Iran’s Khamenei blames Early English Learning for Unrest, Bans Classes

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

Iran’s government has apparently discovered the real reason for the protests that swept its small towns and working class neighborhoods during the past couple of weeks. English was being taught to third graders in some schools.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the clerical Leader of the country, has decreed that studying English will have to wait until high school, so that children are not indoctrinated at an early age into Western decadence.

Update: Since some quarters have tried to cast doubts on this story, here is a report off the tv interview that sparked it, carried not by a Western but an Arab newspaper:

“A prominent official in the educational sector said that Iran has forbidden the teaching of the English language in primary schools, after the Leader of the Revolution, Ali Khameneis, siad that teaching it at an early age “opens the way to Western cultural assault. Mehdi Navid Adham, the head of the High Education Council that directed by the government said to the official television channel on Saturday evening, ‘The teaching of English in Government and non-government schools in the framework of the official curriculum contravenes the law and regulations.’ He continued in the interview, ‘Unfortunately, we see some primary schools organizing special classes to teach English for sums of money, and that is forbidden.’ He said that the policy of the Ministry of Education is to strengthen Persian language and Iranian and Islamic culture in the students, and that teaching foreign languages in primary school is prohibited, though it can be done in the first year of middle school.”

The article makes it clear that, as in China, there is a growing tendency for families to pay for early English teaching and some schools have been trying to meet this need, and the regime is now pushing back. While the officials do not say that the tightening of the prohibition came as a result of the protests, in the context of Iran as of last Saturday, it is a reasonable hypothesis. [end update]

The sheer stupidity of this way of thinking is hard to overstate. First of all, languages are best learned when one is a child. A lot of American schools, too, don’t start foreign languages until 7th grade, when children are 12 or 13. All the research indicates that the capacity for the brain to learn a new syntax (word order) begins closing off at age 15 if it isn’t developed. Children can be fluent in several foreign languages if they are started young.

As a result, only about a quarter of Americans can have a simple conversation in a language other than English. That is crazy and it will come back to bite us on the posterior as the global South rises economically. Maybe it will help change his mind if we point out that Khamenei wants to make Iranians more like the Americans, more insular.

Second, language does not dictate politics. English isn’t a liberal language. You could raise Khomeinist fanatics in English as well as in Persian. The good Lord knows that there are a significant number of hidebound people in the English-speaking world and simple language ability does not seem to rescue them from their bigotry or mental cramp. This is even true at the highest levels of the US government.

Knowing several languages is a window on the world and on humanity. Being able to read Adrienne Rich in English, or Balzac in French, or Thomas Mann in German or or Pablo Neruda in Spanish or Nawal Saadawi in Arabic or Forough-e Farrokhzad in Persian or Tagore in Bengali is intrinsically enriching of the human soul, regardless of to which religion or ethnicity you might belong. While it is also enriching to read them in translation, anyone who knows languages can attest that there is an extra nuance, a fineness of texture, that is only achieved in the original. Starting a language as a child is the way to gain that extra dimension.

But for those philistines or religious zealots who are unpersuaded by an argument from the expansion of the soul, there is also an economic argument. English is now the primary language of world commerce. If Iran really can reintegrate with the world economy after the end of international sanctions that came with signing the JCPOA nuclear deal, it will need large numbers of people who can deal with the outside world. Whether they do a deal with Sweden or the Netherlands or Germany or Poland, they will almost certainly be doing it in English. The same is true of India and Pakistan and most of Africa. So weakening the country’s cadre of fluent English speakers is cutting off the nose to spite the face.

Exhibit A is China, a country the Iranian Ayatollahs often admire for its postcolonial defiance of the Western capitalist world system. Some 300 million Chinese are studying English. About half of Chinese who learn English begin the language between ages 3 and 6, and their parents push them to do this so that they can get into the best schools and have economic opportunities. The polling shows that the parents really believe in Chinese culture and language. But they are pragmatic in also having their children pursue English.

China is probably already the world’s largest economy, and has grown 9 and 10 percent a year since Deng Xiaoping took China out of the fundamentalist Cultural Revolution (of the sort in which Iran is still stuck) in the direction of incentive socialism in the early 1980s. It has only recently leveled off a bit but is still growing faster than most.

Iran’s rule by clerics began around the same time as Deng was rerouting the Chinese political economy, and its economic record has been distinctly undistinguished, to the point where Iran’s small town workers and middle classes have finally taken to the streets.

Maybe if the Iranian government cared more about Iranians’ well-being than about indoctrinating them in narrow-minded dogma, they could replicate Chinese success. As it is, they are simply urging ignorance and economic backwardness.

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Related video:

Newsy: “Iran bans primary schools from teaching English”

Posted in Featured,Iran | 20 Responses | Print |

20 Responses

  1. This is quite an interesting ruling. I would have said, “The obviously better solution is to outlaw the teaching of English period and mandate the teaching of Arabic instead.”

  2. Professor Cole,

    China still has ways to go- perhaps till 2040 to catch up with US GDP. If we count per Capita GDP, then it probably has to wait 100 years.

  3. I was on a guided tour of Thomas Mann’s home town of Lubeck a few years ago. Our German guide told us that, much as he admired Mann’s work, his German was so dense and complex that he preferred to read the novels in English translation. But, to your main point, I learned Spanish reasonably well when I lived there in my 20s, but would have learned much better had I studied the language at school.

  4. If Iran wants to rejoin the rest of the world, and want to improve their economy, these backward old men should realize that speaking and learning English, is crucial for their citizens, to liaise with the officials of other nations. This is very primitive thinking. Surely the moderates like Rouhani realizes it?

  5. It is very good news, because it will encourage more Iranians to study English. When I served as the dean of the Faculty of Languages in Isfahan, it was a government policy for all university students to study at least one foreign language in the first year, for an hour a day, in order to be able to have access to scientific and medical texts written in foreign languages. We offered English, Arabic, French, German and Russian. We had over 2,000 students for the English classes, about 30 for Arabic and French and less than 20 for the other two languages. After the revolution, the authorities encouraged the students to study Arabic instead of English, but it had little effect.

    Even in the European Parliament and European Commission meetings, where it is compulsory to interpret all the speeches to all the languages spoken in the EU, all speeches are interpreted first into English and then from English into other languages. In other words, all the interpreters need to know English plus their own language. Therefore, I think Ayatollah Khamenei’s decree will only encourage more people to study English. In my contacts with the students from Iran, I am impressed by the degree of their English proficiency.

  6. Secularist Bertrand Russell was asked if he had anything good to say about religion’s impact on history….”Well I guess they helped straighten out the calendar.”

    Will be interesting to see if Trump’s fulfillment of his promise to pull out of the treaty with Iran, possibly Friday, will have an anti American effect in Iran boosting the anti English speaking creds of the Ayatollah.

  7. I do have to note that many urban Iranian middle and upper-class parents send their children to private English tutors, so in a way, this ban might end up ineffectual to the people most affected by it.

  8. I argue that for non-English speaking countries the English language is an opening to the outside world, but for native speakers of English it is a barrier. The US population is largely ignorant about the outside world, which the Iranian government might be using as a model.

  9. Is there any independent confirmation of this from Iranian sources or do we just accept the BBC report?

    Iran’s view is not about language per se, but western cultural imperialism (think jalal ahleh ahmad’s book Gharbzadegi.

    Similar sentiments were prevalent in Europe in the 60s, 70s, and 90s. The Europeans even called it “coca colonization”. The French went so far as to ban American carbonated soft drinks, because wine is French culture and coke threatened it.
    In Italy, the paninaro, or American obsessed youth were constantly ridiculed on TV and their shallow consumerism was also condemned by much of Italy as Low class.

    Iranians want to preserve their culture, which is why the Government always urges Iranians to listen to Iranian music, eat Iranian cuisine, dress more Iranian etc….
    Their view is that a 3,000 year old culture as Iran’s does not need the French and British initially, and now the us to tell iranians what to eat, how to dress, what their noses should look like, what color their hair should be and so on.
    Even the farhangestan language academy is coming up with persian equivalents of foreign words to prevent contamination of the persian language

  10. This is a good reason why the US 30 year subversion campaign against the Iranian regime is immoral. It has consequences such as this. Propaganda has consequences.

    The existence of the subversion campaign is undeniable. It predictably results in strengthening hard liners as a defense mechanism and discredits “moderates”.

    But hey, it is not as immoral as war, which destroys infrastructure and kills large numbers of people, in addition to negatively disrupting the emotional health of children subjected to the horrors of war. See Libya and Syria. And it isn’t as immoral as blockades and sanctions the lead to malnurishment (stunting mental development of children), and block medical supplies, see Iraq in the 1990s or Yemen today.

    Think of it from the Iranian perspective. What do they think when they see the immoral genocide currently occurring in Yemen? Can you blame them for being paranoid? Wouldn’t you be?

  11. I agree that learning multiple languages is important. Studies show that learning multiple languages may reduce the risk of some forms of dementia. Therefore, not only are there economic and social benefits of learning multiple languages as you highlight, but there are likely also health benefits. It is a shame that Iran is moving learning English till high school, because you suggest learning a language becomes difficult as one ages.

    If a country is going to invest in a multi-lingual curricula, they need to ensure that one language doesn’t dominate the other in teaching time. In many countries, too often English ends up winning out in school, and that has a cost. As you mention, knowing a language opens up a whole new world. If people don’t use that window, they’ll forget. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the languages I’ve learned, but with fewer and fewer opportunities to practice them that window to a new world appears to get smaller and smaller with time.

  12. Your logic is correct but it is also irrelevant. Khamenei does not condemn learning English because he thinks that it is a bad thing but rather he does it because he is playing the populist game. It sounds good to a segment of the Iranian population. It is no different when Trump condemns immigrants. All populists need an enemy.

    That Khamenei is playing the populist card is the dangerous thing here. Populists want to fire up their base. They play to the mob. That is just as dangerous in Iran as it is here.

  13. This is obviously meant as a distraction, to get people talking about something else, anything else than the protests themselves.

    Kind of a good sign – it means they’re worried

  14. You disregard a factor called cultural imperialism. USA has Hollywood, and Internet to propagate its cultural hegemony. Not just France, but small countries around the world see the need to defend their traditions and culture. Internet is not neutral, it is commercial. It is full of bad and misleading stuff and born. Speaking English makes access to all of this possible. The young minds are not developed to discriminate between good and bad. They need some protection.

  15. Hossein Nazari

    Rao Nagisetty Yes, that’s true. Interesting thing is that his statements about teaching English go back to almost 2 years ago; it’s absurd that Juan is relating them to the protests now! Also, what he specifically objected to was the predominance of English; he even mentioned Spanish, French, and German as well as other Asian languages that could be taught.

    • I found your comment exceptionally interesting. Especially since he, I guess that means Khamenei, mentioned German.

  16. English continues to be taught in Iran at secondary level in public schools, as usual, and the decision to “ban” English in primary schools only applied to private schools that were offering English as a marketing ploy to attract more wealthy parents. This had nothing to do with “cultural invasions” and of course people are perfectly free to take private English language tutors too.

    A story that actually is about a rising middle class and their expectations, is spun as “backward Iran repressing its people”

    Don’t fall for the spin so easy.

  17. Professor Cole, do you have knowledge of the Iranian political process to explain to us how Khaminei would have the power to institute such a ban? Rouhani is In charge of the executive branch and of course the legislature makes the laws. Did the legislature proposal bill in this regard?

    Also unclear is the extent of the ban. Six years of English is required for all Iranian students. Does this ban apply only to private schools or are public schools also affected?

    • The ban was already law. It affects primary schools across the board. Khamenei is in control of enforcement. This was just tightening the screws. But, by the way, Khamenei as leader can issue directives that have the force of law.

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