From Lingua Franca to Heritage Language to Expanding Memeplex!

Posted by Rezwan Razani on Nov 30, 2013 at 09:18 PM

Persian was once the Lingua Franca of the civilized world.  Today, its variants are spoken in few countries, and as native speakers migrate from those countries, their children and grandchildren are losing the language. Is there a way to reverse this trend?  YES!  It requires conscious effort, strategy, some apps, and FUN!

Lingua Franca Days

There was a time when the Persian language was the “Lingua Franca” of much of the civilized world. A Lingua Franca” is “a language systematically used to make communication possible between people not sharing a mother tongue, in particular when it is a third language, distinct from both mother tongues.”  Per Alfred Toynbee:

In the Iranic world, before it began to succumb to the process of Westernization, the New Persian language, which had been fashioned into literary form in mighty works of art ... gained a currency as a lingua franca; and at its widest, about the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries of the Christian Era, its range in this role extended, without a break, across the face of South-Eastern Europe and South-Western Asia.[15]

Succumbing to Westernization

Fast forward to today.  The slimmed down remnants of the Persian empire are now split into a few countries speaking different variants of Persian.  English is now the primary global lingua franca.  That is with only 300-400 million people as native English speakers.  For over a billion people, English is a second language. If those people have immigrated to America, chances are the second and third generations will have lost their first language and become native English speakers.

Heritage Language Loss

In America, “without active intervention or new immigration, heritage languages…typically die out within three generations”? (Wiley, 1996). Heritage languages are “incompletely acquired versions of languages spoken at home but not spoken in the wider community.”  In general, language use shifts to English in a predictable pattern starting with the children of immigrants who become English dominant by adulthood.  Their children in turn become English dominant as soon as they enroll in school.

We can see this happening in the Iranian community in the US.  Among the second and third generation the use of spoken Persian (a.k.a. Farsi) is limited to joking, small talk and pleasantries. Professional level and intellectual conversations shift to English.

As for written Persian, many second generation Iranians have given up on it. “It looks Chinese to me.” I hear. Don’t panic! It’s not nearly as complex as Chinese.  Master the alphabet today!

Is Heritage Language Loss reversible?

While language loss in immigrant populations is a common problem, it is reversible.  But it requires conscious effort.  Action!  Systematic intervention.  Deliberate choice.  Motivation.  As any parent knows, if your kid doesn’t want to do something, and really doesn’t NEED to do something, they aren’t highly motivated to do it. 

What is your motivation?  What are other motives to explore?  What’s the best motivation?

Empires Fall.

The fortunes of language rise and fall with empire.  You can see it in this video.  Egyptian, Sumerian, Akkadian, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Persian again.  English.  They dominate, then recede, leaving remnants.

Game over, right?  It’s hard enough to get our kids to read Persian.  It’s not like we have an army to rebuild an empire and make the language dominant. Those days are gone.  (Good thing, because - think of the human rights issues of conquest).

Cyberspace Rises (Empire v. Memeplex)

In the old days, empires and languages rose and fell at the tedious pace of armies and trade.  Today, code is mightier than the sword.  You don’t need a multitude of warriors on battle horses.  A satirical song from South Korea can go viral riding in on a horse made of air.  In cyber space, a meme like language succeeds not by force, but by desire. 

This must read article on memes describes our world as “a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve.”  Per Richard Dawkins: “What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life.’ It is information, words, instructions.”  Just as genes rise from the primordial soup of chemicals on the planet, memes rise out of the “soup” of human culture.  They are ideas, and their vector of transmission is language.

“Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” he [Dawkins] wrote. They compete with one another for limited resources: brain time or bandwidth. They compete most of all for attention.

Language Competitive Advantage

Information Technology has transformed the world, and all very recently.  The first ever tweet was posted in March of 2006.  That’s only 7 years ago.  Vine just came out this year. 

The playing field for language dominance has never been more level. The question is, how intrinsically competitive and attractive is the Persian language, and how active are our language users in demonstrating this?  Per the thinkquest article:

Language is also a strong indicator of memetic preservation. If a language… is moribund (that is, mainly adults speak it), it and the memes associated with it are in danger of becoming extinct. This is… true of many traditional languages and their memeplexes; adherents are increasingly converting to more attractive and competitive Western memes.

What are the competitive advantages and disadvantages of the Persian language?  From a linguistic perspective?  From a market study perspective?  From an innovation perspective?

What Game is This?

Perhaps a better question to ask is, what game are we playing?  Once you realize what game you are playing, it is easier to win the game.  Are you playing “Low Priority Defense of Fading Heritage Language?”  If so, your main action is: “let’s get our kids to hold on to a shred of their culture, even though they are not motivated.  We don’t have a good answer about the motivation issue, but we tell them they have to study it, because we’re Iranian.  And then we’ll enroll them in a class or two, suffer through it, and then back off, because…OMG it’s tough.” 

Are you playing, “Insider, Outsider” where you want to keep your language to yourself and your in group?  If so, your actions are to keep a clear boundary in your use of each language and not bother with crossover or explanation.  Indeed, you’ll try to make it difficult for outsiders to understand or engage with your language.  It’s your secret treasure.  You’re content with the use of the language inside Iran and in a few pockets outside Iran.

Hopefully you are more optimistic and inclusive, and you love to help people express themselves.  In that case, you are playing “Be a Hero/Servant of the Persian Language Meme and also Help People Express Themselves with the Genius of This Language”.  As such, your mission is to do whatever you can to make the Persian language as relevant and accessible as possible to anyone who wants to use it. And to use any tools at your disposal in the pursuit of this mission. Help Persian be more competitive and entertaining. 

Are you playing this third game?  It’s a massive multiplayer online game (MMOG).  We need you.  So cool to have you on the team!


If you are playing the “Hero/Servant/Expressor of the Persian Language Meme” game, your first point of action should be accessibility.  How can you make the Persian language more accessible to increase the number and skill of players?  It takes conscious, systematic effort.  Here are a few tools that come to mind.

Tools to Increase Persian Language Accessibility:

The tools are all dependent on a strong internet presence.  The great news is, the Persian Language population loves to use the internet.  We have bloggers galore.  That’s a huge competitive advantage.  KEEP THIS UP!  Just qorbune dastet make an effort to consciously integrate Persian language accessibility into your talk:

Texting fArsi Protocol

Our Texting fArsi Campaign is the simplest way to dramatically increase Persian language accessibility in the world.  It’s something everyone can do, and it’s free.  You just have to take a moment to learn the protocol, then apply it going forward. 

At present, many Persians text the language at random, spelling out the Persian word the way a similar word might be spelled out in English.  You probably don’t think much of it.  After all, you and your friends know what that word is supposed to be and what it is supposed to sound like, and who cares about those 2nd and 3rd generation Persians with weaker language skills, or the non Iranians. 

حیف heyf.

Discuss the #textingfArsi protocol here, and then spread the message.  Tweet about it with hashtag #textingfArsi like so:

Persian-English Word Magnets

Play with Persian-English Word Magnets! Persian & English. Words rule!

This may seem like a shameless plug for a product I’ve made, and it is.  But I made the product for this very purpose: to increase Persian language accessibility; to create opportunities for people of varying language skill to to play with and talk about the Persian language.  These little bi-lingual word bricks are great for improving subconscious word recognition, and language improvisation skills. 

For more of the story of how these magnets came about to be, check out this article on Aslan Media.  Just one thing: The magnets are out of print.  So…

Don’t like the magnets?  qAbel nadAreh.  Develop your own tools.  Use mixed media.  Make your own flash cards.  Find other things out there.  But do SOMETHING. 

Now, let’s say you get the magnets (all three kits!) and bring them home.  Now what? Don’t just leave them in the box.  Don’t just slap them on a fridge and forget about them.  Get busy making some #PersianVines!


The invention of vine is what motivated me to reboot the Persian-English word magnets.  This is a game changer.  This takes a fun little idea of playing with words and makes it SCALABLE.  There is no excuse for the Persian language to fade now.  A vine is perfect for language skill propagation.  It is a six second video loop that can be played with or without sound.  You can do stop motion animation on the fly.  I can think of no simpler flash card making device out there.  PERFECT for language and FUN.  One vine is perfect to illustrate a few words, a whole concept.

Once you make and launch the vine, it’s out there, persistently, perpetually, engaging people with Persian.  No longer limited to a physical location, it is free to go forth and encounter many people and engage them in conversation.  People can comment on it, respond to it, build on it.  The meaning multiplies and grows.  Spinoffs ensue.  We start connecting the dots, making for a richer and richer Persian language ecosystem/memeplex.  Bit by bit.  Word magnet by word magnet, texted word, vine, gif, tweet…they all build.

As for your art and self-expression, that builds as well.  A single vine, like a haiku, is its own bit of art, but you can also string several vines together to make a cool story and build on an idea.  This is such a winning language exploration vehicle. 

Now if everyone starts making language vines, or integrating Persian language into other bits of self-expression - now we’ve got a movement.  Weave it through everything.  The language will go forth and instill itself. 

Cheerleading Meme

Once you start playing with language you find more memes to explain it.  The fArsi cheerleading metaphor is one of my favorites.  Enjoy!

Mighty Works of Art

I loved Toynbee’s line about Persian having “gained currency as a lingua franca” because it “had been fashioned into literary form in mighty works of art.” 

What is the main advantage of Persian language?  It is intrinsically poetic!  Fantastic works of art were written in it.  My dream is to be part of the group of people who systematically deconstruct that great poetry, line by line, with the magnets and mixed media and vines, to make it accessible to a new world.  With the use of the #textingfArsi protocol, we’ll help people pronounce it properly.  Coleman Barks has done a great service to the world by translating a translation of poetry, but it is time to systematically introduce that poetry in the original language and leverage it to connect people with Persian throughout the world. 

This isn’t just to admire existing art.  It is to draw inspiration from it, and feed new art.  What about mighty art now being created, or yet to come?

We need to support our creative community.  Such a lot of wonderful people in this space, and they all need your support!  Encourage and fund the creative workers among you.  If you’re not taking the time to create such works yourself, THROW A LOT OF MONEY at the people who are.  It takes a lot of focus to develop art. It is difficult to simultaneously fundraise for the art.  If this work has value, help people make a living at it.  We live in an all or nothing world.  Most jobs eat up your whole life. It is very hard to balance the art, job and family.  What a blessed difference when the community pours forth support for the artist. 

As you see on this website, I have a donation box in the sidebar.  I am so thrilled when someone uses it.  It sends a clear signal that my work is valued.  Please use it often!  For other artists you know - don’t even wait for them to ask.  Offer to support their work financially and through any other means. Thank You!

Language Heroes: Your Choice

Language doesn’t speak or propagate itself.  It needs people who share and care. It’s up to you.  There are so many things you can do!

Signing off with a final shameless plug: 

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