Raising Neem-Roonis- An Interview with Mona Kiani of Englisi Farsi
For this Raising Neem-Roonis interview, we talk to Mona Kiani, founder of Englisi Farsi where she creates books, flashcards, and other learning materials for people wanting to teach their kids Persian using phonetic English script. She grew up in Australia with two Iranian parents, but like many second generation Iranian kids, rebelled against the language and culture. She married a Singaporian-Australian, and it wasn't until she was six months pregnant with her first child that something clicked and she felt a desperate urge to connect with her mother tongue. However, she found resources for people like her- who could speak Persian conversationally, but couldn't read and write it comfortably- were sorely lacking. So, she created them herself, giving rise to Englisi Farsi- a fantastic resource for other second generation Iranians with similar experiences.
We talked over video about her experiences growing up, what sparked her renewed interest in Persian culture and language, and how she is passing on this new found passion to her second generation children. Enjoy!
Leyla Shams: Can you describe a little bit about what you do?
Mona Kiani: Growing up, I didn't really want to embrace my heritage, but having children now, I realized that I lacked the skills that were required to pass on my heritage. So I created these resources to help empower me and my family, because my spouse is not Iranian either. And I think a lot of us have that experience where our partners are not Iranian, and can't support us in that process. So I created these resources to really help empower myself and my family to be able to speak Persian and have it phonetically correct. So that we can have conversations with my children in Persian.
L: I thought you would have an interesting perspective, because a lot of the people I've interviewed are a little bit closer to Iran, and some of them grew up there. So they're comfortable with the Persian language themselves to a degree. I wanted to get a little bit into your background. So can you tell me about growing up? You were born in Australia? What was your experience growing up? And what was your experience learning the Persian language?
M: I was actually born in Taiwan, my parents immigrated from Iran before the revolution. So they were in Taiwan for about seven years. And they had me and my brother. And so we really had no connection to Iran, except for my parents, who were both Iranian. My mom spoke to me exclusively in Persian, but simultaneously, she was learning Mandarin. So it was quite a hectic journey. When they moved to Taiwan, then they weren't able to sort of have any more connections and family come across, obviously, because of the, the issues that arose there. So they were basically just the two of them speaking to us exclusively in person, and then we moved to Australia when I was seven. So that's really like, where I where I was born. And I was basically raised in Australia. And my parents raised me speaking Persian, but I really detested it. I wanted to run away from it as much as possible. I'm sure a lot of second generation Iranians can relate. They just wanted to integrate into the language of origin where they're residing, and they wanted to speak with their friends in that language. And so having a second language wasn't really a priority for me. And I really detested the classes. My mom used to try and get me to go, and I just switched off. And anything to do with cooking Persian food producing herbs and all of that the associated cultural nuances that I really love and embrace now I wish I fully embrace back then. So I never actually lived in Iran. Both my parents spoke to me in Persian and try to teach me to read and write but I couldn't, but conversationally I could get by so I could speak to my grandparents. So those were really the sort of the key components to where I am today. So there was some linguistic background in terms of memory, but in terms of the alphabet and reading, I couldn't pick up a book and read it to my son, and that's where this whole journey came about, because I lacked the skills to go to move forward with it.
L: I think a lot of people have the same experience you do, ran away from it. It was a political time, things were difficult immigrating, and parents just didn't have the resources to keep their kids interested. And I don't want you to throw your parents under the bus, but why do you think you detested it so much? What do you think they could have done? Could they have done anything differently to keep your interest in the Persian language and culture?
M: I don't know, maybe I was just challenging. But I it seems to be a common thread amongst a lot of us. I think the resources were lacking. I think they will also so concerned about, I think they were really focused on making sure that they thrived in a new country. And, you know, their focus was really on making sure we were safe, we were healthy, we had a good education, to integrate into life here and get into university. So for them, the path was pretty clear. And although my mom insisted on speaking to me in Persian, so she would say 'Mona, if I speak to you in Persian and you respond to me in English, I don't understand.' So that was one of the tactics she used. And that obviously worked because I was forced to speak and I think speaking really helped. But that made me detest it more, because it was forced. So I don't know whether there's a fine balance between making it fun and engaging and trying not to make it a chore versus sort of being like, No, you have to do this. And I mean, looking back now, I really am appreciative of it. But at the time, it made me pull away a little bit.
L: Can you tell me a bit about your spouse? Where did you meet? What is his cultural background?
M: We actually met at the university gym. So we were both sort of enamored by each other. Later, we found out that we were both enamored by each other for a while, it took him a little while to have the courage to say hello. So he is a Singaporean. And he moved to Australia to study at university and we met at the University gym. Funnily enough, we actually bought a house right down the road. He speaks Mandarin and English as his two languages. And he started picking up Persian a lot more because I'm trying to speak to the kids in Persian exclusively. And at the dinner table sometimes instead of saying in English to him what i'm saying i actually speak to him in Persian words now. We've been married for 11 years. So that exposure has really helped. So he's very supportive of me speaking to the kids in exclusively Persian. And a lot of the time, I'll just include him in that conversation. And by saying a few key words, he knows what I'm saying. So I try not to switch to English, but sometimes inevitably, as a family, we have to and I think you probably experience the same thing. But I did ask him the other day, I said, Do you feel like uncomfortable when I don't switch back to English? And he's like, 'Nah, that's fine. I'm not offended. It's good for the kids.' So I think he has the understanding of using that exclusive language to help with the kids. And I have to say, COVID has been a blessing in disguise. I don't know if you feel the same way. I knowthere's a lot of other aspects that it's been really challenging. But in terms of having my son full time, speaking to him in one language where he would have been in kindergarten and speaking exclusively in English. I feel like I've been given a second chance a little bit. So I guess that's really our sort of family of origin and how we speak. We did try the trilingual route, but my husband wasn't home enough to speak Mandarin to him for that period of time.
L: So your husband speaks English to the kids and you speak exclusively Persian. So where did this feeling come up? Was it before you had kids that you realize this was really important to you?
M: I was about six months pregnant, and I was looking for books. I'm a pharmacist and I did a full lit review of the literature that was available and there was no bilingual resources that had phonetic transliteration. For me, that was really challenging because I pick up any Persian books that my I had at home and I couldn't even sound it out. It was so sad- I could speak it, I could understand it, I could talk to my parents in it, but I couldn't read to my son in it and I was devastated. I think that was when it really dawned on me. That's where it all sort of sparked the journey. And I started writing things down phonetically too, but then I realized that I wasn't being consistent, like, you know, is it an atom or art sound? And how do I write that phonetically. And then I did a full search of everything, and I couldn't find resources that I needed. So I just ended up making a Word document that I just started creating. And then it evolved into this project, because my sister in law who's English also was really passionate about learning Persian. And my my brother's obviously, Persian, and she really embraced the Persian culture and the language and she was really keen to teach her to children Persian too. So it all sort of naturally evolved. But the desire was when I was pregnant, and really sad that I couldn't pick up a book and read to my child.
L: What do you think that that desire was? Why Persian?
M: I don't know, something within me, I guess because I, it's, it's in my sort of my psyche, from when I was a baby. And also some words, you just can't translate like, asheghetam, jeegaret, like, there's so many things that, you know, come from the heart that when you say it in English that doesn't mean the same for me. I guess mother tongue is always super special. I mean, they always talk about the importance of mother tongue and maintaining that and, you know, I think part of me just really had that desire to go back to it. I couldn't tell you, there was one specific thing, but it was a combination of those things. It's really interesting.
L: In general the United States, Australia, Canada, obviously, we speak the dominant language here, which is English, and that's the dominant world language. So bilingualism is not that important in in these countries. And so you were saying that in Australia, it seems like that's picking up again, can you talk a little bit about that?
M: I've noticed a lot in the migrant sort of communities that they're really going back to their heritage and embracing it. There's a lot of bilingual children immersion classes for kindergarten and preschool that I've noticed, where they speak exclusively in the other language. So there's a huge spike in Mandarin, children's immersion schools, I'm seeing a lot more Persian schools pop up within Australia, as well, and a lot more people really wanting to find resources to connect back. And I think that everyone is kind of realizing the bilingual brain is, in some ways, really, really an advanced way of learning as well. It opens up a whole channel and a whole world for the children. So I think generally the science is pushing towards that, and it's becoming more well known. And I think also, our generation doesn't have the same challenges that our first generation that first immigrated here do. So, you know, we're already established, we have our professions, and we have the time and the resources to spend on going back to that.
L: So now how is with your children? How old are your children? And how is the Farsi learning going?
M: Well, it's interesting, you say, so my son is five. And he was he was gonna go to kindergarten this year, and that'll completely just fell out of the way. And I'm sure you feel the same way, like such a challenge to have them home full time and not being able to do all the things you thought you could do. But also such a wonderful second chance, because I feel like when they start school, they really want to just speak English exclusively. That's my experience. And a lot of moms I speak to have that challenge too. So I feel like this year is really giving me that second chance. So the other day, I caught him singing in Persian and chert o pert words, I was just I was really blown away. It touched me so much. But he really prefers English and that's the reality of it. And I don't want to be that person that forces him to always respond. So right now we're navigating. I said, to him 'Ari, I'll only speak to you in Persian, that's what I'm going to do.' And it took him a while to accept that but now he fully comprehends and I'm working on the response still. So up until three and a half, he was responding in Persian, but since he started school, his responses are in English. And because of my experience with my mom forcing me to respond in in Persian I'm going to try it this way and see if that maintains engagement. We still learn the Persian alphabet, we still do the flashcards. So I try and make it fun and try not to force it. I'm going to try the middle way approach and see how that goes. I've got a second child, a daughter as well so we'll see if Ari is maintained in that way then I can move it to Alia. So I've got a one year old but I speak to her in Persian only.
L: Okay, that's nice. So what other ways are you passing on the Iranian culture? You mentioned that you you turned away from Iranian food. I see on your Instagram, you cook Persian food.
M: It's so funny because I've done a full circle. I've turned into my mother. The other day I was reflecting on that, I like gardening. I like cooking. I like all of the things that she did, like, you know, upcycling jars. I used to make fun of her for like upcycling jars. I don't know if that's a Persian thing or an ethnic thing. But I think it's something that is part of the conservative way of taking care of things we have around us. How else am I preserving it? We listen to Persian music. So, I've been cranking that on Spotify. We've danced to that and listened to that in the mornings, especially the Persian nursery rhymes. Those are really great. I think the best way was through my grandparents, my parents, being a team. I mean, we've moved to Melbourne, my parents are all in Perth. We used to live in the same city and so that was amazing. Once a week he'd go there, and they'd speak to him in Persian. My father play setar. And just being around a house that has Persian items, even like, What's this? What's that, you know, even just zereshk, something so simple. These things that are just there in front of them that they see and learn without realizing.
L: Right, that's true. I always tell people that the grandparents are the secret weapon, because even if they rebel against us, and don't want to speak to us, they will with their grandparent. So you mentioned a little bit about the dinner table. What is the dinner table like for you? If you're speaking to your husband, you speak English? Or you said you sometimes speak Farsi, but generally, how does the dinner table look?
M: The dinner table looks like me speaking to my children in Persian. And if I speak to my husband in Persian, I throw in key words, so he sort of knows I just have my conversation. But look, if it's a complex theme, or a concept that is challenging, then 100% I flip it to English because there are some concepts and themes that I actually can't articulate in Persian yet. I'm saying yet because I'm learning every day. So yeah, those are dinner table is predominantly Persian with concepts that are challenging thrown in English.
L: I think a lot of people will relate to you. From our listeners, I can see that a lot of people grew up, really rejecting the culture rejecting the language, and they're all coming back to it. So I'm really happy that you've created these resources. I think that obviously, a lot of people really love them and really get a lot of use out of them. So if you can, can you tell us a bit about a bit more about your project? What kind of products do you have? And where can people find you?
M: Our resources are targeted at children. That's the aim in mind. But it's sort of evolved into a sort of family mishmash, really. So if you've got mixed families or have sort of anyone who's not Iranian, who wants to be involved, they're really useful for that. So it evolved from my story. So we used a method of transliteration for every letter. So every sound has a corresponding English letter and a phonetic way of saying it. And we have a user guide that took me a long time to develop. I know it looks really simple, but you know, these things take time to develop. And I've poured so much love into it. So what basically every word has a transliterated English letter and a sound. And so it's done systematically. So every single time you see that letter, you'll see it represented systematically in an English corresponding way. So the Persian word in the English alphabet so that anyone can read along.
L: Okay, wonderful. We'll link to your website on here. And people can find you on Instagram also at englisifarsi.com. We'll have that link up there. And yeah, I just want to say congratulations, I know it's very hard to get all this work done with two kids. And you've done a lot of work a lot of wonderful resources.
M: Thank you as well, I really I draw inspiration from everyone connecting with people like you and so many amazing inspiration from all over the world. I think we just draw on each other's energy in, it sort of propels us to push forward. So I feel like this next generation is really making some changes. I see so much coming out. I'm sure you see it, too. Where was this five years ago when I was looking? But I'm so excited to see where it goes and all the things that are coming out. And I think that we're really finding a way to integrate these two amazing cultures together so that everyone benefits.
Englisi Farsi- The place to find the books and resources Mona has put together
Englisi Farsi Instagram Page- Where Azadeh is most active- great content for parents of bilingual children