Confessions of a Bilingual: Raw Perspective From A Persian-American Linguist

Joseph and his brother in Iran, two bilingual Iranian-americans
Joseph (right) and his brother Daniel (second from right) adventuring on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf (Spring, 2015).

If you’ve ever studied a foreign language, you know how much of a grind the process can be. Grammar rules, verb charts, and weird idioms aren’t in any one’s paradise. The rewards, however, are also substantial, and are proportionate to the level of self-application. In other words, you get out what you put in. I’m talking about cultural insight, human connections, increased job prospects, a more vivid imagination, and a more developed sense of identity. English may be the only language you need, but English is not the only language that can enrich your life.

I know a lot of bilingual people, but I thought who better than my Persian friend Joseph Tabassi to share his experience on the theme. Joseph is a senior in the Fisher College of Business at The Ohio State University majoring in finance with a minor in economics. Like many ethnic Americans, Joseph grew up speaking English as a first language, and was prompted by later life events to reconnect with his cultural heritage. What follows is the account of a 90-minute interview conducted via phone call. In it, Joseph recounts the life events that drove him to acquire fluency in Farsi, and the influence this second language has had, both on his personal evolution and outlook on the world. I hope you find his commentary and reflections as raw, insightful, and thought-provoking as I did.

Joseph looking all dapper in this professional frame sponsored by OSU.

Tell us a little bit about yourself. 

My Persian name is Yousef, but most people call me Joseph. I was born in San Francisco, California, where I spent the majority of my childhood. My father lived in Tehran and didn’t have an American passport, so my brother and I were raised primarily by my mother. I would talk to my dad on the phone from time to time to catch up, but we were busy in our separate spheres. Remember, the iPhone didn’t come out until the late 2000s, and so long-distance communication wasn’t what it is today.

My childhood wasn’t easy. The Iraq War was going on, and so there was a lot of prejudice toward Middle Eastern people. My mom, for her part, was chronically homesick, and never really integrated in American culture. There was this psychological polarity I had to deal with where the standards at home were very different from the expectations of society. I also didn’t know any other Iranians in the Bay Area. I had good friends growing up, but I never quite fit in with the mainstream. It wasn’t that I was poor or dysfunctional, but people could tell something was different about me due to my background.

I was proud of my Persian heritage. It gave me a sense of identity and connection. I attached myself to legendary figures like Cyrus and Darius the Great, but my knowledge of Iranian history and culture was at an elementary level.

A depiction of Cyrus the Great, the Founder of the Achaemenid Empire, the first Persian Empire.

Growing up, which language was more dominant? Did you tend to use one or the other in certain contexts? 

I actually didn’t grow up speaking Farsi. My mom spoke English well enough where we could communicate in the home. At age 12, however, everything changed. My parents made an executive decision that we would all go to Tehran—I, my mother, and my younger brother. It was time to learn the culture. It was time to be closer to family. At that juncture, my knowledge of Farsi was basic. I knew how to say hello, goodbye, and maybe count to 10. When I would speak with my dad on the phone, my mom had to translate. I didn’t know the alphabet, or even that there was a Persian alphabet different from English.  

My brother and I were homeschooled during our first year in Iran. My parents hired two elementary school teachers that instructed us from 8 AM to 10 PM. They taught us the fundamentals of Farsi, how to read and write, and got us up to speed on the Persian curriculum for grades 1 to 9. It was language and cultural immersion at its finest. In the second year, my brother and I integrated into the broader school system. It was a few years before I became fluent in Farsi and my communication skills really started taking off.

In 2017, after graduating high school in Iran, I decided to return to the US with my mom and brother to attend the Fisher School of Business at The Ohio State University. The idea was to get a quality education and begin working for a multinational firm.

What was hardest part of learning Farsi as a second language? 

There’s a lot you have to memorize. New grammar, new vocabulary, new sentence structure. Communication became a labor-intensive process. For the first time, I had to deliberate on how I wanted to express myself in the style of a new language. Luckily for me, the grammar of Farsi isn’t that different from English. There are no feminine and masculine, as there are in Spanish. I recall having an easier time with Farsi than I did with my Spanish classes in the US. I did need to learn the Farsi script, which is based on Arabic. Farsi is also a root-based language, and the vowels are often omitted in writing. This means that if you are not already familiar with a word, you cannot sound it out entirely, and so it can be a bit more challenging to acquire new vocabulary.

Farsi alphabet.
The Persian alphabet, a derivative of Arabic.

When I was in high school, three years of language study was required. As a liberal arts major at Georgetown, I had to obtain proficiency in at least one foreign language. OSU’s graduate program in Middle East Studies is notoriously language-intensive. Nonetheless, Americans have a reputation for lacking foreign language skills due to the global dominance of English. Do you think high schools and colleges should be doing more to promote bilingualism?

Let me start by saying that promotion of bilingualism is in the US national interest. Ideas come from a variety of sources. To grow as an economy, to provide better services, to bring better talent to the US, you need to understand the languages and cultures of the world. You wouldn’t read Shakespeare in Farsi for the same reason it is important to study source material in the original language. Standardized education is tough because you can’t just bring in anyone to teach any language. There needs to be a statistical and national interests-based argument for favoring one language over another. It may make more sense, for example, to prioritize languages like Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, and so on and so forth.

Joseph pictured at Jeffrey’s Mansion in Columbus, Ohio, with friends Collin (right), Ben (left) and Frankie (center).

There also needs to be an overhaul of curriculum. Curriculum should be robust and practical, and that is a challenge for languages besides Spanish that are not commonly spoken in the US. You want courses to go deep, but you also want them to have practical application. To get good at a language, you have to put in effort, both in and out of the classroom. Students will only take an interest when they see the practical application. Current curriculum is often grammar and literature-heavy and neglects conversational skills that are useful in basic social settings. I favor a more relational approach.  

Arabic and Spanish have enriched my travel, personality and relationships in countless ways. For example, I met one of my best friends who is Colombian while studying Spanish. What effect has Farsi had on your personal life?  

In terms of family, it changed everything. I could now communicate with my mom in her native language, and she could express herself more freely than ever before. She started asking me to run all kinds of errands for her. Call the bank. Get a car loan. Answer the phone. If she didn’t approve of something, she let me know in no uncertain terms. And so the blessing didn’t come without strings attached. Today my English is still better than my Farsi, but I can speak my mind with ease in both languages.

Cypress of Abarkuh, also called the Zoroastrian Sarv
The Cypress of Abarkuh, aka the Zoroastrian Sarv, a legendary, millennia-old tree located in Yazd Province, Iran.

I also felt like I acquired a more Persian identity. I like to think of myself as a person of the world, but I developed a better understanding of why Persians are where they are today. It’s in the poetry. It’s in the literature. It’s in the history. It’s in the interviews of the fathers of the nation. If you want to evolve as a person, you need to understand where you came from. It’s not something everyone needs, but it’s something everyone should want. And it’s a privilege that I now enjoy. While living in Tehran was a big deal, the value of the language cannot be overstated.  

In the US, people typically think of Spanish as the most business-friendly language due to workforce dynamics. A large number of Indeed and LinkedIn listings prefer or require Spanish language skills. Has proficiency in Farsi at all influenced your business prospects?

Not really because there’s no relationship between Iran and the US due to sanctions. There’s no corporate job in the US, for example, that requires fluency in Farsi. Farsi does, however, increase my prospects if I want to do business in Iran. Or if I want to do business with Persians in the US. And so, in terms of networking, it can be a plus. That increased capacity to connect is the rudimentary value of language in any business context. Business is all about trust, and you can’t foster trust without speaking the language.

Languages like Chinese, Farsi, and Arabic are spoken in developing countries with ancient histories. Their geography, objectives, and ideology are alien to the US, whereas Europe and South America share a common cultural heritage and basic founding principles. It follows that language and cultural education is even more important when dealing with these people.    

In the US, it’s a lot easier to maintain a language like Spanish due to its relative closeness to English and the prevalence of Hispanics and Latin media in the country. How do you keep your Farsi fresh? 

I currently live with my mom and brother, and the majority of our communication takes place in Farsi. This keeps my conversational skills fresh. Aside from family, the news. Instagram. Telegram. Telegram feed me articles to read on politics and culture. While these processes are helping me maintain, I’m actually not satisfied with my current language level. I want to be able to read the old literatures of Persia, to immerse myself more deeply in the history. There was one literary work, in particular, that I remember from high school, entitled Tarikh-i Bayhaqi. It was such a beautiful description of the history and political climate of Persia in the 10th century AD.

Shahnameh, the epic of the Persian Kings
Shahnameh, the national epic of Greater Iran, composed by the Persian poet Ferdowski.

What is your favorite Farsi word or expression? 

I like the word Iranshahr, which in English can be translated as land of the Aryans. Aryan means noble-born, so there’s this weird vagueness to it. Some people argue that it’s an ethnic marker. To my mind, that notion is mere 20th century propaganda. There are so many different ethnicities inside Persia. What it’s really about is the uniting of multi-ethnic tribes and kingdoms, which came together as one in a country called Iran. And so I think there is a lot of beauty in that word. It connects, in my opinion, what the history, what the language, what the culture is all about–brotherhood, equality, common goals, and peace.

Do you have any aspirations to pick up a third language? 

I’m debating between Arabic and Spanish. I like how Spanish sounds. I enjoy putting on the accent. But I like the practicality and history of the Arab world more. Learning Arabic would be a practical choice, but learning Spanish, I think, would be a more fun thing to do. I’m sure if I put the effort in, I could learn both.

That’s fascinating. A lot of Americans might consider Spanish a more practical choice.

I don’t envision myself making much use of Spanish on the job. However, I do intend to do business in the Middle East. The Middle East is the region I have specialization in. It’s the region I spent a large portion of my childhood and applied myself to understand as a means of survival.

I give you the last word.

Language is the expression of culture and humanity. It’s the tool you use to convey your heart’s desires. There’s a metaphysical component to it. When you choose to study a language, you are making a statement about your values and priorities.

Language study also makes you a more well-rounded, wholesome human being. I am Joseph of Iran. Joseph of Afghanistan. Joseph of Tajikistan. Joseph of parts of Pakistan. And I’m also Joseph of America.   

a Persian cat
Joseph’s Persian cat, Pashmak, currently living large in Iran, because the interviewee insisted.

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