(Alexandra Schwartz’s article appeared in The New Yorker, 2/28/22; In Toossi’s play, four Iranian students become friends or rivals in an English class.Illustration by Sophi Miyoko Gullbrants.)
In a play about a TOEFL class in Iran, speaking a second language isn’t just a way to say the same things differently but a way to be different.
To learn a second language as a grownup, when the pliable, plastic brain has hardened to brittle glass, is to know the locked-in sensation of being shut out—from other people, with their enviable, easy fluency, and, worse, from your own articulate self. We are as much made of words as we are of flesh and blood. Personality dissolves in an unfamiliar language like a sugar cube dropped into a cup of tea; estrangement from a mother tongue can be as painful as estrangement from an actual mother. It can be freeing, too, the way that leaving home often is. A few years ago, I saw the Francophone comedian Gad Elmaleh perform a set in English for a cabaret-size crowd at Joe’s Pub. In France, Elmaleh is a star who sells out arenas. In his forties, he had decided to see if he could be funny in another language, one that he spoke with creaky grammar and a limited vocabulary. The performance that resulted from this self-imposed dare was notable less as an exercise in humor than as a test of endurance, a feat undertaken in pursuit of becoming someone new.
Each of the four students learning English in “English,” a new play by Sanaz Toossi (a Roundabout and Atlantic Theatre Company co-production, directed by Knud Adams), has a different reason for wanting to speak the language. Omid (Hadi Tabbal) has a green-card interview coming up. Roya (Pooya Mohseni) needs to be able to communicate with her granddaughter, who lives in Canada. Elham (Tala Ashe) has been accepted to medical school in Australia. Goli (Ava Lalezarzadeh) is only eighteen, but she’s been captivated by the language since she was small; English may be the key to her future, but it’s also a deep aesthetic pleasure. We’re in a toefl (Test of English as a Foreign Language) class in the Iranian city of Karaj, near Tehran, in 2008. The students’ native tongue is Farsi, but, with one big exception, we hear only English onstage, because Toossi, who is Iranian American and grew up in California, has found a simple and fantastically effective way to depict the double self of the novice language learner. When her characters are “speaking” Farsi, we hear quick, idiomatic American English. But, when they speak English itself, their voices slow down, and their accents grow thick; they drop their indefinite articles, struggle to pronounce their “W”s, and have to search for the right words to stitch together into rough sentences.
There’s no shortage of easy comedy to be wrung from the conceit of foreigners who talk “funny,” as these students, preparing to be foreign, know all too well. They’re haunted by the spectre of Borat: is that how they’ll sound to an Anglophone ear? But, while Toossi’s play frequently delights in the infelicities of imperfect speech, it’s never cruel. Guided by their teacher, Marjan (the sensitive Marjan Neshat), the students play hot-potato vocab games and conduct the sort of stilted small-talk dialogue about nothing which will be brutally familiar to anyone who’s taken a class like this:
Elham: Hello what is it your favorite color?
Roya: It is red my favorite color.
Elham: Red it is . . . strong. Strong color. Very strong.
Roya: Very strong. It is strong. I am strong. One time I carry six boxes.
Elham: Okay. Wow. Six.
Roya: One time big chair. Big big chair.
Elham: It is over now.
Elham cuts the exercise short because she can’t tolerate sounding “like idiot”—“an idiot,” Marjan corrects her—when she knows herself to be anything but. She has the most urgent reason for being in the class: she aced her mcats, but she needs to pass the toefl to matriculate and to qualify as a paid teaching assistant, and time is running out. She also has the worst English of the group, and an attitude to match. Roya is dignified and unflappable. Goli is sweet and eager. Omid is a showoff, and suspiciously fluent, almost as if he doesn’t need to be there at all. But Elham is sullen, sarcastic, combative; she locks horns with Omid, insults Goli’s accent, and can’t stop herself from breaking into rapid-fire Farsi, even after Marjan institutes a demerit system, keeping a tally of linguistic infractions on the classroom whiteboard. To learn a language, you have to be willing to abase yourself. Elham’s pride is her ruin. She’s already failed the toefl five times, though she can bring herself to confess that shameful truth only to Marjan. “Word is humiliation,” she says. “I look it up.”
Marjan may understand how Elham feels, but she refuses to indulge her. She spent nine years living in Manchester, England, before returning to Iran, and, spiritually, she’s still abroad. “It took me two years alone to figure out the bus routes,” she says, wistfully. What can she do with that knowledge now? She misses the city, the culture. She misses herself, too. In England, Marjan was called Mary, a renaming that her students, when they discover it, interpret as a gross affront, another case of the homogenizing West asserting its dominance over anything that smacks of otherness. But Marjan loved being Mary. It was an adventure, an escape. So was speaking English. It wasn’t just a way to say the same things differently but a way to be different—not a truncation of the self but an expansion of it. “I always liked myself better in English,” she confesses. Back in Iran, she feels like an immigrant again, unmoored by her longing for a lost land.