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.
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.