Not to be one to neglect languages that don’t get so much exposure (regardless of number of speakers), I wanted to invite someone to give us a detailed overview of Persian, how to learn it, and why it’s easier than you think it is.
So I invited Tom Allen of Tom’s Bike Trip to come to the site and tell us everything he knows about it! Over to you Tom:
Persian is a language almost as beautiful as its region of origin. Unique, poetic and influential, Persian opens the door to one of the most distinctive Middle Eastern cultures.
Learning Persian won’t just enhance your travels within the Persian-speaking world and its global diaspora, as it has done for me. Persian has remained unchanged for centuries, so unlike in many other languages, you can experience world-famous Persian literature in the exact language it was written.
In this article, you’ll discover many more reasons to consider Persian for your next foreign language project – as well as few myths about its supposed difficulty. I’ll also highlight a few of its features and quirks, and provide some starting points for learning Persian (known to native speakers as Farsi) yourself.
Let’s start by looking at three common myths about Persian…
Myth 1: Hardly Anyone Speaks Persian
Persian refers, logically, to the language of Persia. But Persia hasn’t officially existed since about 80 years ago, when the King of Persia, Reza Shah, demanded that his country be referred to henceforth as Iran.
(Hands up if you thought Persia and Iran were two different places? I’ll admit that I did until quite recently.)
But the old name of the language stuck. So the official language of Iran, to the English-speaking world, is still Persian. ”Iranian”, on the other hand, refers to the nationality of Iran’s people.
To complicate matters further, Persian is known as Farsi (فارسی) to its native speakers in Iran, Dari (دری) to those in Afghanistan, and Tajik (тоҷикӣ) to those in Tajikistan. That’s because these countries were once part of the Persian Empire, and have since developed their own dialects.
Confused yet? All you really need to know is that Persian is the language of modern-day Iran, as well as a fair bit of the surrounding area. It’s also spoken in communities the world over, and the majority of its 100 million or so native speakers call it ‘Farsi’.
Yes – 100 million native speakers. That’s about the same number of people who speak German.
Myth 2: Persian is Only Spoken in Iran
I once believed that learning Persian would be pointless because of the limited opportunities to use it. Nothing could be further from the truth.
As well as its widespread use in the Middle East, Persian is still used throughout the Iranian diaspora, which is enormous. Practically every major city in the Western world has a strong Iranian community thanks to waves of migration during the 20th century.
Here in the UK, for example, I can wander around West London and pick out Iranian grocery stores, restaurants, jewellers, travel agents and barbers. There are also strong communities in Paris, Vancouver, Sydney, and New York. Los Angeles and Toronto are such hotspots that they’ve earned the nicknames ‘Tehrangeles’ and ‘Tehranto’ among Iranians.
This means that you’re unlikely to have to visit Iran itself to find native speakers to practice with… unless you really want to.
Myth 3: Iran is Really Dangerous
Many people (especially in the US) believe that Iran is a part of the world to be feared and avoided. This is a misguided view, as I’ve discovered on numerous extended visits to the country.
In fact, it’s inspired me to make a film in order to show Iran in precisely the opposite light, as a place full of incredible landscapes, diverse cultures and hospitable people. (Click here to watch the film and see what I mean.)
My first visit to Iran was in 2008, when I couldn’t speak a word of Persian outside سلام / salaam (hello) and خیلی ممنون / kheyli mamnoon (thank you very much). But in 2013, after learning a few introductions and some basic grammar and vocabulary, I spent two months of language immersion travelling alone in Iran. I met native speakers by Couchsurfing in the cities, hitch-hiking between them. I also crammed new vocabulary by using Anki flashcards in every spare moment.
The people I met were so warm that I was never left alone (even when I wanted to be alone!). By the end of the trip, I was speaking entirely in Persian from one day to the next, and had made many friends to whom I’d never spoken a word of English. After years of failed language learning in the past, these two months were a revelation.
Good Reasons To Learn Persian
Travel is not the only reason to learn a language, of course. There’s also art, literature, music, film, and more. Persian cultural expression over the centuries has given birth to some of the most famous philosophical literature and romantic poetry ever written in any language.
Rumi, Saadi, Hafez, Ferdowsi, and Omar Khayyam are ancient Persian writers who command respect among the English speaking world, as well as being revered by modern-day Iranians. Many Iranians of can quote you any number of verses by rote. Imagine the pleasure of being able to read the work of these writers in its original language. It’s especially pleasurable because Persian is a fluid language that lends itself well to artistic expression.
In Persian, unlike English, today’s literary form of the language hasn’t changed for centuries. A modern speaker can still read and understand an original text written a thousand years ago.
There’s modern culture too. Iran’s film scene in particular is intensely strong. With the Hollywood staples of sex and violence banned, filmic artistry through dialogue and story has flourished. Iranian director Asghar Farhadi recently won the Best Foreign Language Oscar for his film A Separation.
How Difficult Is Persian?
If you take the Foreign Service Institute’s rankings at face value, it’s very difficult. Persian is rated 4 out of 5 (5 is the most difficult).
However, these ‘difficulties’ fade as soon as you reframe them as positives. Plus, I’ve found plenty of innovative workarounds that make Persian simple. Let’s look at a few of these…
Shared Vocabulary In Persian
It’s true that there’s not a lot of crossover between Persian and European languages. But that’s not always the case, in part thanks to the fact that Persian is an Indo-European language. Consider the following phrase:
“My name’s Tom – what’s your name?”
In French, we get:
“Je m’appelle Tom – comment t’appelle tu?”
In German, we get:
“Ich heise Tom – wie heist du?”
In Persian, we get:
“Naam-e man Tom. Naam-e to cheest?”
Which bears the most resemblance to English? Well… Persian.
There are plenty of examples like this. Take the first person singular form of ‘to be’ – as in “I am” – which is identical to English.
Am = ام / am
And “name” is also practically identical too:
Name = نام / naam
Indeed, Persian is so supple that this is everything you need for a sentence:
My name is Tom
The -am part also means ‘my’.
Similarities continue into family introductions:
Mother (mater) = مادَر / maadar
Father (pater) = پِدر / pedar
Brother = بَرادَر / baraadar
Daughter = دختر / dokhtar
نام مادرم لیز
Naam-e maadar-am Liz
My mother’s name is Liz
Hey, we’re speaking Persian but we’ve barely left the lexicon of English. So much for lack of cross-over…
Side Benefits Of Learning Persian Vocabulary
It might be tempting to think that learning all that new vocabulary will be a time sink. Think again! Learning Persian vocabulary will give you a kickstart with other Middle Eastern languages.
Though linguistically unrelated to Persian, the influence of Arabic via the Qu’ran has resulted in Persian absorbing a ton of its vocabulary. Perhaps a quarter of words overlap. You’ll learn them by proxy, and start to notice the same words popping up in other regional languages, including Turkish, Kurdish, Urdu and others.
This is the equivalent of being able to use all the Norman and Saxon vocabulary in English to give yourself a headstart in other European languages. It’s also like learning one romance language and being able to import vast amounts of its vocab to the others.
Indeed, if you’re fluent in English, you already know a slew of Persian words, including bazaar, candy, caravan, caviar, lemon, kebab, naan, orange, pyjama, paneer, pashmina, pistachio, samosa, shawl, sitar, spinach, sugar, tambourine, and typhoon, among others.
How (And When) To Learn The Persian Script
First things first – as a beginner, you can ignore Persian script. First, learn to speak and understand Persian. You’ll find that beginner resources transliterate everything into the Latin alphabet anyway.
Learning the script will be a boost once you’re beyond the basics. It is a bit intimidating to get started with it. But look at it this way: you won’t be learning the Persian alphabet, but the Perso-Arabic alphabet.
Consider that once you’ve learnt it, you’ll be able to read and write the script for no fewer than 21 other languages as well as Persian – including, of course, Arabic itself — with just a few small differences between each. It’s the equivalent of learning English once and then being able to read and write the same basic alphabet used across most of Europe and the West.
Beginner Tips For Learning The Perso-Arabic Alphabet
When you don’t know the first thing about Persian script, a sentence such as اَز آشِنایی با شُما خوشوَقتَم – az aashnaayee baa shomaa khoshvaght-am – looks like a load of squiggles and dots. But… so would ‘I’m pleased to meet you’ if you didn’t know the Latin alphabet – which is exactly what the phrase above means in Persian.
Let’s look a bit more at why the script isn’t half as intimidating as it first looks – and, hey, let’s learn a few bits of it in the process.
Tip 1: Persian is Spelt Phonetically
When applied to the Persian language, the alphabet is phonetic – what you hear is what you write, and what you read is what you say. That’s a language-learning luxury!
There are a couple of caveats to this, which we’ll come to, but at the beginner level, if you can pronounce the word, you can almost definitely spell it in an understandable way, and vice-versa. This makes things way easier than, say, French, with its rules for decoding the pronunciation.
Tip 2: Persian has a case-free alphabet
The Persian alphabet has no upper or lower case. capital letters simply don’t exist. so you only need to learn one version of each letter. anyway, capitalisation is only a convention, serving no purpose for comprehension. (you can still understand what i’m writing here without capital letters, can’t you?)
Tip 3: Persian is just joined-up handwriting
Each letter in Persian has a couple of different forms. But they’re just minor variations of the same letter to allow them to join up. Some handwritten Latin letters change slightly when joined up, but are nonetheless easily identifiable.
Let’s look at an example letter. Take the basic form of چ / ch. Its three variations are: ﭼ , ـچـ and ﭻ, as in چِرا / chera (why), بَچه / bache (child), and هیچ / hich (none). These have basic shape and dots, but are slightly adapted to join to the adjacent letter. Can you now pick out the ch letter in each of the above words? Not too difficult, right?
It only gets simpler – ر / r and ز / z have only two forms each, for example, as they never join on the left.
That’s not all! The typed and handwritten forms of Persian script are basically the same thing. Same letters, same style. Imagine all printed English being formatted in a ‘handwriting’ font, and you’ll understand what I mean.
As soon as you understand that the Persian script works the same as joined-up handwritten English, but written right-to-left and without capital letters, the task of learning it suddenly becomes much less daunting.
Tip 4: The 32 letters come in groups
When you start learning Persian script, you’ll quickly notice that Persian letters fall into a smaller number of groups, which can really help break learning it down into more manageable chunks.
The aforementioned چ / ch is one of a group of four very similar letters, of which the others are ح / h, ج / j and خ / kh.
Notice that the only thing that changes is the position and number of dots – one, two or three, either above or below the main shape. There’s no other difference. This combination of a few basic shapes combined with six standard dot patterns comprises almost the entire Perso-Arabic alphabet. Simple.
The same goes for other groups of letters, like ر / r, ز / z, and ژ / jh; and ب / b, پ / p, ت / t and ث / s.
Tip 5: Many of the letters are redundant
Curiously, several letters in the alphabet have the same sound when the word is pronounced. This includes three letters for ‘s’, two for ‘h’, two for ‘t’ and a staggering four for ‘z’.
Why is this? Simply put, it’s because of Arabic, in which these different letters do have different pronunciations. When Persian borrows these words, these various letters are all approximated to the same sound.
The legacy remains in the spelling of these words when written. But when you’re learning and you accidentally use a س / s where you should have used a ص / s, people will still understand what you’ve written (And you can ask them to correct you).
How do you learn the right spellings? The same way you learned how to spell thousands of English words that use different letters for the same sounds (cereal/serial, anyone?). It’ll happen through use and repetition. You’ll learn it when it you need to.
Understanding Vowels In Written Persian
As I said previously, Persian is written phonetically. But where are the vowels?
Take a common learners’ word like متشکرم, meaning ‘thank you’. It’s pronounced moteshakeram. But when you spell the word out, you get م ت ش ک ر م. That’s m-t-sh-k-r-m. Where are the vowels?
In written Persian, these vowels are added as extra marks above or below the consonant they follow. Specifically:
- To add an ‘a’ sound to ‘cat’, you’d write َ above the c
- To add an ‘e’ sound to ‘beg’, you’d write ِ below the b
- To add an ‘o’ sound to ‘top’, you’d write ُ above the t
These are the three ‘short’ vowel sounds in Persian.
So the above word, moteshakeram, with the short vowels added back in, would become مُتِشَکِرَم.
But these short vowel sounds aren’t represented by letters – they’re shown as additions to letters. And so Persians don’t bother adding them because it interrupts the flow of writing.
Thnk abt it. If I rmvd hlf the vwls frm a sntnce, you’d stll be able to rd it, wldn’t you?
Of course you would. And that’s because you already know the words. You know what vowels to insert, and where. So do Persians when they’re reading Persian. That’s all there is to it.
How To ‘Deal With’ Missing Short Vowels In Persian
This is the perfect moment to reiterate Benny’s time-honoured advice to speak from day one. Ignore the difficulties of the script and get stuck in having a conversation.
As I mentioned before, beginner phrasebooks and language guides transliterate the words into the Latin alphabet to get you started. Even when they use Persian script they usually add all the short vowels back in to aid pronunciation (just as Persian children’s books do).
If you concentrate on speaking and listening first, and reading and writing later, two things will happen.
You’ll pick up the flow and the rhythm of the language, meaning you’ll often be able to guess what the pronunciation of a new word would be.
- You’ll expand your vocabulary – and then you’ll easily recognise those same words in their written forms because you’ll already know how to say them.
Finally, remember that there are only three short vowel sounds that are missing. Persian actually contains six vowels in total. The other three ‘long’ vowels all have their own written letters – ا (‘aa’ as in farm), ی (‘ee’ as in ‘beech’) and و (‘oo’ as in ‘zoo’). You’ll be able to read these phonetically.
So if you can’t figure out a missing short vowel, take a guess, because you’ve got a one in three chance of getting it right.
And if you don’t get it right first time, who cares? Embrace your mistakes.
The message is simple: none of the ‘difficulties’ of the Persian script should put you off learning Persian. It’s all about your attitude.
Persian Pronunciation Tips And Common Mistakes
Don’t make the mistake of thinking Persian is anything like Arabic when it comes to pronunciation. Persian is actually super-easy on the tongue if you’re a native English speaker. Aside from خ (kh) and ق (gh), there’s really very little in Persian that’ll present a challenge to your vocal chords.
The single biggest pronunciation challenge to native English speakers is actually the differentiation of ‘a’ (as in ‘cat’) from ‘aa’ as in ‘farm’.
We usually think of these sounds as being the same letter, but they are two distinct letters and corresponding sounds in Persian which will change a word’s meaning entirely. They cannot be chopped and changed.
Tips and Hacks For Beginner-Level Persian Grammar
Grammar isn’t something you should worry about to begin with for any new language.
But when you do come to study tenses and verb conjugations, you’ll find that basic Persian is simple.
There’s no noun gender. There’s not even any difference between he, she or it. Gender discrimination in Iran? Perhaps, but not in the language!
(An interesting consequence is that native Persian speakers, when learning English, often mistakenly use ‘he’ instead of ‘she’ or vice versa, simply because they’ve never had to think about the linguistic difference before)
Persian is also a ‘pro-drop’ language. You can usually drop the pronoun or subject (I, you, he/she/it, they, this, that, etc) from a sentence because it’s implied from the verb, once you’ve conjugated it.
So instead of saying:
من انگلیسی ام
man engelisi am
(literally) “I English am”.
You’d simply say:
(literally) “English am”.
Asking questions is also really simple – just raise the intonation and emphasis on the penultimate syllable:
از کانادا ای.
You are from Canada.
از کانادا ای؟
Are you from Canada?
Easy or what?
While you’re getting used to the flow and sound of the questions, you can also put آیا / aya at the start of a sentence to make it a question. Think of it as a universal pre-emptive question mark:
ایا از کانادا ای؟
Aya az kanada-yee?
Are you from Canada?
Verb Tenses In Beginner-Level Persian
You’ll be surprised how far you can get with just two tenses in spoken Persian.
Persian speakers almost always use the present tense in place of the future tense, which you’ll almost never hear spoken outside of a news broadcast. We do it too, saying “I’m going out” when in fact we’re still sitting on the sofa. We mean “I will go out”. But it’s obvious what we really mean from the context.
And while there are of course a variety of past, future, progressive and other tenses in Persian, just as in every language, the present and simple past are a perfectly good catch-all for anything that’s happened, is happening or is going to happen.
Once you do go beyond the basics and start looking at grammar, you’ll find that other tenses simply build on the same two basic sets of conjugation rules, with the addition of four basic verbs you’ll also use in almost every sentence in Persian:
budan / بودن (‘to be’)
shodan / شدن (‘to become/to get’)
daashtan / داشتن (‘to have’)
khaastan / خواستن (‘to want’)
On the whole, you’ll find that Persian grammar rules are incredibly simple in comparison with other so-called ‘difficult’ languages, like Russian or Arabic.
Hacking Word Order In Persian
Persian is agglutinative which means, the verb comes at the end, and suffixes abound. As such, words sometimes get stacked up behind each other in elaborate suspense-filled strings. By the time you reach the end of a sentence, you may have completely forgotten what the beginning was about.
Man dishab baa dokhtar-khaale-ye-man o bazi az hamkaar-esh be sinema raftam.
(literally) I, last night, with the daughter of my mother’s sister (i.e. cousin) and some of her colleagues, to the cinema, went.
Don’t worry about this when you’re speaking. While it’s technically correct to say man dishab birun raftam (literally ‘I, last night, out, went’), nobody would bat an eyelid if you followed English word order and said man raftam birun dishab (‘I went out last night’) instead. Word order in Persian is actually very fluid. That’s one of the reasons Persian lends itself well to poetry.
Yes, it takes time to adapt to a reversed sentence structure, because it involves reversing the order in which you think. But Persian is so much more forgiving in this respect than English, in which playing with word order for the sake of ease might make people think you were impersonating Yoda.
Most native speakers of Persian, on the other hand, will understand and encourage you regardless of what order the words come out, as I found during my own travels.
Getting Started: Resources For Learning Persian
Let’s have a look at some of the resources out there for getting started, from phrasebooks and language guides to sources of natively-spoken and written Persian and beyond.
You’ll find that learning resources aimed at American learners are particularly prevalent. Why? Because of the number of offspring of Iranian emigrants in the US who want to learn or re-learn the language of their motherland.
Phrasebooks and Language Guides
- Start with the Lonely Planet ‘Persian’ pocket phrasebook, which also contains a basic grammar reference. For each word and phrase you get the colloquial form transliterated into English, and the literary form written in Persian script.
- Move on to Teach Yourself Complete Persian/Farsi, which takes you from beginner level through to Level 4 (B2). Also consider Colloquial Persian. Both emphasise everyday colloquial use, as opposed to academic or literary.
- The BBC’s Languages section has a handy introduction to Persian.
Digital Learning Aids
- The entire dictionary section of the Lonely Planet phrasebook has been turned into a deck of flashcards for Anki
- Google Translate has a very useful and mostly accurate Persian setting, which is available as an offline dictionary in the app.
- Rosetta Stone has Persian courses from Level 1 through 3 – though this’ll teach you ‘correct’, formal, newsreader-style Persian, which Tehranis will find hilarious.
- Pimsleur also has Persian audio lessons, though again in the formal style.
- PersianPod101.com, while quite aggressive on the sales pitches, has lots of audio content, again fairly formal in style.
- ChaiAndConversation.com has a free podcast series for beginners in colloquial Persian if you’re aim is to communicate with native speakers.
Courses and Tuition
- italki has lots of native Persian teachers), both based in Iran and elsewhere, as well as being great for finding language partners.
- Livemocha has plenty of beginner Persian content, among its other benefits to the language learner.
- Courses at higher education institutions (such as SOAS in London) are widely available in the West, but do tend to teach formal Persian – great if you want to understand the written form, but hearing colloquial spoken Persian for the first time will come as quite a shock!
- If you’re really keen, you could always go as a foreign student to study Persian language at the University of Tehran.
- Watch Persian-language TV. Manoto’s version of Come Dine With Me is great listening practice. For something more formal, try BBC Persian and Voice of America.
- There’s Iranian-made TV as well – IranProud.com curates an ongoing and growing collection of serials and movies.
- Watch films. Iranian cinema is remarkable – famous directors include Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
- For specific titles, check out The Apple, Taste Of Cherry, The Colour Of Paradise, and more recently A Separation.
- Read. Again, there are the classics, including the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the Rubiyat of Oman Khayyam, and the works of Rumi, Saadi, Iraqi and Hafez. You’ll also find abridged children’s versions of these. And reading practice isn’t hard to come by online.
- Much famous Western literature, old and new, is translated into Persian too. Try iranibook.com and ketab.com for online Persian-language bookstores.
Real-life Conversations With Native Speakers
- Travel to Iran. Many nationalities are eligible for a visa-on-arrival at Imam Khomeini International Airport. It’s one of the most hospitable places you could ever hope to travel. (Don’t believe me? Watch my film!)
- Couchsurfing is ubiquitous in every major city in Iran. You’ll have no trouble convincing people to talk to you in Persian.
- If you can’t get to Iran, try Tajikistan, Uzbekistan or even north-west Afghanistan.
- Just as with any other language, you don’t necessarily have to travel there to find native speakers. If you live in a big, global city, you’re very likely to find an Iranian community already there. Check out Couchsurfing and filter by language – or start tracking down locals via your nearest Persian restaurant, where Iranian emigrants will often go for a taste of home. (Plus, Persian food is awesome.)
Good luck! موفق باشی!
And don’t forget to check out the short film of my Iranian adventure in 2014, where I really got the opportunity to put my Persian to use. If you’ve never been to Iran, it might just reshape your perception of the country altogether…
About Tom Allen Tom Allen is a full-time traveller, writer and award-winning filmmaker, and runs the popular bicycle-touring blog TomsBikeTrip.com. He’s spent many months in Iran on language-immersion trips, as well as on more exotic adventures in the country by foot, kayak and bicycle. You can watch a short film of his most recent trip here.
He’s currently crowdfunding a feature-length version of the same film. Check out the campaign’s progress on Kickstarter and pledge your support if you like what you see.