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. Melale.ir 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.”