Language consumption and mobility

In the past thirty years, Iran’s population has exploded from about 40 million to more than 72 million. Such rapid growth has resulted in the vast majority of the population now being under 30 years old with a median age of 26.4. One of Iran’s achievements during the same period is the expansion of its educational system so that it has been able to cater to the educational needs of its expanding, young and ambitious population. Yet, brain-drain is one of Iran’s most widely recognized problems, although the government is doing all in its capacity to stem the tide of those who have decided to leave the country right after their graduation. Leaving the country, either permanently or for the sake of furthering one’s education, continues to be a very popular route. Besides universities in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia, the ones in Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Russia, China, and Malaysia are popular destinations for Iranians.

In this context, where so many people want to leave the country, the private, commercial foreign language sector has been expanding rapidly. Iran in general and my home town, Isfahan, in particular have undergone an unprecedented boom in foreign language learning and teaching. Accordingly, commercial language schools have mushroomed. It has been reported that, besides hundreds of unregistered ones, a whopping 3700 registered language schools are operating across the country.

The phenomenal market growth in commercial language teaching has also increased competition among language institutes and advertising materials for such institutes are a ubiquitous sight. Ranging from broadcast ads, via billboards, to all kinds of brochures and flyers, advertising materials are all designed to persuade even more members of the target group, i.e. Iranian youths, to engage in foreign language learning. In this way, language learning is no longer about education but about consumption and languages become nothing more than consumer commodities.

This typical flyer presents a case in point. I found this flier in Isfahan’s New Jolfa district, one of Isfahan’s hippest areas frequented by “modern” Iranian youths. The New Jolfa area is a gathering spot for fashionable Iranians to hang out. Consequently, it is also an ideal spot for promoting language schools.

In this flyer, the commodification of language learning is inscribed in the very grammar of the advertising text. For instance, ‘courses’ (دوره ها) and ‘classroom teaching’ (کلاس ها) are animated as participants and thus displace human agents such as ‘teachers’ or ‘students.’ That means that the ‘products’ themselves are ascribed roles and attributes that are in educational contexts normally associated with teachers. Modalities such as disappointment, failure, or risk do not even appear; all that is expressed is that ‘customers’ will receive a predictable, stable outcome. As the flyer has it, success is “100 percent guaranteed” (۱۰۰% تضمینی)!

Language learning thus becomes a product consisting of discrete units, which are separately accessible, and can be bought and sold as distinct goods in the range of commodities available in the market. In such commodified educational discourse, it is the duration of the course that takes on a symbolic significance; one can learn, say, Spanish in 90 days     (اسپانیایی ۹۰ روز)!

Apparently, the market is too competitive and the time is too short to check for typos. Infelicities such as “TOFLE” (i.e. TOEFL), “discution” (i.e. discussion), and “crusive” (i.e. cursive) are by no means limited to the flyer under scrutiny.

Last but not least, the use of flags in such a typical flyer perfectly fits its international and future-oriented purposes. These flags seem to have been intended to foster the link between language learning and mobility and hence to increase the marketing hype surrounding foreign language learning. The more language schools are hyped up, the more difficult it is to resist the urge to “buy” the advertised “products.”

Author Vahid Parvaresh

Vahid Parvaresh is an assistant professor of English at the Faculty of Foreign Languages of the University of Isfahan, Iran. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Isfahan and an MA in Applied Linguistics from the University of Tehran. His research interests are in discourse analysis and cross-cultural pragmatics.

More posts by Vahid Parvaresh
  • Sedigheh Najibi

    “although the government is doing all in its capacity to stem the tide of those who have decided to leave the country right after their graduation”!!!!!Really?!

  • Banafsheh

    Dear Dr.Parvaresh,

    Your post is mind-capturing.You made some interesting points in your post.Congratulations!
    Nowdays we face with a lot of such fliers all around Isfahan and other cities in Iran.
    Unfortunately, they do not check the correctness of words in their advertisements .
    In this vein we can say ” ذات نایافته از هستی بخش کی تواند که شود هستی بخش “.
    By the way, thanks for your post.

  • Dariush Izadi

    Dear Vahid, a thought provoking blog!
    As you might have noticed, the use of nominalization could be another striking point of this flyer. Interestingly, none of these actions is presented here as a Process, except for the first clause. In other words, in terms of Functional Grammar, turning an event into a noun offers opportunities to point out, describe, classify and specify further and further. The one that is very distinct in this flyer.

  • George Sahakian

    “although the government is doing all in its capacity to stem the tide of those who have decided to leave the country right after their graduation”!!!

  • Vahid

    Thank you, Banafsheh, for providing us with a beautiful line of Jami! Those readers who are keen to know more about Jami please have a look the following page:

  • Vahid

    Dear George and Sedigheh,

    Thanks for your feedback! As you know, the argument underlying “the present post” doesn’t really change even if one argues that the government is “not” doing all in its capacity to stem the tide of immigration.


  • Hi Vahid,

    Socially situated textual analysis. Very interesting.


  • Golnaz

    Dear Dr.Parvaresh ,

    As always a real though provoking blog .These are indeed facts ,But it’s the mater that those so -called language learning schools have learnt how to attract and which generation to attract .The case is maybe in the ” New Julfa destrict ” people are more involved for having a vacation out of Iran and to further the education ,This is what I heard from a lg Institute owner who told me that exactly the time I changed my location from Bozorgmehr to Nazar ,My institute started to what I call ” the greatest growth ” .


  • Ruriko

    Dear Dr.Parvaresh

    This is actually the first time to post my comment on this language blog.
    I am very interested in the commodification of languages right now as I am writing my thesis on the consumption of English in Japan.
    It is great to see that other Asian country such as Iran, also has same kind of phenomenon.
    Is the phenomenon Language-as-a-commodity only seen in the language school targetting at younger and motivated youth? How about for children or even housewives or elderly people?



  • Hi Ruriko,
    I’m sure you’ve seen these two papers here one Language-on-the-Move:
    Piller, I., & Takahashi, K. (2006). A passion for English: desire and the language market. In A. Pavlenko (Ed.), Bilingual minds: Emotional experience, expression, and representation (pp. 59-83). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters.
    Piller, I., Takahashi, K., & Watanabe, Y. (2010). The Dark Side of TESOL: The hidden costs of the consumption of English. Cross-Cultural Studies, 20, 183-201.
    Additionally, there are two relevant papers in the most recent issue of the International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism:
    Kubota, R. (2011). Learning a foreign language as leisure and consumption: enjoyment, desire, and the business of eikaiwa. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(4), 473 – 488.
    Park, J. S.-Y. (2011). The promise of English: linguistic capital and the neoliberal worker in the South Korean job market. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 14(4), 443-455.
    And one more reference, which provides the broader background:
    Heller, M. (2010). The Commodification of Language. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 101-114.
    Good luck with your research! We’d love to hear more about it!

  • Ruriko

    Dear Dr Pillar

    Thank you so much for the references.
    It was very unexpected to have a comment from you.
    I love your wok so it was a great honor!
    Actually, I’ve seen all the references that you suggested here.
    Especially, “The Dark side of TESOL” is really interesting and gave me a good insight.
    I’m working on my thesis, which mainly focuses on one English language testing for Children in Japan. I’ll try to make sense the use of this test within the context of the consumption of English.
    Hopefully, I can post a little article or something similar somewhere!



  • Vahid

    Dear Ruriko,
    Thank you so much for your comment.
    I’m sure Prof. Piller’s references will help you and others who are interested in “the consumption of English” very much.
    Interestingly, in the city where I live those brochures/flyers that target children can be found but they usually use a different kind of discourse.