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A Common Language Is Common Ground

June 26, 2004|Firoozeh Dumas

When we moved to the United States in 1972 from Iran, my parents decided that in our home we would speak only Persian, no English. My parents are not intellectual types; they reached this decision out of practicality. They wanted to keep their lives simple, and a child in their midst who spoke only English seemed just too complicated.

Now, I am eternally grateful for their decision. I cannot imagine myself without my native language. As an author who writes in English, I have had the opportunity to speak on Persian-language radio stations that broadcast in Iran and Afghanistan; I have been on live Middle Eastern satellite TV and taken calls from Persian speakers around the world.

Best of all, I have been able to share my ideas with people who have listened to me only because I speak their language. I told listeners in Iran that I wanted Americans to know that we Iranians are not just hostage-takers; that the United States of America is not just the people they see on the evening news. After every broadcast, I have received e-mails from listeners in Iran responding positively to my native words.

Immigrants to this country must learn English, period. Most children who attend school here do learn English, regardless of the language spoken at home. But if we as a nation were thinking long term, we would also encourage the retention of native languages. Not only would this result in an overall smarter population, it would benefit the nation in more substantial ways.

There is a lot of talk about bringing democracy to the Middle East. Democracy will never be fostered by military action; it is a process of evolution. The most qualified harbingers are those who have experienced firsthand the freedom and justice in this country and who want to help spread it to their native lands.

Almost every Middle Easterner I have met in this country desires to help his country of origin in some way. This is even true for children of Middle Eastern parents who have never set foot in their parents' homeland. Any one of these kids could be the next leader, the next ambassador. What a difference it would make if the next top-level U.S. government official to visit the Middle East could speak fluent Arabic. Wouldn't that do wonders for blurring the line between insider and outsider, enemy and friend?

Throughout my travels in the U.S. this past year, I have met many Iranians, young and old. Sadly, a majority of Iranian children do not speak Persian. Many would consider this the ultimate sign of assimilation, but I see it as a tragedy. The Iranian American youth raised in this country represent hope for Iran, but not if they don't speak Persian. No matter how Iranian they might look, if they don't speak the language, they are farangi, foreigners.

We should do all we can to change this trend of losing one's native language. Let's add Persian and Arabic to language programs in schools now, at least in Los Angeles, where it would be easy to find qualified teachers and interested students. Let's move beyond the idea that only Americans interested in intelligence work need to learn Middle Eastern languages.

Perhaps there are those who find comfort in Middle Easterners forgetting their native language, somewhat akin to declawing a cat. But that sort of thinking has no place in our global and tumultuous society. We need Americans who can speak Persian or Arabic. American pillars of freedom and justice, delivered in those languages, can help transform Middle Eastern societies into what military might alone will never achieve.


Firoozeh Dumas is the author of "Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America" (Random House, 2003).

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