Farsi fluency sought, but classes must fill in for immersion method

By Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 26, 2010

Salvatore Sciandra-Myers, a graduate student in the Persian department at the University of Maryland, builds his vocabulary by reading Iranian news clips, watching Iranian films and debating Iranian politics with his classmates.

But when he studies abroad next year, the closest he will get to the Islamic republic is Tajikistan, a Central Asian country many miles away whose citizens use a different dialect and alphabet.

"Given the current political situation, we have to do the best we can," said the 24-year-old Buffalo native, who has been studying Persian, otherwise known as Farsi, intensively for three years.

After decades of political strife, and with debates over Iran's nuclear ambitions and human rights violations, fluency in Farsi is deemed a critical skill for a growing number of government jobs in intelligence and defense.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the study of Middle Eastern languages has increased, as have government investment and training. Between 2002 and 2006, the number of college students learning Farsi grew by more than 80 percent to about 2,000, according to the most recent survey by the Modern Language Association. The number of students learning Arabic during that time grew by 130 percent, to 22,000.

Schools have had to scramble to keep up. Fewer than a dozen universities grant degrees in Persian, said Pardis Minuchehr, a professor at the Middle East Center of the University of Pennsylvania and president of the American Association of Teachers of Persian. And most programs focus on Persian history and culture, producing scholars who can read ancient texts far more proficiently than news reports from Tehran.

With federal funding, U-Md. started an intensive graduate program in Farsi in 2006 to boost the number of fluent speakers who can work for the government or use the language in another field.

But icy relations with Iran pose challenges for such academic programs. Universities cannot buy journals or textbooks from Iran because of economic sanctions, and there are currently no exchange programs between the countries.

American students can travel to Iran on their own to study, although the State Department -- and many parents -- caution against it, citing that country's record of detaining Iranian American citizens and journalists. Students hoping to work for the U.S. government are discouraged from traveling to Iran at all, because it could put future security clearances at risk.

The earliest Russian-language programs created during the Cold War had similar restrictions. Students could not travel to the Soviet Union, so the U.S. government created intensive training programs in the United States. At least one university sent students to a Russian-speaking rural region in eastern Finland, said Dan Davidson, president of the American Councils for International Education, which operates many study-abroad centers for the government.

When relations eased in the early 1970s, language programs opened in Moscow and Leningrad (now St. Petersburg). The overseas training paid huge dividends in the speaking ability and cultural insights of students of Russian entering the workforce, Davidson said.

"There are limits on how much anything can grow in a hothouse. Sooner or later, the student has to break into the real world and the real culture," he said.

U-Md.'s Persian program is strengthened by the large community of Iranian Americans in the Washington area. Students meet with native speakers several times a week to practice their conversation skills. And a popular Iranian Student Association on campus hosts regular meetings and events. A recent celebration of Nowruz, the Persian new year, drew hundreds of students and community members to campus.

The program was expanded in 2008 to include undergraduate students, many of whom are weaving Farsi instruction into their studies of political science or journalism.

The U.S. government offers grants to those pursuing language skills important to national security, including full tuition fellowships for graduate students willing to work for the government for at least two years, particularly in the Defense, Homeland Security or State departments or any intelligence agency. Similar fellowships are available to students of Arabic, Korean and Mandarin.

Sciandra-Myers is one of four students in the Persian graduate program with such a fellowship, and he plans to apply for a government job. But first, he will spend a year in Tajikistan, where he will study with Iranian teachers during the day and mingle in the evening with Tajik-speaking locals in the markets and at home.

Eventually, he said, he would like to travel to Iran, a place that has captured his interest since childhood. He is often drawn to images of Esfahan, a former capital of the Persian Empire and a veritable museum of Islamic architecture. It has been called the most beautiful city in the world, he said.

"Someday, I want to see it," he said.

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