Is Persian a difficult language to learn?
Sometimes, the love story with a country starts with its language. And what better language to fall in love with than Persian, the language of Rumi, Hafez, and Ferdowsi, world-renowned poets?
But is it hard to learn Persian? And if you decide to do so, what are the resources available to help you?
Before we talk about the interest in learning the Persian language in Iran, we need to make something clear! Why am I saying “Persian” and not “Farsi” as you may have heard a lot? It’s a long debate, but to make it short and simple, let’s say that “Farsi” is what the language is called in the Persian language; while “Persian” is the proper noun in English. Otherwise, it would be like saying someone speaks “Español” instead of saying he or she speaks “Spanish”. Got my point?
So, now, why one would like to learn Persian? There are plenty of reasons to learn this beautiful language. Persian is indeed spoken by over 100 million people in the world. By speaking Persian, you can communicate with Iranians in Iran, and their large communities abroad (in particular in North America), but also with parts of Afghans (speaking Dari) and Tajiks. Speaking Persian can thus be an advantage on a resume for various studies and positions, in particular in political science and geopolitics studies, as Iran plays a major role in the region.
Besides that, one of the main reasons students choose to learn Persian is often for the Persian culture. Iran has a rich and fine culture, in poetry, literature, cinema, and arts in general. It’s interesting to note that because the Persian language didn’t change a lot over time, students who learn Persian can soon enough read Rumi or Hafez’s poetry in the original version!
But many people also choose to learn Persian as they’ve simply been attracted by the beauty of this language before or after they intend to travel to Iran. Speaking Persian will of course be of big help for a traveler visiting Iran. Not just because you’ll be able to read prices and order your food in Persian. But also because you’ll make plenty of admirers and friends! Iranians are indeed not so used to seeing foreigners speaking their language and they become even more friendly toward someone who does.
Convinced to learn Persian? So, you may wonder how hard it is. From the point of view of someone who doesn’t know the Persian script, it can be intimidating at first. Yet, Persian is actually not a hard language to learn, at least for people speaking an Indo-European language. Why? Because Persian is part of this language family, and thus, has a long in common with it.
Words and sentence construction can appear quite familiar, and furthermore, Persian grammar is overall quite simple. There are no irregular verbs and no adjective inflection. And even better, Persian has no gender either for nouns or pronouns. So, once you’re past the few grammatical tricks that exist, Persian is easy to apprehend, and barely has any exceptions (hello French language!).
But of course, Persian language students will have to overcome some difficulties. As mentioned before, the first one is the Persian script, derived from the Arabic script. This script is cursive, meaning that the letters connect to each other’s, changing form whether they are placed at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of the word. It takes some time to master it, and it can be frustrating to struggle so much to read after months of study, but it’s necessary. Except if you just want to learn basic conversations, for a trip for instance. In that case, you can write Persian in “pinglish” with your own alphabet. Still, I highly recommend learning how to read and write from the beginning. If you didn’t, and if you decide later to learn more Persian, not knowing the Persian script will be a handicap.
Yet, knowing the Persian script won’t be enough to read properly! The tricky thing is that vowels are normally marked with a diacritic (a sort of accent, on top or under the letter). But it’s never used outside of kid’s books. So while reading a word, you have to “guess” the vowels. This, of course, requires knowing a lot of vocabulary. Otherwise, you’ll be unable to pronounce correctly one sentence.
Eventually, another main difficulty when learning Persian is the difference between colloquial and written language. It is necessary to first learn the formal written form, which is somehow the “standard” Persian, which you’ll find in books, newspapers and media. Yet, in everyday life, Iranians do not speak like a book! At first, for someone who only studied formal Persian, it may be difficult to understand. Yet, spoken and written Persian are not so far from each other. It’s often a matter of pronunciation and contracted words and verbs. But learning both at the same time can sometimes be confusing.
If you’ve decided to learn Persian and you’re willing to it on your own, you’ll need some help. There are unfortunately no good self-teaching books I can recommend you to learn Persian. Most of them are usually intended for travelers: it will teach you basics and conversations, often without teaching the Persian script. You can for instance choose the Lonely Planet Farsi Phrasebook, which is quite good to learn some Persian during your trip to Iran. If you have any other book’s recommendations, let us know in comments!
Online, you can find more resources to progress in Persian language. I would particularly recommend Farsi Monde, a website made by a group of young Iranian teachers (disclosure: I was one of their student). The approaches to the language is refreshing, trying to teach in a way that the students can use it right away (so with the spoken form). Another great resource is the website and podcast Chai with conversation, which is now active for more than 10 years.
But of course, nothing can replace a good teacher! If you can’t find one where you live, there are plenty of Iranians teaching their language online. And if you’re willing to become a true Persian speaker, why not considering studying a few weeks in Iran? There are several institutes in Tehran and other cities that are specialized in teaching Persian to foreigners. Obviously, the best way to learn both formal and spoken language at the same time!
Daisy Lorenzi is a French writer and traveler who felt in love with Iran after visiting the country. In 2018, she decided to settle in Tehran and has been living in Iran since. She currently lives on Qeshm island, in the Persian Gulf.