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The Taarof Project
The concept of Persian taarof can be described in three important components relating to speech act theory: Its social meaning, the intention of the speaker, and the effect of the act


Updated July 13, 2005

A Research Proposal [download full text document]: "The Concept of Persian Taarof: A Sociolinguistic Knowledge of the Speech Act Measured by The Persian Taarof Comprehension Test", Fall 2004. Developed by: Fatima Farideh Nejat, M.A. Mentoring Professor: Jean Turner, Ph.D. Monterey Institute of International Studies.
ALso See letter to participants [Word file] [PDF file]

This study will investigate the effect of two different types of explicit and implicit instruction on speech production of taarof (form of compliment). Understanding the concept of taarof in the Persian language is important, a concept relating to speech act theory. The participants are the American military learners of the Persian/Farsi language.

In this study, I will measure the data collected from two sections of the advanced level: one is the experimental, whose members will receive explicit instruction of taarof; the other section is the control group, whose members will learn about the concept implicitly.

The primary focus is to investigate whether the explicit instruction of taarof has an effect in developing a higher level of perception of taarof so students can use the exchanges of taarof more frequently in daily speech with native speakers. Students’ performance will be measured by a researcher-designed rating scale that was adapted from previous studies.

The mean of performance scores will be compared between the groups at the beginning of the study (pretest) and three months later (posttest) using a Case II Independent Sample t-test to determine if there is a significant difference between the two classes. If a significant difference is found between the groups, this could have important implications on relevant strategies for language instruction at the School of Continuing Education Resident Program (SCERP) at Ft. Ord - Persian Department in Monterey, California, for intermediate and advanced students.

Taarof generally means to pay respect to someone and is counted as social etiquette. Behaviorally, one gives a compliment to someone’s good deed, admires someone’s elegant clothing, or praises someone’s statement. Beeman (1986) writes that taarof refers to the most common principle in interpersonal interaction in Iran, which is to indicate lower status for oneself while elevating the status of the person being addressed (p. 140). Beeman lived in Shiraz, Iran, for several years and writes about the nature of expression in the Persian/Farsi language and its relationship to general semantic theory. Iranians exchange phrases of taarof in all levels of daily interaction, in both formal and informal settings such as the market places, restaurants, offices, and social gatherings. For several decades, sociolinguistics (the study of language in culture and behavior) has been defining and researching what has been called speech act theory.

The speech act related to the concept of taarof in the Persian/Farsi language is used in formal and informal social interactions. The speech act is defined as units related to sociolinguistic competence conveying specific meaning. In regards to speech act theory, Cohen (1996) gives an example of the phrase “Sorry about that” and explains the phrase may serve as an adequate apology in some situations and in other situations it may not even be intended as an apology. Given this reality, second language researchers and teachers find that speech act behavior constitutes an area of continual concern. This means a word or phrase isolated from its socio-cultural context may lead to linguistic curiosities if phrases or words do not achieve their communicative purposes.

Finegan’s theory (1999) of speech act explains that the linguistic meaning, or locution, portrays the intention of the speaker, or illocution. The effect of the act on the hearer is called perlocution. The concept of taarof can be described in three important components relating to speech act theory: 1) the social meaning, 2) the intention of the speaker, and 3) the effect of the act. The locution of exchanges of taarof can change depending on who offers taarof and whether the offer is sincere (samimaneh) or deceitful (chaploosaneh), even manipulative. The locution of exchanges of taarof might vary depending on the illocutionary intent and its perlocution. For example, when the phrase ekhtiar darin, meaning “you have the choice,” is offered after someone mocks oneself with “Am I crazy?” the intent of the response ekhtiar darin is taarof: The hearer may not know whether the answer means “Yes, you are crazy” or “No, you are not crazy.” One has to decide on the positive or negative connotation individually, depending on who offers it. The native Persian would be aware that the meaning might vary in context.

The exchange of taarof is significantly prevalent within the Persian culture in almost all diverse regions among ethnic groups such as the Persians, the Kurds, the Baluchies, the Turks, and the Gilakies, as well as among the religious groups of Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians. Taarof is sometimes sincere but there are times that these phrases are used as “empty offers.” A good example of the sociolinguistic meaning of the “empty offer” of taarof exchanged in the Iranian bazaar is explained by Roozbeh Shirazi, an Iranian-American student at Columbia University in New York.

Shirazi responds to a New York Times article written by Nicholas Kristof, an American visitor in Iran. Shirazi gives a historical definition of the offer of taarof in response to what Kristof writes stating, “People in Iran have been exceptionally friendly and fulsome in their praise for the United States, and often for President Bush as well ... the police were apologetic even when I was detained a couple of days ago in the city of Isfahan... (p. 1).” Shirazi non-apologetically states that “Iranians often make polite, but empty offers to appease their guests in order not to offend them. Foreigners seem to unwittingly indulge in taarof they receive (p. 1).”

In the above example, the misunderstanding of the concept of taarof explained by Mr. Kristof is evident. This illustrates the need to comprehend the socio-linguistic meaning and the concept of taarof when learning Persian/Farsi. One can implicitly hear the taarof or use it in an inappropriate setting without comprehending the imbedded meaning. In fact, such phenomenon can be taught explicitly in the classroom to enable students to differentiate among the various meanings of taarof and the settings in which taarof should be offered and to determine what meaning it might have (empty or sincere offer) contextually. Therefore, the explicit teaching of taarof could help L2 learners of Persian/Farsi to use taarof appropriately in their speech, or to understand the imbedded meaning when they hear it. The likelihood of such proficiency in understanding taarof is greater if suitable curriculum is devised for the intermediate and advanced classes and if taarof is taught explicitly.

In this study, the research question is whether there are statistically significant differences between the two groups in perceiving, understanding, and using taarof at the end of the explicit instruction (treatment). The students in the experimental group will have explicit instruction of taarof for two weeks. The students in the control group will not have explicit instruction of taarof, but they will hear the exchanges of taarof in conversations, which in this study is called implicit learning of taarof. The null hypothesis states that there is no statistically significant difference between the group whose members receive explicit instruction of taarof and the one who does not (HO: X1=X2). The alternative hypothesis states that there is a statistically significant difference between the two groups in terms of perceiving and using taarof in daily speech (H1: X1=X2). The independent variable in this study is the explicit instruction of taarof and the dependent variable is the ability to use taarof in spoken language. If a significant difference is found between the groups, this could have important implications for relevant language instruction strategies used with higher level students in the Persian Department.
>>> Full text of this proposal [Word file]
>>> Letter to participants [Word file] [PDF file]

Fatima Farideh Nejat holds a Bachelors degree in Interdisciplinary Studies of Anthropology, Psychology, Sociology and Women's Studies; and a Masters of Arts degree in International Training and Education from the American University in Washington, DC. She served in diplomatic corps of Iran working at the Iranian Embassy in Washington, DC, from 1970-80. She is currently Assistant Professor at the Department of the Army, Defense language Institute in Monterey, California.

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Fatima Farideh Nejat


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