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A Common Language Is Common Ground
by Ms. Firoozeh Dumas (IPA2: Firuze Dumas)
[you may visit the author's Web site as well: www.firoozehdumas.com]
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
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 'declaw'ing 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.
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