More on English in Iran

Courtesy Hoda Arabi

In 2006 and 2007 I was doing my MA at the University of Tehran, about 450 kilometers away from my hometown, Isfahan. For this reason, I was a regular passenger in intercity buses driven either by Persian monolinguals or by Persian-Turkic bilinguals. As a student of Applied Linguistics, I would often be annoyed at the sight of peculiar English messages I used to see mainly on the front doors of such buses. Having seen, for example, “Well come to my bus. We go to trip! Good bey,” I would ask myself “How difficult is it for the drivers to look up the spelling of such words?” or “Why don’t the drivers care about what is written on their own buses?” Once I approached one of the drivers trying to hint at what I would at the time consider as an unpardonable error, but he furiously glared at me and retorted “Who do you think you are? Get off my bus if you don’t like my English!”

But now, upon further contemplations, I think it was utterly inconsiderate of me to have objected to such English varieties. For the drivers, as for the majority of Iranians, the signs are, linguistically speaking, only English in a minimal sense; their Englishness is not linguistic but semiotic. In other words, in Iran, English messages usually function emblematically by signaling a variety of associative meanings, which can be captured under the English term prestige. Such a practice, i.e. associating English with dignity, has become so ubiquitous that it is barely possible not to call it a collective fetish.

This kind of practice puts on record the fact that globalization does not necessarily mean uniformization. Instead, globalization sets in motion not only translocal but local markets as well. In this connection, the global English is no longer a unified entity to find a market for; it is, rather, a complex of resources, each with its own distribution, value, rights, and effects.

The picture in question reveals how local people can bring English, the language of globalization, down to the level of the local and regional by treating it in the local norms. The prevalence of such practices in the periphery well explains why the well-known McDonaldization can only partially account for the prima facie uniformity of globalization processes in the 21st century.

Blommaert, J. (2010). The sociolinguistics of globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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
  • Akbar qanavati

    I told you before you should write all the time.Keep Posting.Delicate points are in the story.

  • Khan

    Hi Vahid

    Nice Post. Appropriation, Resistance and Assimilation are some very competing discourses in all socieites perhaps. You are so very right. I think it would also be very interesting to see macdonalisation through social class because in Pakistan it is only restricted to a very thin minority, however, for majority is like your drivers English.

    Interesting read. Thanks!

  • Niloufar Behrooz

    I truly enjoyed reading this. I know exactly how you felt at that moment since Ive been in similar situations over and over again and you can probably imagine the extent of my torment! Unfortunately as a student of English Literature and as a global citizen, I, too, couldnt be ignorant to such catastrophic missuses of English and I would confront them and say Do it right or dont do it at all! but after many a useless try I got to see what you see now their Englishness is not linguistic but semiotic. but I still have to admit that witnessing these so called prestigious messages is simply torture for me…!

  • Sara

    I agree. They just want to put some English letters together, forget about the grammar, and sometimes the meaning. The why and why not questions bother me! Why not correct? Why English? Why not Persian? Answers may not be so difficult, but solving the problem may be.

  • vahid

    Thank you Sara for your comment! Such questions should give us (students of linguistics/language) food for thought. health and peace

  • negin

    Interesting post although I do not think the only factor at work is ‘prestige’.

  • farzaneh

    Having read and enjoied ,I agree.It is the fact that we can see every where.some of the people just want to speak english but they dont know how, and correction dosent work in such cases.

    Best regards,

  • Saeed

    Dear Vahid,
    Nice post. In Iran and countries with similar geopolitical identity, people- especially from the less educated side community- try to affiliate themselves with some thought-to-be prestigous community. In such cases as you have already notofied people try to display some sort of prestige.
    From a postcolonial persepctive there might be a trace of valuing others and considering oneself as less valuable. However, I hope a rise in wisdom and ego enhancement can elevate peoples undersating of their own values too.

    However, such so-called goofs can be considered as an irregularity and what they mainly intend as you already clarified is mere communication and these are instances where non-native speakers try to take the ownership of English.

  • fair

    Hi ,

    Interesting discussion,I like it.

    I agree somehow with Negins idea;moreover,you know ,there are a lot of people in our society with different levels of education as well as other societies but wont they communicate with others?At first glance,I myself get hurt by seeing these misspellings and grammatical mistakes/errors and I am sort of strict in an educational setting.George W. Bush even made some grammatical mistakes and the society always had something to make fun of.Black americans have a different grammmar for their variety,you know.Anyway ,you think they are not sending any message? Why dont we think they are communicating?


  • Vahid Parvaresh

    Thank you so much Saeed for your comment! I really liked the phrase so-called goofs because they are not really goofs. They fulfill a function above and beyond the linguistic/symbolic one.

  • Vahid Parvaresh

    Thank you fair! Of course they are passing on a message! What is argued here is that sometimes communication is achieved semiotically not symbolically/linguistically.

  • Sheyla Gallegos

    This is a very interesting discussion. Currently I am preparing a presentation about non-standards varieties of English such as: Black American English, Jamaican Patois and Maori English. Unlike your anecdote my recent experience has been to make people aware that these non-standards varieties are logic, work for the purpose that they are used and express the world view of different ethnic groups.
    Thank you for your humbleness to recognize your previous point of view and for spreading the message to respect diversity.

  • fair

    The reasons behind why English could be explored if we are going to discuss them but I still think it is not completely semiotical.If we see language as a kind of semiotic system in general,can we again ask why English?I think it is linguistical while semiotical due to being language.Be happy to have the replies.

  • farid

    ِDear Vahid
    thanks for this intresting post. I have some similar experiences like facing words such as hamberger or hoddog in fast food’s advertisments . In fact it is not limited to english, sometimes you may see some expressions in persian. And I should say I agree with my friends writings above.
    It is really impressive. thanks

  • Vahid Parvaresh

    Thank you Farid!

    Such Persian expressions are usually transliterated forms of English expressions. Prof. Piller has an insightful post on the issue, which can be found here:

    The post has also been translated into Farsi:


  • Jean Cho

    Thanks for sharing such a good story. I really admire the bus driver for standing up for his beliefs in Englishness. Coming from a country (Korea) where only two standard Englishes (American and British) are upheld across society, I just find his self-confidence remarkable – what a sharp contrast to self-deprecation that deeply affects many English-learners in Korea!

  • Golnaz

    Dear Dr Parvaresh ,

    I truely enjoyed reading this blog post .This is true not only in Iran which its eng is Foreign lg ,but also in all other countries that they are in the same situation for this Lg .Yes ,Eng is this ubiquitous lg every where but not always used as a Second Lg to be able to adopt its real features to be used in our normal life . Here is also another point to mention ; Which is : the level of education ,their social class , or ocupation are all the parts which truely affect the type of eng which a driver is using or a normal person is society .

    Many thanks .


  • anonymous

    thank you,
    the farsi statements we use is not sometimes grammatically correct let alone the eng ones!:)

  • omid

    Interesting and insightful! Many thanks for such posts…

  • ELI

    Languageonthemove has really given me food for thought! thanks…

  • Pedram

    A very interesting post.thank you, mr writer.

  • neda

    dear MR parvaresh
    thank you so much . that was so nice email and at the same time it made me so worried about the future of English learning in Iran, but as you said , it may be a new kind of language learning .any way every has his own special way of picking English!by the way as you see in linguistic world nothing is odd! you have to expect new patterns, even unbearable ones!
    . it may become normal in near future. who can predict the future!!!!!
    I just hope that our people try to learn in more stylistic and standard manner!
    may God help us in the pathway of English learning ,may God take pity on those who are going on wrong way

  • امیر

    خیلی خوبه که نسبت به” پدیده های درجریان” اطرافمان حساس هستید و آنها را به چالش میکشید.
    فکر می کنم در اینجا مبحث ارتباط بین فرهنگی مطرح می شود واینکه تعدادی از افراد جامعه گمان میکنند استفاد از زبان انگلیسی وجهه اجتماعی بالاتری دارد(در نظر سنجی که از دانشجویان کارشناسی ارشد زبان انگلیسی دانشگاه اصفهان در اردیبهشت90 انجام شد نود درصد آنها به کار بردن عبارات انگلیسی را دارای وجهه نمیدانستند). شاید هدف این افراد که برای مخاطبین فارسی زبان از عبارات انگلیسی استفاده میکنند برقراری ارتباط زبانی نیست بلکه ممکن است اظهار فخر کنند که مثلا انگلیسی بلدند! یا انتقال این پیام باشد که اتوبوس من یا مغازه من یا… باکلاس می باشد!!! پس صرفا یک نشانه زبانی نیست.
    و دلیل عصبانیت راننده هم علاوه بر اینکه به نحوه بیان انتقادی که به وی شده بستگی دارد.شاید بخاطر این نیز بوده که قصد وی از نوشتن انگلیسی کلاس گذاشتن بوده در حالیکه اشتباه جابجایی حروف ممکن است وی را به مقصود نرساند…!
    اما به هر حال جای این سوال باقی است که اگر هدف برقراری ارتباط و انتقال پیام زبانی باشد ومخاطب و نویسنده هر دو فارسی زبان باشند و طبیعتا فارسی را نسبت به انگلیسی بهتر و سریعتر پردازش می کنند.چرا آخه چرا از انگلیسی استفاده می کنند؟؟؟!!! بعضی ها هم بدتر از آن فارسی عزیزمان را به خط انگلیسی می نویسند..!!
    گویا جمله “فارسی را پاس بداریم” و انگلیسی را زاپاس بداریم هرگز نشنیده اند…!!!
    و با اتهام شما تجویز گرید ! کارشان توجیه شاید شود ..!!
    اگر شما توجیه منطقی و عقلانی و یا زبانی ویا… برای این پدیده که ظاهرا مد شده یافتید ممنون میشم مطرحش کنید.
    سپاس از اینکه این نظر رو خوندید.

  • Iam really impressed to see how many People are Interested in English, while i really want to learn Arabic, preferably in Iran, someone please help.
    Thanks, Roy Matlapeng,Gaborone,Botswana.

  • Good luck! I’m intrigued by your choice. Why would you want to learn Arabic in Iran rather than in an Arab country?

  • Mehran Memari

    Dear All
    Nice discussion; In addition to cultural and sociolinguistic points of views, it seems that inter and intralinguistic elements should also be under the consideration. Cause we have the 2 words “well” and “come”, and these words are so familiar and also more common among the society, and also the Persian structure, these things may happen, I think.
    Assistant Professor
    Farhangian University