November 20, 2010

Learning Farsi

Hello everyone,

After a lot of thinking, postponing and excuse finding I finally realized that it’s time to give Farsi my best shot. The sound of this language, the whole region and music has intrigued me for a long time and I was willing to learn Farsi for a long time as well, even dabbed with it once or twice before, but never actually persisted. Now finally I have time and most of all the will and interest to do so, so I will try to do what I can.

A very important reason for me to do so is, that I have only very scarce knowledge of the Muslim world, which is a shame and I feel that I have this huge cultural gap in my mind ranging from Morocco to Xinjiang and Kazakhstan to Sudan which is embarrassing to say the least and now that I look at the map, Iran is almost in the middle of that region. Another reason why I want to learn Farsi is that should I ever want to learn Arabic, knowledge of Farsi will provide sort of a vocabulary bridge between the two.

I don’t know why, but for the past 3-4 years, I kept experiencing this terrible lack of interest to learn anything, especially languages. I realized that I was spending much more time reading/writing about learning languages, than actually learning languages themselves.

When it comes to my studies, I don’t have any method. I will just try to solve problems as I’m on my way, based on my experience that I have from learning relatively easy (Russian), moderately difficult (Italian) and difficult (Mandarin) languages as an adult from scratch. I also want to write this log, because I know that time will come when I will not study for 2-3 days which will easily extend into weeks and eventually fade again and this log might keep my study morals up a bit.

My only resource right now is Assimil Persan sans peine with audio. I was never a fan of using textbooks to learn any language but here’s the deal: Assimil audio is fun, systematically chosen and well balanced. The accompanying explanations are very nice too, but it is the development of the audio content from lesson 1 to 86 that make it good basis for progression onto real life material. The best thing of course would be to go to Iran for some time, but since I don't have this possibility right now, I will have to hope that Assimil will give me a good basis.

While learning Chinese, I eventually realized that it was a bad idea to write things down to memorize them in the beginning, because pinyin negatively influenced my pronunciation and characters gave me additional unnecessary burden in the beginning phases. Apart from that, it also made me waste too much time and energy, because whenever I thought of a word I had first seen the character in my mind, then the pinyin and eventually I came up with the sound. So for the first 30-40 lessons (roughly) I don’t want to write down anything, work with audio and concentrate on understanding the sentences that I hear. I will use the Assimil book to read the nice explanations and read the translations and transliterations. The transliterations I will read as little as I can in order to make as little association between the sound and the letters as possible. I will also try to spend the bulk of my time listening to the lessons, getting used to the vocabulary and sentence structure without forcing myself to reproduce the sounds too much.

I will also try to pre-listen to each lesson a couple of times before looking at the transliterations and translations. This way, some sounds that stand out should be much easier to remember. For instance I kept hearing this “Manzel” which is almost the same as the Slovak “Manžel“, which means „husband“ and kept wondering what the heck it was. Turns out it means „House“ and it is this kind of associations I am looking for, since I remembered the word without seeing it in writing at all.

My plan is to go through the entire Assimil book, and then start listening to real-life radio broadcasts/podcasts in Farsi with a good dictionary. I will then try to work my way through the audio, pause the podcast after every word that I just can’t move on without, look it up and write it down. I hope that by the time I get there (if I ever get there) I will not have to worry about the transliteration of Farsi negatively influencing my pronunciation, so writing down things for bulk-learning will be ok.

While studying Russian, It was a great thing having listened to Russian news all day (provided I had the time) and writing out unknown words, because when I finally came to Russia, I didn’t have to worry about not understanding people. Even if there were words here and there that I didn’t know, I could still understand them from context and this is my goal in Farsi too. My mid term goal is to be able to understand real-life radio dialogues well enough, so that I can learn from context and not the dictionary.

I heard some call this the “passive phase”. As there is no Farsi speaker around, I will remain in this “passive phase” until I am confident enough to talk to myself and eventually talk to someone. Luca for instance says that for him it is important to start speaking as early as you can. I don’t know. You might end up learning a great deal of things wrong and I’m not in a hurry anyway. I will just talk to myself or some friends that speak Farsi here and there and will not push myself to do anything. I think that I really learnt to speak Russian by listening to the news. If I improvise as early as I can, learn some things wrong, later I will sound like a foreigner even if I have a very good accent and grammar, because the constructions will just seem unnatural. Since Farsi is fairly different from the languages I am familiar with and my goal is to eventually sound as native and natural as I can, I prefer this – listen and learn first, wisely improvise later - approach. Of course one develops and adjusts his skills as time passes by, so I understand what Luca is trying to do, but I don’t know. A lot of listening is much more relaxing in the beginning than seemingly endless demotivating struggles with the simplest of sentences. My experience was that after I’ve heard the constructions, words or grammar patterns many many times, later when the need to use them occurred, they just popped up naturally.

So to sum up my method (if there is a method), is to build up a basis through Assimil in order to move on and start bulk learning vocabulary with real life material and eventually go to Iran. During the listening period I will experiment with what I’ve learned talking to myself, until I am confident enough to talk to someone else.

For bulk-learning of vocabulary, I use mnemonics. I read somewhere that they should not be used for many reasons one of them being that you end up remembering the memory hook instead of the sound and in order to get the word into the long-term memory you need to practice and not create artificial memory hooks, but I disagree. In my experience, I’ve always eventually forgot the memory hook and remembered the sound.

I was also big fan of Anki before, but while learning Chinese it proved to be very inefficient when it came to sound reproduction and recognition, so I will not use it now either and just write down new words in a word file the old fashioned way and review them every evening (hopefully) without having the stress of forgetting a couple. Right now I got up to Assimil lesson 20 and think that I have a decent vocabulary basis for a total beginner. I will make a short brake now and will just listen to the dialogues over and over which is basically spaced repetition but much more fun than Anki.

While learning Chinese I also realized that knowing how to handwrite a foreign script is not necessary in the beginning and only takes up a lot of time and effort. It also speeds down the learning process immensely and I don’t want to make something even harder than it already is. I do want to learn how to read and write of course, but I don’t want to push it. If I ever get to that point, where I will speak and understand people decently I should be able to learn the alphabet and orthography much easier, just as while studying Russian. The transliterations will serve just fine for the meantime. 

With all these nice words said and plans set out, after my experience with Chinese, where I was also very confident about my plans and skills in the beginning and my plans turned out to be a complete disaster in the end and the only real way to learn Chinese was full immersion and no strategy, my humble goal now is to approach problems one by one with no plan, keep up consistently studying Farsi and in 6 months time hopefully be able to understand Farsi radio and reach basic fluency. As I said in the beginning, I eventually realized that I spent way too much time reading or writing about learning languages rather than actually learning them, so I will try to update this log only once every now and then.

.. not the shortest journal entry for a person who talks about keeping it short in order to spend more time learning and less time talking about it. Thank's to anyone who read this far.



  1. Hey Vlad! How is your progress in learning Farsi?
    I think your advice on how to learn difficult languages (via listening and understanding first, reading and writing later) was really good, as it prevented me from jumping on the Chinese wagon before it was too late. I came to your advice just as I was about 2 weeks into a textbook and realized it was going to be quite a challenge to remember every single character+meaning+pinyin+translated pinyin in my languge.... 4 different things to remember for one simple sound!
    I'm currently learning Italian and Russian, so my question is - do you really have to live in the country in order to achieve fluency in a certain language? (I live in neither, although I do have a fair amount of Russian speakers in my city, with Italian I've only listened to songs here and there)
    Farsi is going to be one of the languages I'd like to learn also, so I will appreciate any of your intake regarding the process.
    Thank you and have a good weekend,

    1. Hello Sally,

      thank you for the nice comment. I'm glad my posts were helpful to you.

      It is as you said: "4 different things to remember for one simple sound" If you add the character stroke order for handwriting to that, that would be five, and if you add the facts that you need to think about the sentence structure and that you have to have the thought that you want to tell the other person on your mind too, that would make it 7.

      It is impossible to learn a language like this. People learn how to pause subconsciously on every syllable and have characters, pinyin and tone numbers flashing in front of their eyes with every syllable they say. I have a problem with this until today with some words and hate myself for that:) I try to change it but it takes a lot of effort and time.

      As to your question whether it is important to live in the country where the language you are learning is spoken: I think, from my perspective and I can speak only for myself, it depends on the language, but I think yes. At least with the intermediate and difficult languages and even with the easier ones at least for a short time. If not for the culture, then at least for the fact that I think there's a ton of things in daily speech that you wouldn't have the chance to hear or say or see used otherwise.

      I think as hard as you try, you won't be able to create good immersion conditions at home. I tried that with Chinese in Prague for instance and even though I tried really hard, it wasn't enough.

      As far as my poor Farsi goes, I unfortunately gave it up at the end of last year, because I just couldn't find the motivation to study on my own. I even tried looking for Farsi speakers online, but my Farsi was so poor and we could have lessons only once a week, with me having too much to do sometimes and not managing that one class either, it simply wasn't enough.

      To my unbelievable delight, two weeks ago an Iranian friend of mine from Prague offered herself to have lessons with me 3 times a week and I also found a Farsi speaker here in Taipei, so for these two weeks I've been officially studying again:)

      This time I am trying to learn Farsi by simple absorption like Mandarin and see how it goes. I did go through about 70 Assimil Farsi lessons so I at least have a slight idea about what is going on in the language, but the way I am learning it now is, that I'm just trying to answer simple questions and building on that. Assimil Farsi is great reading, but unfortunately it seems to me right now that it is very far from spoken Farsi, so it almost seems like starting all over again.

      I was thinking of doing a recording on learning languages systematically through grammar vs learning them by simple absorption, but I'm not motivated enough:( I always postpone and postpone... hopefully I'll manage to do that sometime.

      wish you the best of luck with your studies

      kind regards


  2. Hey there!
    Thank you for replying.

    It's good to know things might turn up unexpectedly even after you've given up on a language. Perhaps it could mean that the language hadn't given up on you :-) I am positive that if you're really into the Persian culture, you will benefit greatly when you'll realize how much you've learnt, and be able to talk to people, read through their rich historical library, listen to songs etc. It is quite like a mental adventure, in a way.

    I would love to hear you recording about grammar vs. natural absorption. There's just something about the old school way of learning that just doesn't seem to click, y'know? language aquisition, to me, never was about going through grammar drills, but just being very familiar with it whenever I hear it, wherever I go.
    If you'll continue with your Persian studies, it would probably help a lot of people to gain some more wide-length insight of how to approach every language. I liked that you have differentiated between learning "simple", "intermediate" and "difficult" languages.
    It shows that there is not just one good way to start learning ALL languages and where one will need to start from a grammar book (Italian for example), a differnt approach will be required when it comes to a "difficult" one (Mandarin as another example).

    Good luck and enjoy your studies,

    (if you can continue to update your progress on Persian it will be much appreciated, including any link to your resources ;-))


    1. Dear Sally,

      thank you for the nice comment.

      I would love to write something new about Farsi, but I don't think I came up with anything interesting worth writing about and I had a short pause in my Farsi studies again too. My Iranian friend had to return home briefly so I had to pause for one week. I tried to at least review the sentence patterns and vocabulary that popped up during our conversations, so I'll see how it goes once we restart again.

      I am experimenting a little with natural language acquisition and try to give it some structure. The way we manage our classes now is, that my friend asks me simple questions in Farsi without having them previously prepared and I try to answer them as best as I can and try to watch out for important sentence structures like these:

      I don't understand.
      For example ..
      That's not what I wanted to say.
      I didn't have enough time.
      Right now, I ..
      You know..
      I changed my mind

      These sentence patterns keep popping up everywhere, in Mandarin, Russian, Italian or Polish and I would like to somehow summarize them and try to analyze them a little, maybe write an article.

      I think they are much more useful than simple words and easier to learn than entire sentences. (Maybe you've heard about this approach. Some say that you should learn 10 000 or so sentences as a beginner. I tried it with Polish, but it seemed like too much information to remember.)

      Where do you come from if I may ask? Why did you decide to learn Russian and Mandarin?

      kind regards


    2. Hey
      That's ok, you take your time on Farsi, I didn't mean to hurry you, just encourage a little :-)

      These sentence patterns keep popping up everywhere, in Mandarin, Russian, Italian or Polish and I would like to somehow summarize them and try to analyze them a little, maybe write an article.

      ^That sounds like a good idea to start with, but where do you go from there?
      I didn't hear about the 10,000 sentence approach, and it sounds like putting too many eggs in one basket. I mean, other than sounding not so natural, if you go about memorizing that many sentences, you may end up memorizing the same words that keep pop up, or neglect other uses of a different word... and like you said, it's just too much information to remember.

      I come from Israel. My choice to study Russian and Mandarin (and some more languages down the road :-) oh man, I always get so excited when I think about it) is mostly based on my desire to break language and cultural barriers. There are about a million Russian immigrants here in Israel. Every time I encountered a russian it made me sorry I couldn't understand them, or even befriend them, as the language barrier makes some "disconnect" from their environment and stick to their own.
      I'd like to work in the future perhaps at teaching or helping people immerse in the environment, and would love to do so in Russian, Amharic (language of Ethiopia) and Arabic.
      As for Mandarin, I would like to have a broader knowledge of THEE major influence in the Far East, and as there are some one billion of them.... ah, I could enjoy the sheer fact that I'm reading exotic literature :-)

      Now that I've been inspired by other polyglot, I feel more secure in my abilities to learn these languages. It's good to know that someone has been there, and done it.

      So thank you and have a lovely day


  3. hey there,i'm bardia from iran and living in bratislava at the time ,daniel introduced you to me and as far as you're learning farsi i thought that you might be intrested to talk to a native speaker i would like to meet you so in case of any problem i can help you here is my facebook : Bardia Sh

  4. A small correction:
    it was listening to those Russian news what [sic, that] taught me to “speak” Russian.

  5. " My experience was that after I’ve heard the constructions, words or grammar patterns many many times, later when the need to use them occurred, they just popped up naturally. " Before, I thought those words were totally nonsense and a shameless lie. But after having experienced the same learning process as you says above, I am 100% sure to say they couldn't be more real and true. Thank you for your sincere words which are rarely seen in some polyglots' blogs.