Anyone who has learned a foreign language knows how uncomfortable the experience can be. But learning a new language is also enjoyable, meaningful and humorous.
The play “English” explores those ideas and more. The comedy is about four Iranian students in an upper-level English class preparing to take the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The play is set in Iran over the course of one term.
The students are all adults with different English abilities and different reasons for taking the class.
Elham is hoping to go to medical school in Australia but must first pass the TOEFL. She has already failed the test five times and sometimes seems to hate English.
Goli is the youngest of the group. Of all the students, she is the most excited about learning the language. Roya wants to learn English so she can communicate with her grandchildren who live in Canada. And Omid is already very good at English. It is unclear why he wants to be in the class.
The teacher, Marjan, lived in Britain for several years. But she is worried about losing her fluency.
“English” was first released in New York City in 2022. It began showing in Washington, D.C., in January. It finishes its run in the nation’s capital on March 12.
“English” recently won the Obie Award for Best New Play. The Obie awards honor theater that is off-Broadway.
Sanaz Toossi, an Iranian-American, wrote the play. In a press release, she said that giving up a native language to move someplace else “can be an immensely painful experience for so many people…”
“I wanted to capture that, but I also wanted to honor how funny, textured, and sometimes contradictory Iranians (and all of us) can be.”
The students in the class play word games, listen to English-language songs, and watch American romantic comedies. Marjan has banned the use of Farsi in the class. But the rule is often broken.
The play is entirely in English. But through changing their voices, the characters show that they are "speaking" Farsi. When the students speak English, they do so in a strong Persian accent. Their sentences are often simple, because they are learning and speaking a foreign language. Words are spoken incorrectly.
But when the characters speak English in a perfect American accent, that means to the audience that they are speaking Farsi. When the characters speak Farsi, also called Persian, they can communicate much more clearly and can better express themselves.
The play explores how one’s personality can change or even be lost when speaking a foreign language. It also deals with how speaking a different language can make a person question their sense of identity.
Elham, who is a proud person, feels shame when she speaks English. When speaking English, Elham says she feels “like idiot” (“Like an idiot,” Marjan, the teacher, corrects her).
Marjan says she feels more like herself when she speaks English. But Roya does not feel like she can have an honest discussion with her son in English.
Tara Grammy is the actor who plays Elham. She was born in Iran and raised in Canada. Unlike the character Elham, Grammy enjoys learning languages. She speaks both English and Farsi fluently and also knows some German and French.
Grammy told VOA, “Different parts of us come out in different languages when you’re multilingual.” She said that English, which she is most skilled in, is the language of her intellect. Farsi is her language of love, she said.
“When I see a baby or I see a dog or something I speak to them in Persian,” Grammy said.
In the play, Goli says she likes English because it is like rice—you can make it however you would like. It is much different than Farsi, which she says always tries to sound like poetry.
Grammy agrees. “English is simple, it’s to the point. It's accessible, it's universal. Whereas Persian is absolutely poetry. It’s ancient. It's complex,” she said.
“You could learn English from reading a book,” she added. “But I feel like Persian you have to learn from people, because it's so layered and … just one phrase could mean 10 different things.”
Grammy thinks personality is not lost when speaking different languages. Instead, she said, “the more languages you know the more access you have to expressing different sides of yourself.”
I’m Dan Novak.