Towards conceptualizing ‘demographic agency’ in Family Language Policy

The case of Arabic-Persian bilingual families in Iran


  • Seyed Hadi Mirvahedi University of Groningen Author
  • Kamal Nawasser Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz Author



Iranian Arabs, demographic agency, Persian, language maintenance, Iran


This article investigates the success story of language maintenance in Arab families in Iran. Taking Fishman’s (1991) emphasis on micro face-to-face interactions in language maintenance processes as our point of departure, it argues that language maintenance requires that families live in a sociolinguistic milieu in which face-to-face interactions are facilitated by demographic patterns of settlement. Despite unfavorable institutional policies towards minority languages in Iran, the specific geographical makeup of the country has historically pushed speakers of minority languages to settle in certain regions (Katouzian, 2009). Drawing on Sealey and Carter’s (2004) concept of ‘demographic agency’, this article argues that such a demographic settlement of Arabs in southern cities and towns in Iran has given them a collective power to maintain their language, which takes the form of laissez-faire interactions in Arabic at home. The findings, based on interviews with families and recordings of interactions at home, suggest that, although parents express concern regarding their children’s academic achievement and socioeconomic mobility, which requires higher proficiency in Persian, this concern does not readily translate into language practices in Persian at home.

Author Biographies

  • Seyed Hadi Mirvahedi, University of Groningen

    Seyed Hadi Mirvahedi is an Assistant Professor of Language and Society at the Center for Language and Cognition, University of Groningen, the Netherlands. His research has focused on multilingualism in policy and practice, investigating ideological dimensions of national language policies, policy formation and implementation, and visual language use in multilingual communities.

  • Kamal Nawasser, Shahid Chamran University of Ahvaz

    Kamal Nawaser is an MA graduate from Shahid University of Ahvaz, Khuzestan, Iran. His main research interests include bilingualism, family language policy, home language maintenance and shift, with a special interest in the Arabic-speaking minority in Iran.


Altinkamis, F. (2022) The effect of family composition on family language policy of Turkish heritage speakers in Flanders/Belgium. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 43(9): 833–846. Doi:

Archer, M.S. (1995) Realist social theory: The morphogenetic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M.S. (2000) Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Archer, M.S. (2003) Structure, agency and the internal conversation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: A critical analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2019) Foreword. In S. Haque and F. Le Lièvre (eds) Family language policy: Dynamics in language transmission under a migratory context 1–5. Munich: Lincom.

Bonacina-Pugh, F. (2012) Researching ‘practiced language policies’: Insights from conversation analysis. Language Policy 11: 213–234. Doi:

Bosworth, C.E., Morony, M., Elton, L.D., Pierre, O., Bernard, H. and Ramazani, R.K. (2020) ARAB. In E. Yarshater (ed.) Encyclopaedia Iranica online 201–224. Brill.

Braun, V. and Clarke, V. (2006) Using thematic analysis in psychology. Qualitative Research in Psychology 3(2): 77–101. Doi:

Busch, B. (2017) Expanding the notion of the linguistic repertoire: On the concept of Spracherleben – The lived experience of language. Applied Linguistics 38(3): 340–358. Doi:

Canagarajah, S. (2008) Language shift and the family: Questions from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Journal of Sociolinguistics 12(2): 143–176. Doi:

De Houwer, A. (2007) Parental language input patterns and children’s bilingual use. Applied Psycholinguistics 28: 411–424. Doi:

De Houwer, A. (2015) Harmonious bilingual development: Young families’ well-being in language contact situations. International Journal of Bilingualism 19(2): 169–184. Doi:

De Houwer, A. and Bornstein, M.H. (2016) Bilingual mothers’ language choice in child-directed speech: Continuity and change. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 37(7): 680–693. Doi:

Döpke, S. (1992) One parent one language: An interactional approach. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Elwell-Sutton, L.P., De Planhol, X., and Nejatian, M.H. (2020) ABADAN. In E. Yarshater (ed.) Encyclopaedia Iranica online 51–57. Brill.

Fishman, J.A. (1991) Reversing language shift: Theoretical and empirical foundations of assistance to threatened languages. Clevendon: Multilingual Matters.

Iran National Bureau of Statistics (2017)

Katouzian, H. (2009) The Persians: Ancient, mediaeval and modern Iran. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Khaghani, M., Liaghatdar, M.J., and Pakizehkhoo, T. (2006) Investigating the reasons for the lack of interest in Arabic language among school children from teachers’ perspectives in Shiraz. Journal of the Iranian Association of Arabic Language and Literature 5: 89–107.

Kheirkhah, M. and Cekaite, A. (2018) Siblings as language socialization agents in bilingual families. International Multilingual Research Journal 12(4): 255–272. Doi:

Lane, P. (2010) ‘We did what we thought was best for our children’: A nexus analysis of language shift in a Kven community. International Journal of Sociology of Language 202: 63–78. Doi:

Lanza, E. (2007) Multilingualism in the family. In P. Auer and Li Wei (eds) Handbook of multilingualism and multilingual communication 45–67. Berlin: De Gruyter.

Leitner, B. (2020) Khuzestan Arabic. In C. Lucas and S. Manfredi (eds) Arabic and contact-induced change 115–134. Berlin: Language Science Press.

Letsholo, R. (2009) Language maintenance or shift? Attitudes of Bakalanga youth towards their mother tongue. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism 12(5): 581–595. Doi:

Marvasti, A. (2004) Qualitative research in sociology. London and New Delhi: Sage.

Mensel, L. van (2018) ‘Quiere koffie?’ The multilingual familylect of transcultural families. International Journal of Multilingualism 15(3): 233–248. Doi:

Mirvahedi, S.H. (2016) Linguistic landscaping in Tabriz, Iran: A discursive transformation of a bilingual space into a monolingual place. International Journal of the Sociology of Language 242: 195–216. Doi:

Mirvahedi, S.H. (2017) Exploring family language policy among Azerbaijani-speaking families in the city of Tabriz. In J. Macalister and S.H. Mirvahedi (eds) Family language policy in a multilingual world: Challenges, opportunities, and consequences 92–112. London: Routledge.

Mirvahedi, S.H. (2019) Nationalism, modernity, and the issue of linguistic diversity in Iran In S.H. Mirvahedi (ed.) The sociolinguistics of Iran’s languages at home and abroad: The case of Persian, Azerbaijani, and Kurdish 1–21. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mirvahedi, S.H. (2021) Examining family language policy through realist social theory. Language in Society 50(3) 389–410. Doi:

Mirvahedi, S.H. and Macalister, J. (2017) Home as a confluence of discourses in multilingual linguistic ecologies. In J. Macalister and S.H. Mirvahedi (eds) Family language policy in a multilingual world: Challenges, opportunities, and consequences 268–286. London: Routledge.

Mirvahedi, S.H. and Cavallaro, F. (2020) Siblings’ play, a venue for language shift: The case of shift to English in a Malay-English bilingual family. World Englishes 39(1): 183–197. Doi:

Mirvahedi, S.H. and Jafari, R. (2021) Family language policy in the city of Zanjan: A city for the forlorn Azerbaijani. International Journal of Multilingualism 18(1): 1–23. Doi:

Mirvahedi, S.H., Rajabi, M. and Aghaei, K. (2021) Family language policy and language maintenance among Turkmen-Persian bilingual families in Iran. In L.F. Wright and C. Higgins (eds) Diversifying family language policy 195–216. London: Bloomsbury Publishing.

Ochs, E. and Schieffelin, B. (2017) Language socialization: An historical overview. In S. May (ed.) Language socialization: Encyclopedia of language and education. Cham: Springer. Doi:

Okita, T. (2002) Invisible work: Bilingualism, language choice and childrearing in intermarried families. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Paul, L. (1999) Iranian nation and Iranian-Islamic revolutionary ideology. Die Welt des Islams 39(2): 183–217. Doi:

Pfaff, C.W. (1990) Turkish in contact with German: Language maintenance and loss among immigrant children in Berlin (West). International Journal of Sociology of Language 90: 97–129. Doi:

Queen, R.M. (2003) Language ideology and political economy among Turkish-German bilinguals in Germany. In D.B. Joseph, J. Destephano, G.N. Jacobs and I. Lehiste (eds) When languages collide: Perspeectives on language conflict, language competition, and language coexistence 201–221. Columbus: The Ohio State University Press.

Rasouli, H. (2005) Exploring Arabic language education in Iranian universities. Human Sciences Research Quarterly 47–48: 43–58.

Reeves, S., Peller, J., Goldman, J., and Kitto, S. (2013) Ethnography in qualitative educational research: AMEE Guide No. 80. Medical Teacher 35(8): e1365-e1379. Doi:

Rezaei, S. (2022) Language, religion, and modernity: A case study of Arabic in the Iranian contemporary educational system. In S. Abe and T.W. Lim (eds) Modernization In Asia: The Environment/resources, Social Mobilization, And Traditional Landscapes Across Time And Space In Asia 31–54. Singapore: World Scientific. Doi:

Rezaei, S. and Bahrami, A. (2019) Attitudes toward Kurdish in the City of Ilam in Iran. In S.H. Mirvahedi (ed.) The Sociolinguistics of Iran’s languages at home and abroad: The case of Persian, Azerbaijani and Kurdish 77–106. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Sallabank, J. (2012) Diversity and language policy for endangered languages. In B. Spolsky (ed.) The Cambridge handbook of language policy 100–123. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sealey, A. and Carter, B. (2004) Applied linguistics as social science. London and New York: Continuum.

Sevinç, Y. (2018) Language anxiety in the immigrant context: Sweaty palms? International Journal of Bilingualism 22(6): 717–739. Doi:

Sicoli, M.A. (2011) Agency and ideology in language shift and language maintenance. In T. Grandillo and H.A. Orcutt-Gachiri (eds) Ethnographic contributions to the study of endangered languages 161–176. Arizona: The University of Arizona Press.

Silverman, D. (2014) Interpreting qualitative data. London and New Delhi: Sage.

Silverman, D. (2017) Doing qualitative research (5th ed.). London and New Delhi: Sage.

Smolicz, J. (1981) Core values and cultural identity. Ethnic and Racial Studies 4(1): 75–90. Doi:

Soleimani, K. and Muhammadpour, A. (2019) Can non-Persians speak? The sovereign’s narration of ‘Iranian identity’. Ethnicities 19(5): 925–947. Doi:

Spolsky, B. (2009) Language management. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spolsky, B. (2011) Language and society. In P.K. Austin and J. Sallabank (eds) The Cambridge handbook of endangered languages 141–156. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spolsky, B. (2012) Family language policy – the critical domain. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 31(1): 3–11. Doi:

Tohidi, N. (2009) Ethnicity and religious minority politics in Iran. In A. Gheissari (ed.) Contemporary Iran: Economy, society, politics 299–323. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vorobeva, P. (2021) Families in flux: At the nexus of fluid family configurations and language practices. Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development 1–15. Doi:

Williams, G. (1992) Sociolinguistics: A sociological critique. London: Routledge.

Yarshater, E., Fisher, W.B. and Gershevitch, I. (1983) The Cambridge history of Iran (Vol. 3). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.



How to Cite

Mirvahedi, S. H., & Nawasser, K. (2024). Towards conceptualizing ‘demographic agency’ in Family Language Policy: The case of Arabic-Persian bilingual families in Iran. Sociolinguistic Studies, 18(1-2), 175-198.