Mixed languages, mixed messages


Niki Tehranchi
by Niki Tehranchi

Within minutes of Forough Khanoom striking up conversation with me at the public playground, she was lecturing me on the importance of teaching SweetPea and LadyBug the Persian language.  After chiding me nonstop for an eternity on the importance of preserving our native culture, language and tradition, making me feel like the bad kid sent to the principal's office, she turned to scream at her tot who was edging dangerously off the monkey bars:

"Nay-taaaaaaaaaaaaaan!!!... Nay-taaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan movazeb baash!... Nay-taaaaaaaaaaaaaannn!!!"

It took me a few seconds to realize she has named her son "Nathan."  Talk about preserving your Persian culture!  Why, Nathan is as Persian as Dariush, n'est-ce pas?

But as much as I could ridicule Forough Khanoom and her ilk, I am not immune to the confusion and absurdity that are prevalent when raising kids with mixed languages.  After all, though hubby and I made a great point of naming our kids with Persian names, using the same logic as Forough Khanoom of wanting to preserve our culture, the reality is that 90% of the time, we speak to them in English.  The reality is, we are ALL confusing our kids.

It's not just a matter of mixed languages, but also mixed messages about their identity.  Do we want them to assimilate and thrive in the country of their birth, at the expense of gaining insight into the formidable culture and rich language of Iran?  Do we want them to stick to the culture and traditions of their grandparents, when often their own parents have been born outside the so-called "native" land, never to set foot in it, knowing it only through the lens of their elders? Do we want them to speak Persian only until they get to kindergarden when they are six years old, and realize they do not understand a word that their teachers and their peers speak?  Do we want them to cringe every time the teacher is butchering their name for the first time?  It's easy for Grandma to say that you should uphold traditions when she was raised in Iran, learning one language, one culture, one religion in a homogenous society.  But has Grandma experienced the trauma of the immigrant kid, forever being shifted from one country to another, one city to another, one school to another, and as if that wasn't pressure enough, be expected to stick to an Iranian identity that he has no desire to do?

I don't have the solution for this except to keep going forward, for better or worse, with a mix of what your own parental instinct tells you to do, a great deal of flexibility and the goal to adapt to circumstances day by day.  We are not the first immigrant parents nor are our kids the first immigrant kids.  I am sure that all this confusion, though it may seem traumatic at first, will have a way of settling in and even make our kids stronger in the future. 

Someone once said that the late Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau found success in politics because he sounded like a Frenchman, thought like an Englishman, and looked like a Native-Canadian.  Today, we live in a world where Barack Obama, a half American half African child growing up in Asian-infused Hawaii, managed to find and to relish his unique identity (after an identity crisin in his teen years where he tried to anglicize his first name to "Barry") on his way to the White House.  So as for our kids, whether they are named Nathan, or Nay-taaaaan, or Ali, or Reza, or Jose, whether they are uni-, bi-, or tri-lingual, I am confident that they will succeed, either despite or because of their mixed identities.  Who knows? Maybe someday, we'll have a President who sounds Persian, thinks American, and looks Mexican :-)



Recently by Niki TehranchiCommentsDate
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more from Niki Tehranchi

Again, our experience!

by Datis on

Dear Niki,Thanks for reading my post. Likewise, when it comes to using terms of endearment, my repertoire is richer in Persian. I have pretty much spoken to my daughter in Persian all the time but often there are concepts that are really difficult to talk about in Persian, if not impossible. On the other hand, there some culture-specific concepts that one would necessarily need to have lived in Iran in order to understand. With my daughter’s limited Persian vocabulary and familiarity with the culture, often I really struggle to explain certain things and she really struggles to understand; so I end up switching to English which often doesn’t help a great deal.One thing that I think would help a lot is books. As I explained in my previous post, things were better when my daughter was younger and I could find some age-appropriate books from here and there, but as children grow you need to keep up. Unfortunately, I have not been able to source decent Persian books for her and I have to read her English books at bedtime. I was even going to translate some of the English books for her but with my extremely busy life, I really can’t afford time! Thanks for bringing up this subject; I always wished to talk to someone about this.


Niki Tehranchi

One language per parent

by Niki Tehranchi on

I have heard from my pediatrician and at least one speech therapist that it is recommended to have each parent stick to a different language in a bilingual household.  But really how practical is that?  Your experience demonstrates the day to day reality.  I don't think "lazy" is the right term, don't be so hard on yourself.  For example, I can't imagine if I had to stick to English and then I couldn't say stuff like ghorboonet beram to my children.  I am serious here.  I have noticed that I tend to easily switch to Persian when I am using terms of endearment, expressing love and affection.  I like to say it is because Persian is the language of my heart.  That's the connection I feel to the language.  It reminds me the most of my childhood and all the warmth and gooey feelings are because my parents and extended family member repeatedly used those terms with me.  When I am disciplining SweetPea, English comes the most naturally.  One reason is because it is the language of my brain, so to speak, the language which I have used in my higher education and professional life, and with which I feel the most comfortable in choosing the right words to achieve my goal. So theories like have each parent stick to only one language are very impractical.  Thank you for bringing your perspective and a very interesting point to this thread.  


Our experience.

by Datis on

My wife (she’s non-Iranian) and I spent a lot of time choosing a name for our daughter. The criteria were: the name had to be Persian (non-Arabic), easily pronounceable for non-Iranians, can be shortened nicely, and can not be teased by other kids at school and a few others that I can not remember now.

In fact, back then my wife was still interested in the whole Iranian thing, to the point that she attended some evening courses to learn Persian. She was doing well; she could read and write quite impressively; but I’m afraid she ran out of steam!

However, the naming went well and we still believe that our daughter has the most beautiful name (who says parents are biased!)


We also did some research and based on our findings we decided to speak both languages to her from day one.  I have been speaking Persian to her pretty much all the time but I have noticed that I have been too lazy recently hence not speaking enough Persian.

She understands Persian very well but prefers to answer in English. She often makes an effort to answer in Persian but gets frustrated when she lacks vocabulary and as a result switches back to English.  Things were easier when she was younger (she’s 5 now). I used to go back to Iran more regularly, therefore I could buy her books, etc but I have not been to Iran since 2006. My family used to send her books but I had to ask them not to! I really think that almost no one knows about children literature nowadays in Iran. The books are very low quality and cheaply made; stories are all repetitive and often full of wrong values (sexism, violence, racism, etc). As a result, I can not read in Persian to her anymore and this is affecting the whole learning procedure.  

Also, my wife is concerned that she may get confused if she starts learning to write in Persian therefore I am not allowed to teach her how to write.


My second child is 5 months now.  My wife insisted that she prefers a European name for our son. I speak Persian to him too but it is very difficult to switch between the languages all the time!


I was told that I should not give up and just keep speaking but I really don’t know where this going is!

Niki Tehranchi

voluntary vs involuntary immigration

by Niki Tehranchi on

Dear PW, thank you for joining in with a very interesting comment and a strong point that was not brought up so far which is the nature of the immigration.  I completely agree with you that this is an important factor in how the immigrant parents tend to view the new culture.  There seems to be much more resistance to it, in no small part due to the fact that they probably believe, or at least used to believe in the first few years of emigration, that this was a temporary situation and they would return to their country soon.  This was the case with my family and I am sure with many others.

persian westender

My 2 cents (or 2 rials!)

by persian westender on


The problem arise when your children well realize that they are different than the “majority” and it usually happens in the school. When they are at home, this difference is not very obvious to them. But in the school, they will see the differences in their face; when they see their language, values, interests, customs, etc.... are different. Being different in a multicultural society such as Canada, with a flux of immigrants should not be an unusual and a bad experience. When ethnic diversity is apparent in the school; being different really doesn’t matter.

The more the concept of majority or dominant culture is pronounced in a given society and the more advantages are attached to being a majority, the more psychological consequences for being a member of cultural minority. Interestingly, parents perhaps unconsciously, measure that how much retaining of the cultural values of their own would be “costly”. It all depends to the context of the society, where for example discrimination (either implicit orexplicit) exists in a society.

On the other hand, there are individual differences(or better to say familial differences) in terms of tendency to retaining elements of cultural origin. Some immigrant families seem to be more willing to give up their cultural backgrounds and to adopt the new one (no matter how the society is receptive). I guess at least in part, the nature of immigration (whether it is a voluntary or involuntary immigration) contributes to these differences. I believe refugees would be more reluctant to adopt the dominant culture. Education also seems to be another factor. 

On a different note, the terminology used these days to replace assimilation is acculturation. I won’t go there of course, as there is too much "sociology" up there!          





by Rea on

The baby is due in December. ;o)

The two grandmas, neither speaks very good English, will probably fight hands and teeth for the first name. But I trust my future niece to be diplomatic. ;o)

@Doctor X, your remark is arrogant. Nekbat ! 

I'm out of this blog. 



by Doctor X on

Tony Montanya :) (did i spell that right)?

That was a good one.


Rea the baby's name will definately be ---->>> Tony!

by Anonymouse on

If the baby is a girl then all bets are off! 

Everything is sacred



by Rea on

My nephew is getting married in Sep, the bride being first Iranian generation born in Australia. 

Frankly, as long as there is no religion interfering from either side, everything is fine.

In any case, my parents speak English just as badly as hers do. So, the only promise she ought to uphold is that Croatian and Italian will be just as respected as Farsi will.

We can't wait to see the baby ;o)

Niki Tehranchi

Mixed marriages

by Niki Tehranchi on

I am okay with mixed marriage or with marriage within your own culture as long as it is not forced.  And by forced, I mean, the expectations and pressure from your community.  It is true that in the Iranian community, this issue is much more relaxed.  My aunt, who married someone who was non-Iranian over thirty years ago was never belittled or criticized for it. 

On the other hand, I know of someone in the Armenian community TODAY who had married an American girl and as a result was SHUNNED, yes SHUNNED in this day and age, until the end result was they got divorced and he subsequently married an Armenian girl. 

Niki Tehranchi

Dear Rea, I'm a language lover too :)

by Niki Tehranchi on

I want to emphasize that i do agree with you that learning more than one language is so enriching to one's life.  I cannot imagine my life without the ability to read Balzac in French or Hemingway in English.  I cannot imagine my life without the ability to laugh at Dayee Jan Napoleon and cry at Googoosh songs.  The best translations cannot translate the subtleties.  It makes me sad that I am not able to read two of my other favorite authors, Dostoievski and Garcia Marquez in their own native language.  I am missing out so much! 

With all the positive, I wanted to explore the fact that there are negatives too, but in the end, that's okay and we should not fret too much but go on and try to do our best to expose the kids to everything without hammering it too much. 

In my experience, forcing the issue can never work, whether it is your homework, or learning the new language, or trying to control who you can be friends with etc.  I remember one year I spent in a junior high school where it was forbidden to speak English inside the building because it was a French school and the kids would actually be given detention if caught by the teachers speaking English.  Can you imagine the resentment that this would cause?  The result was that everyone spoke English as much as they could get away with it. 

Fortunately, I changed schools to another French school that did not have any such mandate.  The kids there ended up in my opinion truly bilingual as many of us decided to take French Bac and International Bac on top of the regular Ontario diploma, even though it was not mandatory and just an option.  I think to this day, most of my classmates and I have the ability to jump effortlessly from among a minimum of four languages.

By the way, welcome to the thread dear Rea, it makes me happy to have a reader put pen to paper, or rather finger to keyboard, and join the discussion :)


Marrying from your own culture

by Anonymouse on

Niki jaan I don't think "most" 2nd generation Iranians marry Iranians.  From what I've seen I'd estimate 1 in every 10.  First marriage anyway! But I'm not sure and don't have any actual data of hundreds of thousands of 2nd generation Iranians.

I think it is a good thing to marry from within your own culture.  It will be more 'fun' (put your fun definition here ;-) when you have inlaws who can speak with each other easier.  I understand you marry who you love and can plan a life together and inlaws are inlaws no matter what, but in general marriages from same cultures are better and more fruitful.

As for segragated communities again it is ok with me.  In each of these communities you can find people from other ethnic backgrounds, so they are not totally segragated. Keeping your heritage means having your own communities and your own small shops, restaurants, arts, concerts, festivals and so forth.

Everything is sacred

Niki Tehranchi


by Niki Tehranchi on

Dear Farah Rusta: Thank you for your informative comment.  I was not aware of the different terminology used.  I remember the term "assimilation" used when I was in school many many moons ago :) But you are quite right that even back then it was used negatively.  In that context, it was used to denounce British efforts to destroy the French language and culture in the early days of Canada. I found it difficult to integrate as a child living in France.  Then after moving to Canada and US, it was much better in some ways but I realized this melting pot is not really melted.  The fact is that it results in little segregated mini communities where the immigrants mostly socialize with each other and their children.  This is my experience from observing the Persian, Armenian, Chinese, Indian, even Italian and Greek communities.  Does this help or hinder the kids, to have their own separate group, often being pressured by parents to only marry within themselves, follow the same religion, not go outside the circle etc?  Again, I don't know the answer.  There were both positives and negatives to my experience but overall, it turned out all right and I am sure the same will be of future generations. Again, thank you for pointing out the use of the correct terminology.  Integration does sound better and I don't want to offend anyone :)


Rea I'd use European like I'd use Middle Eastern

by Anonymouse on

BTW this blog from Temporary Bride talks about another ethnic (Croatian and Hungarian) background growing up in Canada with similar problems we're talking about here.

I think every parent raise their children a little different but in general immigrant parents raise their children teaching them about their heritage.

As I tried to explain in my stages, parents can't compete with the media and hype and "integration" but they ARE the parents and are patient and have fully developed brains :-) So they'll find a way and leave their children something they can cherish when they grow older.

That movie My big fat greek wedding was a good example.  Niki's example(s) here another good example, you yourself and the majority of immigrants in general all good examples. 

There are some who actually scare their children and themselves away from their own heritage and want nothing to do with it.  I don't support that line of thought at all.  I hope Nay-tan is not chubby because tan-el-lash rhimes in Farsi and it is not a good thing!  

Everything is sacred


Dear Mouse

by Rea on

"When you're an Iranian kid growing up in America........Islam, Iran and so forth........you get confused".

Agree. However, it should not stop you from teaching your language/s to your child.

PS. "European" is a loose definition.  Someone from Calabria has very little to do with someone from Sweden. Just as someone from Croatia has very little to do with someone from Bulgaria.


Niki T.

by Rea on

I might've been a bit abrupt, so I feel compelled to elaborate.

Above all, I'd like you to know that although this is the first time I've commented, I often read your blogs. For they provide that feminine touch badly lacking here.

Now, back to the blog.

I'd myself had 'bilingual childhood' (mother and father of different origins). Then, the family emigrated (actually, had been forced to) to an English-speaking country. So we all had to learn yet another language. It wasn't easy, in fact, at times it even caused rebelion about what language was "motherly authorized" at home. ;o)

Eventually, I married a Frenchman, settled down in France, had my daughter, and then learnt all about speaking different languages to a child.

Languages are not about collecting trophies. They are about opening up to different cultures and different worlds, they are about enlarging horizons. That is why I still insist, even when I have my teenage daughter answering French to my questions posed in my two native languages.

One day your children will be grateful to you, too, for the fact that you've insisted. There is no excuse not to.

PS. Obviously, I'm not Iranian but the "non-issue" is not uniquely Iranian either.  ;o)


2nd generation Iranians are not like 2nd generation Europeans

by Anonymouse on

When you're an Iranian kid growing up in America and are bombarded with news about terrorism, Islam, Iran and so forth and you find out you are Muslim and Iranian you get confused. So it is "daunting" to integrate.

However, when you're say Australian or eastern European or an Asian Pacific it is not that daunting.  Growing Iranian is a whole new story, perhaps like growing up an Iraqi or Arab kid.

Having said that America is a much better place for an immigrant to live than other countries, including European countries.  From what I hear Europeans are now much less tolerant of immigrants.

In America Jews, Shiites, Sunnis, Catholics and all other minorities live and raise their children next to each other, while in their own countries they kill each other like there is no tomorrow.  So yes America is the most diverse country in the world and many of us live in it and can testify to it.

Everything is sacred

Farah Rusta

Assimilation: not so PC; Integration: PC

by Farah Rusta on

Pardon-moi but if I am not mistaken assimilation is not so politically correct these days. In fact in most European democracies it is a forbidden term. It is a reminder of the Nazi occupation of Europe in which preservation of cultural or ethnic identity was considered to be an affront to the one-nation Fascist ideology. Individuality had/has no place in fascism. 

Integration, however, is the term of choice which is used by both American and European governments. It implies accommodation within a community without the loss of cultural identity.

Sorry, have no intention of politicizing the issue but at the same time not escaping from it. Talking about European democracies, I know that both EU and UNESCO, have issued directives that obliges member states to teach minority languages to the migrants children in their grade schools. In fact some Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Finland have extended the meaning of minority (European) languages to include all languages and an Iranian child in a Swedish school is encouraged, if not obliged, to learn his/her mother tongue.

I find it very unusual that in a migrants "melting pot" that the American society is supposed to be, a second generation child should find it more daunting to integrate than in a more historically established and culturally less diverse a society as Sweden.  Yet, this seems to be the case. Can anyone possibly explain please?




Let's not blame young nathan or her mum...

by fooladi on

As both him and her mum have a lot more in common with the kids and mums in the southern californian playground than they ever would with kids and mums in a southern tehran park, regardless of the language and names...


Niki Tehranchi

questioning is more interesting

by Niki Tehranchi on

Dear Rea, while I don't necessarily disagree with your statement, don't you find it more interesting if we at least try to question platitudes once in a while?

Dear Marjaneh, happy to please.  They should do a Seven Up series on the kids of immigrants to find out more about this topic.  Maybe it would resemble Anonymouse' stages :)

Comrade, that sounds like it would be a fascinating blog. If you care to elaborate on it more, I would be happy to read and participate on a new thread.


Language : A means, or an End?

by comrade on

Raising our children to be hyphenated, or not to be hyphenated: That's the question.



'Claiming' to be busy is like claiming to be ambitious

by Anonymouse on

They made the "busy like a bee" for people who are really not busy but acting as if!  Being busy is never an excuse in this subject, it is THE excuse.  They have other motives and blame it on being busy.

How can you be busy to speak a word or two in Farsi? How busy to talk and answer once in a while why my name is so strange? and similar questions.

I think inevitably as 2nd, 3rd and more Iranian-Americans generations grow and 'assimilate', the cultural heritage background will just become a novelty like Niki mentioned about Italians or Greek or Germans, etc.  I don't see anything wrong with it.  It's ok. 

Hopefully by then we've gotten rid of the Islamic Republic and have joined the international community as a normal country that can speak and walk at the same time without huffing and puffing all the time!

I think at each level (2nd, 3rd, 4th generation) each generation will have to parent as is natural to them.  I wouldn't fuss about it.  If you fuss about it you just become that much more annoying to a teenage kid who finds his/her parents annoying already! 

Everything is sacred

Niki Tehranchi

Constructive criticism is okay by me!

by Niki Tehranchi on

Dear LC, busy, lazy and hazy are three very valid and truthful statements about parents' ability to teach their kids.  But, respectfully, I think it does not end there. 

Some people very consciously make the decision to assimilate their kids totally in their new environment and ignore the cultural background, because they believe this is the best way to have the kids lead a "normal" life.  They harbor some sort of hatred towards their background.  I am not saying they are right or wrong, just pointing out this is a real motivation for some. 

In other cases, the environmental factors are so strong it is like a tidal wave that overcomes even the best meaning of parents.  Speaking of my own experience, I grew up in a tiny teenie town, one could and should really call it a village, one street, one school, one shopping center, two residential complexes and it would take you 15 minutes tops to drive from one end to the other.  There was only one other Iranian family there.  No Persian school.  No Persian language TV, radio, newspapers etc.  Just a bunch of my dad's old, dusty schoolbooks, that were taken out on Sundays to try to teach me some basic skills. 

I honestly think my dad did the best he could and I certainly did my best to please him.  However, at some point, the books ran out and so did our options. 

Then there are the parents who do their best to teach, but the kids rebel against it.  There is just no way you are going to forcefeed kids their education.  I know of so many kids who were sent kicking and screaming to Persian school, and their parents tried everything, tough love, soft love, bribes, rewards punishment, etc, nothing would work.  The kids just wanted to be like the others. In fact they went on to marry non-Iranians, and totally assimilate their offspring so that hardly any trace is left that they once came from Iran. So sometimes the kids make the conscious decision to assimilate.  Again, I cannot really judge them.  In their perception, that is what they needed to survive.



by Rea on

The more languages you speak, the richer you are.

So, make sure your children grow up bilingual and/or trilingual.



by Marjaneh on

Fundamentally, the important thing is to give children the tools to communicate....

Thank you for another fun/ny blog. 

If I had a mind; I'd change it.   - Marjaneh

Niki Tehranchi

You gotta know it to teach it

by Niki Tehranchi on

Dear Red Wine and Majid thank you for sharing your opinion and experience with your child.  Most of the kids who fled Iran with their parents in the late 70s and early 80s, or were born outside Iran and never been there, are now grown up and having kids of their own.

If they have been taught Persian language and culture by their parents, how much of it have they retained, and will they choose to pass it on to their own kids?  If they choose to pass it on, how much of that will their kids retain, etc.  You see where I am going with this.  Generation after generation, immigrant nations retain less and less of their ancestry, and then end up with just some symbolic stuff, like the Italian-Americans or the Irish-Americans for example. 

This is a normal aspect of immigration and I am wondering if that is where we are headed, and if so, whether we should bang our heads against concrete too much trying to avoid the inevitable.  Thank you again for your input. It feels good to put the limited reading skills I was taught by dad to use :-)

Literary Critic

Niki khanom

by Literary Critic on

Please do not take my opinion as a criticism but a factual statement. When it comes to parental heritage, children to the second generation parents in America are luckier than their parents. They are more distant from that heritage than their parents and particularly in the United States where the nation is largely of immigrant background, the second and specifically the third generation children are much less reminded of their roots than their immigrant cousins in Europe. Therefore, these children are much less likely to miss their roots or their parental language. But this does not mean that they have to waive their rights to learn their grandmother's tongue. This is where the role of the first or second generation parents is of significance. Simply put, the parents who cannot teach their children the language of their own parents are one of these three types: busy, lazy or hazy (meaning that they have no clear knowledge of the native language).   With respect,   LC

Red Wine


by Red Wine on

مقصر اصلی‌ خود والدین هستند که مسئولیت بر گردن نگرفتند و اینجور اولادانشان را به امان خدا سپرده و ول کردند و مسخره آن است که خروار خروار ادعای ایرانی بودن میکنند... خیر ! برای این ادعا،میبایستی فارسی‌ حرف زد و فارسی‌ نوشت وگرنه سنگینتر آن است که خود را مثل کامران و هومن خارجی‌ بدانند و بس !



by Majid on



پسر دوم من اینجا بدنیا اومده و من از روز اول باهاش فارسی حرف زدم با این هدف که «خواهی نخواهی انگلیسی رو تو محیط یاد میگیره» و امروز تو سن بیست و سه سالگی فارسی رو خیلی بهتر از خیلی ایرانی های حتّی همسال من صحبت میکنه، تا جائیکه وقتی با فامیل تو ایران تلفنی حرف میزنه خیلی ها رو متعجّب میکنه.

گاهی اوقات هم کلمات من درآوردی اختراع کرده که من سعی در تصحیحش نکردم مثل (فیزُم = فایر وود و هیزُم!)، یا بعضی اوقات که کلمات انگلیسی رو بفارسی بصورت تحت الّلفظی معادل میکنه مثل (این سی دی رو بازی کن، آهنگهاش خیلی جالبه!).

تو سالهای اولیهء دبستان یکروز گفت «بابا، این خیلی جالبه که تو مدرسه با بچّه های ایرانی دیگه میتونم یه زبونی صحبت کنم که بیشتر از ٩٥% بچه های دیگه نمیفهمن!


bajenaghe naghi

Niki Jan

by bajenaghe naghi on

Most things we are all benefiting in our lives are the fruits of labour of overachievers. The way I look at it is that it is great to be able to be an overachiever part of the day and an underachiever the rest of the day. Yin and yang, ping and pong, ding and dong, if you know what I mean :-)