Less Commonly Taught Languages

In public K-12 schools in the United States, the top four most commonly taught languages are Spanish (72%), French (14%), German (4.5%), and Latin (2.3%). All other languages make up less than 1 percentage point. In U.S. universities, the situation is a little better, with Spanish accounting for about 50% of enrollment rates, French at 13%, American Sign Language at 7%, German at 5.5%, Italian at 4.6%, Japanese at 4.3%, Chinese at 3.9%, Arabic at 2.1%, Latin at 1.7% and Russian at 1.4% (source). All other languages account for less than 1 percentage point.

language map

(Check out the rest of this Slate article for more interesting map graphics.) 

As I have said before, I think it’s incredibly valuable when ‘native’ English and other romance language speakers study languages that are radically difficult from their own, either phonologically, orthographically, syntactically, or all of the above! I believe this not only increases our linguistic understanding, but broadens our ways of thinking and interacting with other people. The U.S. Department of Education apparently agrees with me, as they have introduced major funding packages to incentivize students in higher education programs to study less commonly taught languages. For those of you currently in an undergraduate or graduate program in the U.S., I highly recommend looking into this.popular meme

While I believe learning any language is a wonderful endeavour (I am not trying to suggest that choosing Spanish is a bad idea in any way!), it is true that not all languages are created equal. Even within the realm of Middle Eastern languages, there seems to be a major popularity divide between Arabic and other languages of the region. While in 2013, there were 33,520 post-secondary students enrolled in Arabic courses in the U.S., a mere 2,696 students were studying Persian (source). This is surprising given that both Arabic and Farsi are considered Super Critical Needs Languages by the U.S. Department of State (aka, jobs!), and Farsi takes significantly less time to learn than Arabic. It seems to me that Farsi is in need of a better PR representative, as it is a beautiful and useful language that is much less commonly taught than both Arabic and other more trendy or popular languages in the United States.



On Facebook

Facebook and Twitter have officially been blocked in Iran since 2009, though the large majority of young Iranians access these sites using VPNs and other illegal circumvention tools. Despite the “official” illegality of these social networking sites, many high-level officials use Twitter and Facebook to connect with Iran’s citizens, including  President Hasan Rouhani. Rouhani has two Twitter accounts, one English and one Farsi, that he uses to tweet about foreign and domestic affairs. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif uses Facebook to post daily updates and connect with Iranians.

iran facebook

For a school project, I recently interviewed my young Persian professor about her own stance on Facebook. While she admitted to not liking Facebook personally, I thought it was interesting that she is using the platform with our class as a medium for language learning. Over Spring Break, the professor sent our class a short Facebook message saying:

Screen Shot 2016-03-08 at 11.56.19

“Today is Sunday. Today I watched a movie and read a book. How about you?” We then were expected to respond with a short greeting and statement about ourselves.


While this felt like more fun and authentic homework than simply writing responses on a piece of paper and bringing them to class next week, it proved surprisingly difficult. For one, the font size as portrayed above was the actual size as it appeared on Facebook. As someone who just learned to read Persian script, it was nearly impossible for me to decipher that message, thus I decided to paste into a Word document and increase the font size. I also wrote my own response message in Word, however upon pasting it back into Facebook, my word order became jumbled. Both Word and Facebook had issues alternating between typing right-to-left and left-to-right, and they seemed to alternate randomly when working between the two.

Despite these difficulties, I’m now considering creating a Facebook group for my own adult ESL class. I mentioned in my last post that I personally feel that it is difficult to make progress in learning a language when a class only meet a few hours a week; I have heard similar complaints from my own English students.

I like my professor’s idea of creating a space in which learning can continue to occur beyond these few hours, however I am unsure of which platform to use (maybe Facebook as well?) and what exactly to do on and with the platform. I don’t think a single message thread is the best use of Facebook, and I’m wondering if creating a private group where I can post links and articles related to things we talk about in class might be better. I’ll report back about my progress with Persian on Facebook and if and when I decide to use Facebook with my ELLs.




الفبا (The Alphabet)

I have been taking my Persian class for almost two months now, and I have finally learned to do one important thing — read and write!

(upper left: a simplified version of the alphabet; all other photos: screenshots from my computer and our teacher’s Persian Facebook message thread — the 3 short messages written on 12:33 pm took me almost an hour to write!) 

I originally intended to update this blog every couple weeks with the exciting new things I have been learning. However, because my class only meets for a few hours a week, in the two months we have been learning, we have almost exclusively focused on the Persian alphabet. Only now that everyone in the class can read and write decently have we been able to move on to other things, though most of us still struggle to read fluently.

My only other experience learning a non-Roman alphabet language was Korean Hangul, a brilliantly simple writing system designed by a team of 15th-century Korean linguists to bring literacy to the common man (before Hangul, Korean was written in Chinese characters, meaning only privileged, mostly male aristocrats could read and write). Thanks to Hangul’s orthographic simplicity, one could learn the entire alphabet in a matter of mere hours or days depending on motivation. I personally learned the alphabet the day before I flew to Korea for an English teaching job, a not uncommon story amongst expats there.

hangul chart

While Korean is a more difficult language than Persian for native romance language-speakers to learn, I was surprised to find Persian’s writing system to be relatively complex. Persian letters do not have a one-to-one phoneme-to-letter ratio. In fact, the /z/ sound has four different orthographic representations in written Persian. Of course, I’m aware that English is the worst for inconsistency and difficulty in spelling, and I ultimately think that these past two months have been an important exercise in appreciating how tough it can be to master a complex and incredibly different writing system from the one(s) you grew up with. I have many fellow ESL/EFL instructor friends who, like me, speak only French and/or Spanish as their second language, and I think we’d all do well to study more non-Romance, non-Roman alphabet languages in order to better understand and empathize with our students from radically different language backgrounds.

Plus, you get to order cute keyboard stickers for your laptop. Who doesn’t want that? 😉


First Post

Welcome to the blog!

My name is نرگس (Narges), and I will be using this blog to document my (mis)adventures in learning the Persian language. I’m also a linguist, ESL teacher, and foreign affairs enthusiast, so I’ll probably pepper in some general musings about language learning and teaching, as well as some thoughts on U.S. foreign policy.


Why “My Name is نرگس”?

Spoiler alert: نرگس/Narges isn’t my real name, but rather the ‘Persian name’ given to me by my professor on my first day of class. Narges means ‘daffodil’ or ‘Narcissus flower’ in Farsi — it comes from the Greek myth about Narkissos, a beautiful youth who stared at his own reflection for so long that he eventually died and was turned into the narcissus flower. Not sure what this says about my professor’s opinion of me… hmm… 😉


Why Persian?

Persian is know as Farsi in Iran, Dari in Afghanistan, and Tajik in Tajikistan. These countries were all once a part of the Persian Empire, however they have since developed their own dialects. I am currently studying the Farsi dialect of Persian spoken in Iran.

Persian is a beautiful and poetic language, and I was initially drawn to it for purely aesthetic reasons. Beyond the beauty, Persian is also considered a Super Critical Needs Language by the U.S. Department of State, meaning there is a large demand for speakers and a small supply. Given the recent nuclear deal with Iran, I anticipate the need for Farsi speakers will only continue to grow.

Unlike other critical languages such as Mandarin, Arabic, and Korean, Persian is a “medium” difficulty language for English speakers. Persian grammar is actually pretty simple, and it shares quite a few cognates with English and other Indo-European languages. The difficulty lies in the right-to-left Perso-Arabic script and the fact that about 40% of Persian vocabulary derives from Arabic, a language with which most of us are unfamiliar. (*Side note: Tajik is actually written with the Cyrillic alphabet, not Arabic.)

I’ll leave you with this infographic from the Foreign Service Institute in case you’re curious where other languages fall on the scale of difficulty. Khoda hafez/goodbye!