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When Tajik just doesn’t cut it

Written By: Jonathan Haddad on April 26, 2010 1 Comment

This article in the Washington Post raises an important dilemma facing a new generation of American spies:  How to speak Farsi like a native when University Persian studies programs are built around antiquated notions of academic scholarship:

Fewer than a dozen universities grant degrees in Persian, said Pardis Minuchehr, a professor at the Middle East Center of the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Association of Teachers of Persian. And most programs focus on Persian history and culture, producing scholars who can read ancient texts far more proficiently than news reports from Tehran.

I imagine that, short of U.S. Government-sponsored immersion programs, there are copious samples of Farsi in authentic contexts, not least of which is a thriving Iranian cinema (just the kind of thing this summer’s “Integrating Film Clips in Foreign Language Teaching” workshop is all about).  Still, when a “native setting” is desired, Tajikistan will have to suffice:

Sciandra-Myers is one of four students in the Persian graduate program with such a fellowship, and he plans to apply for a government job. But first, he will spend a year in Tajikistan, where he will study with Iranian teachers during the day and mingle in the evening with Tajik-speaking locals in the markets and at home.

Of course, the Post here is selling the myth of the native speaker — Mr. Sciandra-Myers appears to be settling for a close cousin of Tajik when he could be talking with real Iranians — as well as the belief that foreign language study has to justify itself by some means other than scholarship.  As an Arabic-language learner, I recognize this dilemma all too well.  Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America raised, in 2001, the same critique of Middle Eastern Studies that the Post seems to pick up on as a weakness in Persian studies programs:  too much poetry and nothing useful for Uncle Sam.  However, one would be hard pressed to find an Arabic curriculum today that doesn’t spend a disproportionate time on understanding Al-Jazeera.

However, learning Farsi in Tajikistan represents the dilemma of much of foreign language education today.  “Native speakers” are also — and sometimes only — speakers of dialects; old and new borders create artificial linguistic boundaries, all heavily coded with politics; and reading the classics is pitted against speaking with the locals.

Not Persian food, but is Tajik good enough?

Not Persian food, but is Tajik good enough?

I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to seeing some of these issues tackled in Friday’s BLC Fellows presentation entitled Cultivating Awareness: Register and Context in First-Year Arabic (3-5PM in B-4 Dwinelle Hall).

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One Response to “When Tajik just doesn’t cut it”

  1. Usree Bhattacharya on: 4 May 2010 at 8:38 pm

    Thanks for this post, interesting. It makes me think of this one piece that appeared in the WSJ recently: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703572504575213883276427528.html

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