Two Tongues One Classroom

In Persian class, I began to read out a sentence. I was a few words in when I was stopped and corrected.

As I listened to the correction, I wondered where I had made the error. Was it in my pronunciation? My reading skills?

No, it was in my dialect. ‘That’s what they say in Afghanistan,’ I was told before the sentence was repeated as it would be in Iran.

When I first enrolled in my Persian major – inspired in part by a half-forgotten history with the language – it had never crossed my mind that ‘what they say in Afghanistan’ could be a hindrance to my learning or participation in class. After all, my understanding had been that Persian, a language shared across the borders of several countries including Iran and Afghanistan, would naturally exist as a set of dialects – as do many other languages.

My experiences didn’t translate to this same understanding in class. Realising this led me to the broader question of whether there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to speak a particular language or to teach it.

Dari is the dialect of Persian spoken in Afghanistan, while Farsi is the name of its Iranian variant – known in English as Afghan Persian and Iranian Persian respectively. While discrepancies in vocabulary and pronunciation are present, there are no technical changes to syntax or grammatical structure. Dari and Farsi, similarly to cases in other languages around the world, exist as different registers of the same language.

Despite the similarities, their differences have been perpetuated over time through the politicisation of language – a phenomenon common across many historical and social contexts. Take for example Hindi and Urdu, two grammatically identical languages that became factors inextricable to the religious animosity that eventually culminated in the partition of India and Pakistan. Though existing within a considerably calmer political climate, the relationship between Dari and Farsi has attached to it similar notions of national identity – their distinction is a means of asserting Afghanistan’s distinction from Iran, particularly from the 1960s onwards.

But this is a concept that extends well beyond Dari, or Hindi. They are simple examples showcasing how language often evolves into an issue of national pride or a means of pushing particular political agendas within their respective societies. The resulting drive for linguistic purism contributes to the polarisation of communities. In the process, dialect differences become imbued with class and prejudice, which are subsequently ingrained in the way language is spoken and observed in affected communities. Essentially, the distinctions between otherwise mutually intelligible dialects often speak more about the politics of class than of pronunciation and grammar, and this, in turn raises significant questions regarding the way in which language is taught.

Most notably, should all dialects of a language be taught? It’s often argued that this is impractical, so we turn to teaching a standard and most official, though not necessarily more ‘correct’ form of the language – as is the case with ‘Modern Standard Arabic’ (MSA). Bypassing this impracticality in the classroom intends to offer one ‘standardised’ language, but this opens up a whole host of questions of its own. Who determines the methods of standardising language? To what extent can we shut out natural dialect variations in teaching such ‘standardised’ variants? After all, in practice, there is no truly normative way in which language is spoken. Dialects exist naturally by the diversity of human populations – they are intricately shaped by the geography, politics, history and social class of their speakers. Such variations in speech are best understood as residing on a continuum – the range of differences between dialects can be extensive, mirroring regionalisms and borrowings from other language families. Thus, it is important for language teachers to be aware of the diversity of dialects, and to be conscious of their own prejudices in pushing a ‘standard’ or ‘correct’ way of speaking it.

Some answers to these questions lie in addressing how, as was my experience, linguistically embedded prejudices are perpetuated when appreciation for dialect is overlooked in the push for standardisation. We should seek a better understanding of how this behaviour results in poor exposure to, and even erasure of the diverse cultures and narratives attached to such communities. And most importantly, we should accept that the way language is currently taught can be insensitive to historical legacies of power imbalances. It has the power to the othering of communities based on how they speak, often in relation to dialects of a shared language.

While there may be no single clear solution to these issues, discussing them encourages us, in turn, to acknowledge that the first step we should collectively take is to rethink how we teach languages. Or rather, how we regulate its teaching. This first step, I hope, will lead us in the direction of a more inclusive teaching environment in the future. One in which learning a language means engaging with it in all its diversity and complexity, and teaching it means to celebrate this.