“All language is a longing for home.” When Rumi (Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, 1207–1273), a well-known Persian poet, wrote this in the 13th century, one could not have assumed it would also embody the experience many heritage-language learners might share during the 21st century. Global migration either voluntarily or involuntarily due to political, educational, environmental, or a variety of other reasons has become the trademark of the current era. According to the World Migration Report 2020 by the United Nations’ International Organization for Migration, the estimated number of migrants in the world is 272 million or 3.5% of the global population. Depending on the country of origin, many nationalities find themselves leaving their homelands in hopes of creating new lives for themselves and/or their families in other countries around the world.
Iranians began immigrating en masse to foreign countries after the 1979 revolution for political, religious, or cultural reasons. Two other waves of immigration crashed to the surface of the international landscape in 1980–1988 and 2009 due to the Iran–Iraq war and election results.
Prior to 1979, many Iranian students who studied in universities abroad returned to serve their country (Bozorgmehr, 1998). However, because of political and cultural tensions, many considered remaining in their host countries permanently, a phenomenon now referred to as the “brain drain” from Iran (Bozorgmehr, 2014). A significant number of Iranian immigrants found a second home in the U.S. The decision to develop their roots in another country meant that the following generations of these settlers would be born and raised in a foreign land and culture, thus generating newly discovered issues such as the existence of a language gap between parents and children.
Los Angeles, also known in the Persian community as Tehrangeles or Little Persia, became a favorite destination among Iranian Americans on account of its similarities in terms of climate and city structure to the capital city of Iran, Tehran. Iranian-owned businesses began to thrive in the Los Angeles area and Farsi bookstores were established to enable Iranian Americans to read in Farsi.
Unfortunately, over the years some of these bookstores have closed or relocated because of the decrease in demand for books in Farsi. In an interview, the owner of the first Farsi bookstore in the U.S. explained, “the new generation does not speak Farsi, does not read Farsi” (Los Angeles Times, 2017). However, a closer look behind the scenes of heritage-language learning and teaching in Farsi suggests other reasons might come into play for the new generations who neither speak nor read in Farsi. For the purpose of this study, four Farsi bookstores in Los Angeles were identified, and the owners were contacted and interviewed about their experiences with Farsi language learners. The data revealed three main categories which will be discussed in the following sections.
Lack of Accessibility
Gharibi and Seals (2019) in their study on heritage-language literacy acquisition and maintenance among Iranians in New Zealand found that one of the main challenges was the lack of appropriate teaching materials and books. Despite the number of Iranian immigrants, authentic Iranian resources are scarce outside of the country.
Those who can return try to bring some books on each visit, but they cannot carry enough to sustain the needs of heritage-language learners. Despite Los Angeles being the city with the largest population of Iranians living abroad, all of the bookstore owners mentioned that the number of their customers had been decreasing substantially throughout the years, which has in turn significantly lowered the number of books they have in stock.
A closer look reveals that there might be other reasons why the decrease in resources has occurred when it comes to language learners. Some of these reasons include the comprehensibility of the books as well as not having enough compelling options for language learners to choose from.
Lack of Comprehensible Materials
When asked about the number-one sellers and suggestions for Farsi language learners, all of the bookstore owners brought up two main books: Iran’s first-grade textbook originally used about 40 years ago and Learning Farsi, a compilation of some of the main exercises and pages of the first-grade book.
Two key points are important to note in this regard: (1) first-grade books are designed for native speakers of a language who are beginning to acquire literacy in a language they can already speak and understand, and (2) many Farsi learners are not children or around the age of first graders when they start using these books. According to Krashen (2003, 2004) language learners acquire language by understanding messages. Therefore, if users of first-grade books cannot comprehend the language, they cannot acquire language from them and move forward to the next levels. This may also explain why the buyers of Farsi language-learning books rarely return to buy the next books in the series, which corresponds with studies done by McQuillan (2008) as well as Krashen and Ashtari (forthcoming). Few libraries around the world have options for Farsi learners/speakers, and those that do have a very limited variety of books. Gharibi and Seals (2019) also confirmed this in their research on libraries in New Zealand and Australia. For this study, the databases of 72 branches of the Los Angeles Public Library system were searched and analyzed. All the branches combined had a total of approximately 300 books in Farsi, the majority of which were either dictionaries or self-study books. Only twelve Farsi books were checked out at the time, which shows how compelling (or uncompelling) they were for language learners.
Lack of Compelling Options
“We don’t really have any simplified books. We only have a few children’s books that even children don’t want to read, let alone adults,” were the words that were echoed by all four bookstore owners during the interviews. After examining the available materials, it was clear that many were not suitable for language learners. If books are not interesting to readers, they’re unlikely to want to read them. Mason and Krashen (2017, 2019) and Mason (2019) emphasize the importance of having an abundant quantity of comprehensible and compelling reading materials as a way of providing language acquirers with more effective and pleasant learning experiences. In addition, graded readers are hard to find for Farsi learners. Many of the books currently available in Persian bookstores are difficult to comprehend even for native speakers of the language.
The Road to Reach Rumi
“When they get older is when they usually come in. They go to graduate school at UCLA or another university in their 20s and 30s. They realize that they can’t speak their mother tongue; that’s when they start coming to get books or take Farsi classes. They realize that a piece of them is missing.”
This quote reflects a sentiment shared by all the subjects of this study about heritage-language learners who visit bookstores as customers. Even though it’s usually parents who initially purchase Farsi books for their young children, many of these children return to the bookstores as young adults looking for books because they realize that “a piece of them is missing.”
The failure to acquire a heritage language has traditionally been blamed on either the parents not providing enough instructional opportunities or the children not being interested in learning it. The results of this study, however, show that there are not enough comprehensible and compelling reading materials for Persian heritage-language learners to use. When these learners have more access to appropriate reading materials for learning Farsi, the road to reading and understanding the words of Rumi as well as many other writers and speakers in Persian will be paved for them. A smoother road will make these language learners’ journey of finding their missing pieces and responding to their longing for home easier and more enjoyable.
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Nooshan Ashtari is a professor and researcher in the fields of TESL/TEFL, education, linguistics, and literature. She currently teaches graduate courses at the University of Southern California and undergraduate courses in other universities and colleges in the U.S.