Learning Persian in Iran

The Persian language or Farsi as it is called in Persian, is for me the most beautiful language in the world! I don’t know why I love it so much but I do. When I first heard Iranian friends in Denmark speak it back in 2000, I just fell in love with the sound of it. Now I’m discovering it is not just a beautiful sounding language but very poetical. For example a common way to say thank you is ‘Daast e shoma dard nakhoneh’ which means ‘May your hands not hurt’. This is said to everyone, from taxi drivers to your host when thanking for a lovely evening. I hear it so many times a day! There is also a similar expression ‘Khasteh naboshee’ which literally means ‘don’t be tired’ but is an expression of gratitude for work that usually doesn’t affect you directly. For example it can be said to maintenance workers on the street that you pass. I can never remember this when I need it though!

This young girl was so eager to help me learn Persian, Kang village near Mashhad.

After years of interest in Iran and the Persian language I finally got the opportunity to visit the country in February and March 2016. Antony and I were lucky to have 2 months to travel all over Iran (see the many posts about our trip on this blog!) We met some amazing people and just loved all the places we visited. I started at this time learning Persian using www.easypersian.com. Some years before I had made attempts at learning the written script and the odd word but most of it was now forgotten so I had to start over.

Although I had many opportunities to use basic Persian, like asking how much things cost, explaining where we were from etc., most of our hosts spoke very good English so Persian wasn’t required that much. I didn’t have a lot of time to sit and study the language using the website as we were too busy socialising with our new friends or seeing the many wonders Iran had to offer. We decided I should return alone at the end of our trip, with the goal of studying the language.

Plan A was to study Persian here, Esfahan University.

At the end of January 2017 I stopped studying Spanish and said goodbye to Antony in Barcelona. He headed to Japan then home to New Zealand and I came back to Iran. I am now nearing the end of my 8 week solo trip where my focus has been to learn Persian and to see friends that we made last year.  Originally the plan was to do a 6 week Persian course for foreigners at Esfahan University but the student visa took too long to process so I ended up coming to Iran and getting a tourist visa on arrival instead. It has worked out really well. Although not as focused as the uni course would have been, I have had time to study the language, more time with friends and a chance to see different parts of the country too. Hopefully in the future I can do the course at the university.

So how do I learn a language?

Living in the country where the target language is spoken is the best way for me to learn because I hear it and see it every day and am often forced to use it. Spending time with children is often better than adults as they are keen to communicate and keep trying even when you don’t understand.

Playing games and chatting with kids is a great way to practice the language and have fun!

Usually I’d say that being with people who don’t speak English is an advantage but actually on this trip I stayed with people who didn’t speak English but hardly spoke to me in Farsi either! And then I stayed with one family where all 3 members spoke very good English, yet they first addressed me in Farsi and only when we couldn’t go on did they switch to English. They regularly taught me new words then checked later in the day if I remembered them etc. So helpful!! I wish I could have stayed with them for more than the 2 nights I did.

The most wonderful hosts! Khorramabad.

I guess I have had three main avenues for learning this trip
1. easypersian.com
2. chaiandconversation.com
3. talking with shopkeepers, family of my hosts who didn’t know English etc.

1. I picked up where I left off last year with www.easypersian.com.
This site helps if you want to learn grammar and how to read and write Persian… which I do. I enjoy the structure it provides and the way it progresses, although it is also quite slow, hard slog. There is a lesson which addresses a grammar point and/or new words, then I do the follow up ‘useful drills’ page which usually introduces more new words and gives you English sentences to translate. It is not a particularly good site if you want useful phrases for travelling, visiting people etc. Before I learned how to introduce myself I learned how to say things like ‘The fat man didn’t destroy your car the day before yesterday’!! I am on lesson 31 and still stuck in the past tense! I got all excited lesson 28 as I thought we were finally making it into the present, but alas it was the present perfect, i.e. instead of saying ‘I saw’, I learned how to say ‘I have seen’. Still very much looking forward to making it into the present!

2. www.chaiandconversation.com has podcasts/ sound files which you can listen to, usually around 15 minutes long. These are conversations between a Persian speaking American teacher and an American guy trying to learn Persian. They are really enjoyable to listen to and teach things that are very useful for my trip, e.g. units on protocol and language used when visiting Iranian families, introducing yourself and others, asking what time things happen etc. When I have repeated phrases I have learnt from these podcasts I often get a lot of laughs from my hosts. They are surprised that I know the common informal phrases they use and also the ‘taroof’ language.

When I was first in Iran, in Mashhad, my friend kept apologising (in English) for her back. ‘I’m sorry for my back’ she would say when changing her baby’s nappy with her back to me, but on the other side of the room. I was a little confused why she kept saying this until I heard the podcast teaching about a common phrase used by Iranians, ‘Bebaksheed, pushtam behe too-ne’ meaning ‘I’m sorry my back is facing you‘. It took me a while to remember it but I use it as often as I can now!! What is really cool is a common answer to this… ‘Gul push to roo nadoreh’ which means ‘a flower doesn’t have a front or back’ (i.e. it is beautiful on all sides). Then in response to this, one can say ‘khodit gulee’… you are a flower! Such a cool language!

Studying at a desk in Esfahan

Listening to these podcasts in combination with the more tedious, grammar focused lessons on easypersian.com works so well for me. Sometimes I am not in the mood for translating sentences and writing in farsi so instead I can listen to a podcast and write notes in Penglish instead. Because I like to know the ‘why’ of language, i.e. the grammar, sometimes what I hear on the podcasts I think would be a little frustrating and hard to understand if I didn’t have the knowledge I’d been taught on easypersian.com. These sites really balance each other nicely.
Both these sites are free although there is an option to spend money on the chaiandconversation site and get extra materials that support the sound files. I haven’t bothered with this.

3. Being in Iran and wanting to communicate often gives rise to the need for words that I haven’t come across yet in the online lessons. This happens in particular when I stay with Iranian families and want to cook. For example I need to ask ‘Do you like beetroot?’ or ‘Do you have sesame oil?’  Either someone teaches me the new word, I look it up on my dictionary app (Fastdic) or consult my Farsi phrasebook. I like practising the new words when I go shopping and asking if they have this or that, or asking how much things are etc. My vocabulary for vegetables is pretty good now!

I have joined a group on whats app which is for those interested in learning Persian. Although I haven’t utilised it too much I really like that there are some kind Persian speakers on there willing to listen to your voice file and correct your pronunciation or answer your language questions etc. This will be even more helpful when I’m in New Zealand and don’t have Persian speakers at my fingertips to ask questions to.

I go through phases of being very focused on learning and then phases where I’d rather blog or rest than study Persian! In Shiraz I was so busy seeing people and places that I hardly studied formally the whole week. But I had a chance to practice what I had learned with my host’s family members who didn’t speak English. These encounters are always good to reinforce language I’ve learnt/ am learning. I usually carry my notebook around and locals quite like seeing it. They admire my handwriting and tell me it looks like what they did in grade 1 at school! Very neat and clear. It’s totally different to quick handwriting which adults use and I can hardly decifer.  Children can read it and often help me by going over the words I’ve written and letting me repeat them or try and remember the meaning. I can add new words that come up as well so my notebook is invaluable.

Typical family gathering on a Friday, near Pasargade but it could be anywhere in Iran. Great opportunity to practice the language already learnt!

In Esfahan I had a week of really focused study, about 3 or 4 hours every day. As a result, I had so many new words to learn that I decided to make some kind of flashcards using paper. I store these in a lovely leather business card holder a friend gave me in Mashhad. As I don’t have any business cards it is a great use of this gift! At the front words I need to test myself on, at the back the words I think I know. I was really spoilt in Esfahan. As I sat studying at a desk in a quiet comfortable room I was brought tea or soft drink, nuts, seeds, fruit, cucumber or chips to snack on at timely intervals by my hosts. So nice!

Flashcards & Notebook

In less than a week I return to New Zealand. I have high hopes of continuing my Persian study (and Spanish, and Māori!). I don’t want to lose the ground I have made already and feel I am just starting to get it. I am encouraged to hear of Iranian student groups at both Otago and Canterbury Universities so fully plan to get in contact with them and invite Iranian students to come stay with us in Ashburton. Both to return the hospitality we experienced so much of in Iran and of course to have the chance to use this beautiful language!!

This week I bought a series of books here in Tehran that I hope to use when I am home in New Zealand. They cost about $2.50 NZ each and that includes a cd – so cheap!

4 new books with cds for the grand total of $10 NZD

Any other Persian language learners reading this, do let me know what has been useful to you in learning Farsi. Morvafagh boshee (Wishing you success!)!


  1. Hi!

    I knew about the sites, but great to have you confirm them. My experience so far (10 out of 100 days) is that it is impossible to do anything successfully or with ease here, because of the language barrier. I had taxi drivers taking me to the wrong places, going anywhere is like walking in the dark, I wasted several days of exploration in cars back and forth because of lack of information and communication.

    Thanks for sharing inspiration. Will start carrying my notebook too.

    1. Hi Josef, I’m sorry you have had such bad luck getting around! I load a google map of the area I’m going when I have wifi (or use mobile data) then turn on the location on the phone so I can see if I’m heading in the right direction or not. I haven’t had any problems here and I’ve been surprised how many people speak English. I’ve been fortunate to stay with a number of locals though who then point me in the right direction or organise drivers for me if I’m off exploring. I hope the rest of your trip goes better… Good luck!

  2. When I retired as a language teacher and Chair of the Department at the University of Northern Iowa Laboratory School (USA), as a Webmaster I then developed 29 language websites for students and their teachers. I ask that you pass the information below on to your language department to share with your Persian/Farsi students and staff. Persian is the most recent addition.

    Best Persian Websites: https://sites.uni.edu/becker/Persian.html

    The Master Homepage for the 29 different languages is: http://www.uni.edu/becker/

    141 enjoyable language learning activities provides Persian/Farsi instructors with a wide variety of “fun things to do” in class to build proficiency. Don’t miss it as it is a teacher preferred site. I hope to hear back from you on your use(s) of these sites.

    Jim Becker, BA, MA, PhD-ABD
    Professor Emeritus
    University of Northern Iowa

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