Supermarket language learning

Constructing language learning as global choice on

In Iran, as in many other countries, the state has traditionally been a very powerful actor in the field of second language learning and has the monopoly of formal policy making. In this context, a general official policy formulated by the Ministry of Education has been to introduce English (and Arabic) to students no sooner than when they are 11 years old. However, this policy is currently under review as revealed in this short but illuminating interview with Iran’s Vice Minister for Education. According to the vice minister, the new policy allows state-run schools to offer foreign languages (not only English and Arabic but also French and German) in various “supermarket packages” so that students can “choose” whatever language they like more. Further to this, the new policy allows students to “choose the language they like” much earlier than when they are 11 or 12 years old. The fact that the Iranian Ministry of Education has finally decided to abandon its sacrosanct foreign language policy in favour of a more flexible policy is significant.

What could be the cause of this radical shift? Or to put it differently, what has happened that has finally convinced the Ministry of Education to modify its foreign language policies which had always been aimed at English and Arabic only? The interview does not reveal a definitive answer but a close look at language policies implemented by private, non-state-run schools provides a clue.

In Iran the traditional intolerance of the state of linguistic variation – the very fact that the teaching of foreign languages is geared toward English and Arabic – is not matched by the politics of language that operate in the globalized, private sector. Schools that belong to the private sector have long taught French, German and English as foreign languages, often aimed at children as young as 5. The outcome of this has been a competitive market not just of English but also of French and German which defies the state’s traditional intolerance of linguistic diversity. The private education sector thus creates new forms of linguistic commodification; a fact that raises quite complex issues related to the shifting balance between state and private language policies.

What is more, the Internet provides these private schools with a wide and virtually uncontrolled space for language learning packages. is one such website that belongs to a private school named melal (“nations”). The purported aim of the school is to encourage bilingualism through content learning and the target audiences are elementary and secondary students. Melal provides instruction in English and French, among others.

In this environment, highly flexible forms of language learning are offered to cater to diverse customer needs. For example, it is possible to learn French (in Iran!) according to the policies set by the European Union. Language learning packages thus come in all shapes and sizes as if you have entered a giant linguistic supermarket.

Overall, that the state has decided to modify its former foreign language policies seems to be a response to the changes in the ways that both students and parents are positioned in private sector discourses of language learning. There, they have been turned into language-learners-as-consumers. These consumers are offered supermarket packages of foreign languages, now not only in the private sector but also in public education. In the process, a traditional, deep-rooted foreign language policy becomes transformed in line with “globalized expectations.”


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
  • babak

    Many tnx. interesting. I will have my students read this post and report back. I really liked the conclusion.

  • mohammad bahrami

    so glad to be informed,
    needless to say that what is of utmost importance is to start SLA in the critical period,
    which is fortunately paid attention to in this new policy.

  • khan

    Very interesting post, thanks Vahid. As you know very well that many governments in the world and also the early strand of research in language-in-education policy (LIEP) construed policy as ‘text’ and ‘discourse’. And they seem to earn quick approval of community by changing policy text and by showing themselves as promoters of linguistic diversity/multilingual education policy. But the shift of LIEP to get engaged with practices has given a new conceptualization of LIEP i.e. it is now the actual practices (Spolsky 2007). This strand of research reveals that most of the public sector school language policies remain essentially rhetoric. My study also shows that the practices have such a great great mismatch with the purported claims of multilingual and multicultural Pakistan. For me the litmus test of such claims is to see which section of the population has an access to the type of schools. The nationalists elites of the country do not get their children educated in schools which they claim to have improved to the international level. I think Heller’s commodification perspective on languages is very relevant in fast changing globalised world.

    • vahid

      Dear Khan,
      Many thanks for your really constructive feedback on my post.

    • Thanks, Khan! The gap between rhetoric and practice is one thing, and you are quite right to point it out, but what I find really depressing about all this is that our collective linguistic imagination seems to have been reduced to the state and the market. The very idea that language is (also) about social and cultural life, about community and aesthetics seems to be disappearing fast from a collective imagination that sees everything in terms of state or market. That’s why I find Esperanto so fascinating – it’s a “real linguistic utopia” if you will (see for the “real utopias” project) as those who use it neither do so because it’s mandated by a state nor because it has much market value …

  • Elham

    Dear Professor,

    Nice to hear we’re finally getting somewhere at least in the field of language learning.

    • vahid

      Thank you for the feedback!
      It is a bit too early to make any value judgement, though.

  • Banafsheh

    Dear Dr.Parvaresh,

    Thanks so much for your nice post.
    You have a creative mind and pay attention to special points in you posts and lectures.
    thanks.I benefited from the share-out of your post.


  • Mohammadreza

    Many thnx for introducing these topics to us. Both the topic and the conclusion are thought-provoking.

  • Giving the its own people new ways to learn languages is one of the best investments that the Iranian government can make. As Warren Buffet once said, the best investment you can make is to invest in yourself. For all others who want to know the true benefits of language learning see

  • Ramin

    Dear Vahid, many thanks for sharing this post with us. The conclusion has given me food for thought.

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  • Azadeh

    Your post is a nice food for thought! However important thought i,s I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel in terms of action which is, indeed, more important. As far as colonization decides for countries, we will get nowhere!