Persian is a hot subject on U.S. college campuses, with students registering for courses in the language in unprecedented numbers.
Surveys of colleges and universities by the Modern Language Association have shown large gains in registration for classes in Persian (also called Farsi): up 82 percent from fall 1998 to fall 2002, and up 82 percent again from fall 2002 to fall 2006. (Enrollment in all foreign language classes generally rose in those periods, but at a much slower pace: by 17 percent from 1998 to 2002 and by 12.9 percent from 2002 to 2006.) The next four-year survey is due out in 2011, and those in the profession say it's clear the number of students continues to rise substantially, spurred in part by a U.S. government effort, begun in 2006, to encourage the teaching of Persian as well as Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Swahili, Turkish and Urdu.
Pardis Minuchehr, a University of Pennsylvania faculty member and president of the American Association of Teachers of Persian, said students have a number of reasons for taking her courses in Persian, but one dominates: About half are "heritage speakers," who learned only a limited level of the language, or none, from parents or grandparents who were born in Iran. As young adults, they want to reclaim that part of their culture and communicate more easily with their extended families.
The heritage speakers have a wide range of proficiency in their grandmothers' mother tongue. Minuchehr said she has one class designed for heritage speakers, but some of them end up taking the class for the beginners from other cultures because they know so little Persian. Others can carry on simple conversations but can neither read nor write in Persian script, "so we had to start from scratch with them," she said.
Persian is still a long way from being a prominent subject at most U.S. universities: It accounted for 0.13 percent of enrollment for fall 2006 language courses, with 2,037 students. Spanish, which has topped the list for decades, accounted for 52.2 percent, or about 400 times as much. Arabic had more than 10 times as much enrollment as Persian.
"Persian is a lot easier to learn than Arabic, for instance. But then there are a lot of people who learn Arabic because of all the business possibilities," Minuchehr said. "We hope that someday there will be a free market [in Iran], too, and with the free market there will be a lot more interest, but we don't know when. We've been hoping for that for the last 30 years."
Students who aren't Iranian American have a number of reasons for learning the language. A few think it might give them a better chance for a career in government or diplomacy, though Minuchehr said Persian gives them no guarantee of a job. Some are satisfying a requirement of their major in Near Eastern language and civilization.
"We also have some students who are interested in learning Persian because of their research fields," she said. "So they're interested in studying Arabic and Islamic studies, or anthropology or archaeology, and there are some active digs in Iran — for instance, they want to be part of that dig — and they study Persian to facilitate their going there to participate."
Minuchehr said some students who have taken her course in modern Iranian cinema then become interested in learning the language as well.
For two weeks in July, though, Minuchehr's classroom was filled with other teachers of Persian who came from across the country to improve their instructional skills. STARTALK, a component of the U.S. government's program on teaching critical languages, funds summer classes at a number of universities to improve and expand the teaching of Persian and other languages that the government considers critical.
Not everyone who studies Persian enrolls in a university course to do so. Fruzan Seifi has been teaching Persian privately for 10 years, first in New York and now in Los Angeles, while also pursuing a career as an actress and teaching acting. Most of her students have an important reason for learning the language: love.
"They're either getting married or they have a girlfriend or boyfriend who is Persian," she said. "Most of my students, they say, 'Just teach us the spoken language' because they want to talk to the in-laws, to the grandparents who don't speak English" or tend to talk Persian at family gatherings. The non-Persian speakers are tired of feeling left out.
A few of Seifi's students have business in Iran: "I have a journalist who is writing a book about the life of women over there, so she goes to travel there a lot and she needs to know the language," Seifi said.
And some are learning for the fun and the challenge, "just pure interest in learning a different language that's different from English or Italian or French or Latin," she said. "They just want to learn a language that has completely different origins."
Minuchehr and Seifi said the basics of Persian are relatively easy for an American to grasp; Minuchehr, who lived in Germany before moving to the United States, said German is far more challenging at the basic level. But Persian speakers use idiomatic expressions and references to proverbs and poetry that nonnative speakers struggle to learn. "Literal translation most of the time doesn't help," Seifi said. "It's the meaning that's different."
Seifi teaches Italian as well, and she said, "For teaching Farsi, I charge more because I have to use a lot more energy than teaching Italian."
Nonetheless, she said, "when my students want to learn Farsi, I say, 'Oh, it's easy, I'll teach you.'"