Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

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catherinemaheu
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Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby catherinemaheu » Thu Mar 03, 2016 8:17 pm

Disclaimer.

Since this is going to be a long post, I want to put the disclaimer first: I love languages, but the only one I can speak correctly is my native language, Persian. So, please excuse the mistakes I’m going to make while writing this post.

The statements you see below are proven facts, unless you disagree with them, in which case they are just my humble and wrong opinion. But isn’t every statement like that when we read them? OK, no more jokes.

Introduction.

I have thought about languages, and my own language in particular, a lot. In this post, I’m going to iterate over a couple of points about Persian, which I think play a role in the difficulty of learning Persian as a foreign language. As someone who loves languages, and poetry and literature, it would be enchanting for me if I could put my knowledge about Persian into use, helping someone overcome the difficulties of learning Persian, but that lies out of the scope of this post.

A suggestions about reading this post: although I’m going to itemize what I want to say, they are going to be highly correlated, so I would encourage you to read the whole thing in one go. For example, somewhere below I’m going to talk about the Fractured Persian, at some later point I will describe what could be the reason behind its being formed, and at some later point how is that relevant to learning Persian.

1. There’s not just one Persian.

And that is true from different aspects!

I will start by mentioning the less important aspect. Persian has a lot of dialects, and most of them are mutually unintelligible, as much as Spanish and Italian are mutually unintelligible. In a way, what we are talking about when we say Persian is Tehran’s Persian. This is not very important because everyone learns Tehran’s Persian (just Persian from now on) in the school. However, people only learn Official Written Persian (more on that below) which means the way they speak is going to be very influenced by their own dialect even when speaking Persian. Also, a lot of works of poetry and literature are going to be written under the influence of the writers dialect, since these dialects are part of the culture which the author wants to pass on (this is of course something you will probably see everywhere, see Versi a Casarsa by Pier Paolo Pasolini for another example).

Now, the point that I think has the most relevance to the difficulty of learning Persian. Persian can be categorized into 3 categories. Official Written Persian, Everyday Spoken Persian (or Fractured Persian as I like to call it), and the written form of Everyday Spoken Persian (this one is not very important by itself, more on that below).

First, the Official Written Persian (OWP from now on). OWP is the language taught at schools. It is the language of the newspapers and the scientific books. It is also the language of most of the works of literature (or part of them, again, more on that later). OWP is a very well structured language, has no genders, and doesn’t have any weird verb tenses (i.e. no “you will have received it” tenses). There is no built-in formality structures in the language. It sounds very beautiful (or so I’ve heard, this is not something on which I can form an opinion) and all in all it should be a rather easy language to learn.

Second, the Everyday Spoken Persian (ESP from now on), or the Fractured Persian. A lot of things change, when Persian is spoken. A lot of /ɒː/ sounds are ‘fractured’ (or curved) into /uː/. For a lot of verbs, the consonant at the end is dropped and the previous vowel is replaced by /e̞/. A lot of vowel-consonant-vowel constructions are just replaced by just one of the vowels. And a lot more changes. I Also have to note that these changes are very irregular, even on a personal level (my sister curves the word for breakfast but not the one for family, my brother curves the word for family but not the one for breakfast, I curve them both, and this is really true not just a hypothetical situation). If you are wondering how all these stuff happened, you may find your answer below. This is one of the reasons that make me think people should only learn OWP at first, if they want to learn Persian.

Third, the written form of the ESP, or the Unfractured Fractured Persian. In a lot of situations, writing the Fractured Persian (transcribing what you hear into the script) is not desirable. So, the writer first ‘unfractures’ the words (reverses the changes I mentioned above) then writes them. You must be thinking “wouldn’t that be the same thing as OWP?” and the answer is no, and that’s the reason I mentioned this third category. The difference between OWP and the ESP is not just the way the words are pronounced. There are a lot of different structures, a lot of different vocabulary, and there are even two verb tenses that are only used in ESP. I wanted to use this category, to distinguish between the changes that only happen because of the speech, i.e. the changes in pronunciation, and the changes that are inherent to the language itself. This is another reason why I think the learner should only and only focus on OWP (more on the effects of ESP on the learner’s experience later). This form is usually used to write dialogs. It doesn’t feel right for the characters in a lot of literary works to speak OWP, and also just writing the Fractured Persian does not fit well into the writing style. I think I have to mention that there are also cases where people just write the ESP exactly as it is spoken too.

2. Age.

Persian is a very old language. What I mean by that is, a middle school student in a Persian speaking country, can read the poetry and literature from 1200 years ago with almost no difficulty (at least I could, occasionally asking “what does this word mean” from my father or brother). Now, this doesn’t mean that the language hasn’t changed in 12 centauries. This means that whatever changes happened were all backward-compatible, and that is bound to complicate a lot of things. In a way, learning Persian is trying to acquire the capacity of speaking with whoever lived in the Persian speaking areas for the past millennia.

3. Material.

There is almost no material when it comes to Persian. I’ve seen people trying to L-R Persian, but realizing that there is no material for that. And it is rather sad, when I think about how we had people writing Magical Realisms before cien años de soledad (but after Los Pasos Perdidos, which is by many considered to be the introducer of Magical Realism). We’ve had an author writing Kafkaesque stories with some of them (in my humble opinion) better than Kafka’s work (one of them does actually have a good French translation under the title “La Chouette Aveugle”, but I wouldn’t trust the English translation) and we’ve had a lot of unbelievably talented poets (which seems to be to main factor for most of the people trying to learn Persian, as far as I’ve seen, which is not that far). This almost feels like a catch-22 situation. It’s hard to learn Persian, so there’s no one to translate from Persian, so there’s no material to learn Persian.

4. Language Partners.

Language partners are useless, if not harmful, as far as Persian is concerned, unless the learner already has an ample grasp on the language. This is because the exposure you get from a language partner is not an exposure of the language you are trying to learn (I’ve talked about this above), and hence it’s not going to help you connect your scattered knowledge of Persian, if not tearing any already formed connections. If you ask someone who speaks Persian to give a sentence in Persian, they will give you a sentence in ESP (unless it’s me, in which case I will first talk to you for an hour telling you the things I’m writing in this post, and then give you a sentence in OWP).

5. Courses, Books, Apps, Programs, Classes.

Let me tell you a bit of my personal experience. I have never used any such things to learn a language, even though I have experienced using them a lot. I learned English in a summer, when I was a high school student, because I found an online magazine with some hundreds of articles about mathematical subjects which I were fascinated about, and I sat down and translated as many as I could in that summer, using a dictionary. At the end of that summer, I still didn’t know that the two ‘c’s in the word ‘cancel’ are pronounced differently, but I could read books in English if I knew the vocabulary. Hence, I find courses, apps, programs, etc. to be really slow and inefficient, however, I think they are very important for learners who want to have something to manage and shape their learning, and for those who just use them to pick up whatever they find useful without being trapped in their pace. Now, English being the most important second language of the world, I find the courses, programs, etc. for English to be very impotent and inadequate, and I can’t even imagine how bad they would be for Persian (I haven’t seen every place in the world, but I have looked around a bit for such material, and whatever I’ve found was really unqualified and imprudent).

6. Script.

To adequately address this point, I probably need to write more than I have already wrote. But I will try to give you a glimpse of the problem. It is rather hard to read Persian, and I will try to explain a few key factors that contribute to that.

Persian is written using an altered version of Arabic script. While Arabic script could be excellent for writing Arabic, it’s not at all suited for Persian (not implying I know of a better alternative). Words in Persian are formed by derivational agglutination, or by compounding. Verb tenses are formed by combining the verb stems and verbal affixes, and complex words are formed by combining two or more smaller words or affixes (I’m not a linguist, but I think I was able to convey what I wanted to say). All these traits are absent in Arabic, which is in part what makes the script unsuited for Persian.

Also, the short vowels, three out of the six vowels Persian has, are never written in Persian, which makes the writings very ambiguous and in the cases that the written word could have different meanings using different unwritten short vowels, the reader needs to be able to infer them from the context. To give an example, a word written with 3 characters, which correspond to the consonants K, R and M, could mean “cream”, “worm” and “I’m deaf”.




It took me a while to write this whole thing, and I’m not even sure if I did remember everything I wanted to say, or if I was able to convey the things that I remembered. Hopefully someone will enjoy reading it at least.
Cheers.
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Marah
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby Marah » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:32 pm

So, basically diglossia and a scarcity of resources?
In some ways it looks like the situation that Arabic learners face, having to learn MSA and then colloquial dialects, struggling with the alphabet that doesn't show vowels, etc.
As for resources I don't know how bad the situation is. I have an Assimil Persian that I haven't touched yet but Assimil is one of the most popular courses out there.
I imagine that part of the lack of resources was caused by the political situation but it should get better now, shouldn't it?
I feel like people are gradually talking more about Iran as a country they may visit. They've been showing documentaries about Iran onTV recently.

Also, is the situation with the dialects not being mutually intelligible really that bad?
You mention Italian and Spanish but Italians and Spaniards are known to be able to get by by communicating in their respective languages to each other because their languages are very close phonetically and also linguistically.
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby DangerDave2010 » Thu Mar 03, 2016 9:42 pm

I've been learning Persian for two years, and doing great. There are many good courses available. After I was done with them, all needed is written and spoken media, and a dictionary, to build my way to fluency. I can speak (and write) spoken style, and I have no difficult understanding written style, written or read aloud (with some vocabulary problem here and there, of course). I have not as yet have made any efforts to express myself in written style, because all of the interacions I have with native speakers are very informal.

I surely want to proceed to learning literary Persian, but I will be leaving that till after I feel that I am done learning the Modern language.

You may want to check this topic ;) :
http://forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=2063
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catherinemaheu
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby catherinemaheu » Thu Mar 03, 2016 11:59 pm

DangerDave2010 wrote:I've been learning Persian for two years, and doing great. There are many good courses available. After I was done with them, all needed is written and spoken media, and a dictionary, to build my way to fluency. I can speak (and write) spoken style, and I have no difficult understanding written style, written or read aloud (with some vocabulary problem here and there, of course). I have not as yet have made any efforts to express myself in written style, because all of the interacions I have with native speakers are very informal.

I surely want to proceed to learning literary Persian, but I will be leaving that till after I feel that I am done learning the Modern language.

You may want to check this topic ;) :
http://forum.language-learners.org/viewtopic.php?f=14&t=2063


I didn't mean to imply people should stop learning Persian because it's impossible to learn. I meant to communicate a few key points which could make it hard to people who want to start learning the language, and hence, telling them "why they don't seem to be able to learn to speak Persian" so that they can overcome those issues.

Considering the written vs. spoken, I still think learning the written form then trying to learn the spoken form is the efficient way to learn the language. But that can be different for every person.
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catherinemaheu
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby catherinemaheu » Fri Mar 04, 2016 12:07 am

Marah wrote:So, basically diglossia and a scarcity of resources?
In some ways it looks like the situation that Arabic learners face, having to learn MSA and then colloquial dialects, struggling with the alphabet that doesn't show vowels, etc.
As for resources I don't know how bad the situation is. I have an Assimil Persian that I haven't touched yet but Assimil is one of the most popular courses out there.
I imagine that part of the lack of resources was caused by the political situation but it should get better now, shouldn't it?
I feel like people are gradually talking more about Iran as a country they may visit. They've been showing documentaries about Iran onTV recently.

Also, is the situation with the dialects not being mutually intelligible really that bad?
You mention Italian and Spanish but Italians and Spaniards are known to be able to get by by communicating in their respective languages to each other because their languages are very close phonetically and also linguistically.


The people speaking different dialects can communicate, but it's usually because they both know at least a little about standard Persian. Also the difference between the dialects will probably shrink as time goes by, since the younger generation usually doesn't speak the dialect, but rather a mix of Persian and the dialect. To give you an example, I couldn't understand what my grandfather was saying when he was talking to my father, but I could hold a conversation in that same dialect with the younger people who were living in that city, at the same time, my nephew can't speak the dialect at all (she can probably still understand as it's become closer to the standard Persian).
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby Obogrew » Fri Mar 04, 2016 4:04 am

Would it not be easier to start from Tadzhik? Does it help to master Persian?
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Brian
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby Brian » Fri Mar 04, 2016 8:59 am

Surely not another case of "my language is the hardest in the world to learn"?
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby Marah » Fri Mar 04, 2016 9:34 am

Obogrew wrote:Would it not be easier to start from Tadzhik? Does it help to master Persian?

While we're at it, what about Dari? How much could I expect to understand? :)
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby ancient forest » Fri Mar 04, 2016 9:47 am

catherinemaheu wrote: The people speaking different dialects can communicate, but it's usually because they both know at least a little about standard Persian. Also the difference between the dialects will probably shrink as time goes by, since the younger generation usually doesn't speak the dialect, but rather a mix of Persian and the dialect. To give you an example, I couldn't understand what my grandfather was saying when he was talking to my father, but I could hold a conversation in that same dialect with the younger people who were living in that city, at the same time, my nephew can't speak the dialect at all (she can probably still understand as it's become closer to the standard Persian).


I could be wrong, but I thought that there was generally not a huge difference between the Persian dialects spoken in Iran (Farsi) and in Afghanistan (Dari). There is a much bigger difference between Persian and the other languages spoken in those areas such as Kurdish, Pashto, etc.
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Re: Persian, and why you can’t learn to speak it

Postby catherinemaheu » Fri Mar 04, 2016 9:48 am

Brian wrote:Surely not another case of "my language is the hardest in the world to learn"?


I already answered this. I never 'learned' Persian so I don't know how would I have any opinion about it being hard or not. I'm just trying to help people who are trying to learn it but can't, by pointing out some factors that they may not know as an outsider to the language.
Last edited by Serpent on Sat Mar 05, 2016 9:52 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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