imagine an English-speaking audience for a sign (e.g., ATMs that only accept Iranian cards; it’s impossible to use international bank and credit cards in Iran). Participants at the Language-on-the-Move workshop at the University of Tehran told me that English has two broad meanings in Iran: on the one hand, it is seen as a passport to higher education (passing an English test is a prerequisite to many university courses and English is part of the general education component of all university courses) and it is seen as a passport to the wider world outside Iran and strongly associated with going abroad.

The fetish for English is such that it renders other languages, both indigenous and foreign, all but invisible. This welcome banner from the University of Isfahan’s Faculty of Foreign Languages is a case in point. While languages other than English, including Arabic, Armenian, French, and German, are taught in the faculty, I couldn’t see a trace of those languages in the faculty’s spaces I visited. I heard some Arabic in communal prayer before my lecture.

Naghsh-e Jahan, Isfahan

By contrast, the shopkeepers and street vendors on Isfahan’s main tourist attraction, Naghsh-e Jahan, seem to have a more realistic idea on which linguistic side their bread is buttered. When I spent a few hours there yesterday, I was repeatedly accosted in German. Although my husband had warned me not to engage in conversations with hawkers, I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to find out more about their language use. I spoke to some highly proficient German speakers who all claimed that they had learnt their German “here on the square.” One explained to me in impeccable German that “my colleagues and I, we all speak many languages. Wherever the tourists come from. German, French, Spanish, Japanese. But German is number one.” He may have added the last bit of information to please me although shop windows such as the one in the second picture confirm the importance of the German custom to the bazaaris. The idiomatic translation of “Wir beraten Sie gern” is probably “Happy to serve you” although the literal translation is “We’ll be happy to advise you” and speaks of a somewhat more sophisticated shopping interaction.

I don’t have figures for international tourist arrivals to Iran at hand but few tourists come from the major English-speaking countries for obvious reasons. The tourist service workers who I asked where their international customers came from would mention Arabs, Germans and other continental Europeans, Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. In the hotel where I’m staying I’ve noticed visitors from China, Germany, Greece, Korea, the Netherlands, and Turkey. The hotel however does not seem to provide services in any of these languages, nor do museums or tourist information offices. These all focus on English although I’ve seen tour guides, maps and coffee table books in French, German and Italian in book stores.

As everywhere, English in Iran spreads as a market commodity. However, I am reminded that the global linguistic market is not a free market but one where English is heavily subsidized and other languages face stiff tariffs and trade barriers.

Author Ingrid Piller

Dr Ingrid Piller is Professor of Applied Linguistics at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Ingrid’s research expertise is in the fields of intercultural communication, bilingual education and the sociolinguistics of language learning and multilingualism in the contexts of migration and globalization.

More posts by Ingrid Piller
  • khan

    Dear Ingrid

    Thanks for sharing your perspective observations about our neighboring country. Besides sharing geography, history and culture, Pakistan also shares the two broad social meanings of English in Iran as you rightly pointed out: Passport to higher education and the Access to wider world. In addition to these, it is strong social class marker in Pakistan. Society bracket you in different social classes based on the variety of Pakistani English you speak. Pakistani English seems to move along a continuum with broad informal accented English at one end and formal educated Pakistani English on the other end. As one moves along the continuum, one finds difference in domain, norms, social prestige and power. The closer it is to the so-called myth of Standard English, the better are the socio-economic benefits. Though linguists try their best to deconstruct such myths, their views, findings and suggestions are rarely valued by the society. What should we do?

  • Anna

    Dear Ingrid;
    First things first, we’re all glad to see you here in ” Nesfe jahan” and enjoyed your ineffably nice lectures!
    As for this recent post of yours, I do agree with you on the paucity of other languages in Iran though they’re as widespread as English, if not more!
    I think the phenomenon of ” being international” is misunderstood by lots of people. Why is it always English that wins?!!!! Just because of its number of speakers or because it is the world’s number one language!!!
    I’ve also seen such cases so far in which some languages are sacrificed for the sake of others. They’re so much overlooked sometimes that you may feel they do not exist at all! It’s just when there’s a defense session announcement that we see a sheet written in a language other than English in the faculty.
    I guess bazaaris and hawkers are brilliant enough to know the knacks of attracting tourists, especially those whose language is not English. As you said, “this is the way their bread is buttered”!

  • Well, as you have noticed, English is the foreign language mostly used even between the students of the non-English departments of UI’s faculty of foreign languages . You know, The main reason for this might be the type of the University Entrance Exams held in Iran. I don’t know about other countries, but, here in Iran, most of those who study German, French or any other foreign languages in university are good in English and select English as the foreign language for their University Entrance Exam; and then they have low scores for being accepted to study English in college so they choose French, German etc.
    It is interesting for me that you say German is used more frequently in Naqsh e Jahan Sq. ’cause as far as my experience tells me, the usage of English and German does not differ that much there hearing lots of words spoken in German is not that odd there, though.

  • Lachlan Jackson

    Facinating post Ingrid! I wish I were there. Keep ’em coming!

  • Dariush Izadi

    The reason for such clear or at least growing dominance of
    the” collective fetish for English” in Iran , I personally think,
    could be its stereotype that whoever graduates from an English
    speaking country is knowledgeable or sophisticated.

  • Liu Hailin

    Dear Ingrid, I am happy to learn your story in Iran.

  • Hongyan

    Thanks, Ingrid, for sharing the interesting linguistic in
    Iran. Your post reminded me of what I saw and heard in Dayan
    Ancient Town of Lijiang, China. All the shop names are presented in
    three languages: Chinese characters in the first line, Dongba
    pictographic characters (the written language for the local ethnic
    minority Naxi people) in the second and English translation comes
    on the third line no matter whether the English translation of the
    name is proper or not. The shopkeepers and street vendors can speak
    at least two languages (mandarin Chinese and English) to bargain
    with tourists from home and abroad. Some can speak German,
    Japanese, French, etc just for bargaining. Only a few of them can
    speak Naxi mainly because most of the shopkeepers are from other
    places outside Lijiang and most of local Naxi people seldom shop

  • Seyed Hadi Mirvahedi

    Dear Ingrid,
    Thank you for accepting and sharing my idea about the ATMs in Iran. The presence of English in the linguistic landscapes in Iran is really intersting for two reasons: First, as you mentioned, there are almost no foreigners, at least in cities other than Isfahan or Shiraz. Second, in many cases, the shopkeeper himself/herself does not know English. I mean neither the agent nor the audience knows English. English, then, is playing a great symbolic role, I guess.