Where to Learn Farsi (Persian) — other than Iran

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Iran has a lot to offer the adventure traveller who wants to immerse themselves in a foreign environment. There’s stunning nature. Extremely friendly and welcoming people. An elegant, sonorous language, with beautiful script, rich poetry and thousands of years of history. And on top of all that, a totally crazy government. And that last reason is why we have to ask: where can we learn Farsi and Persian culture — other than in Iran?

Learning Farsi Outside Iran

The problem is it’s difficult for many people to go to Iran. It’s difficult for me, a consultant who frequently visits Israel, a journalist, a person raised in an illegal religion, and who is deemed an Iranian national because of where my Dad was born (thus making me ineligible for consular protection), and it’s difficult for Jo as an American, and also a journalist. And it may be difficult for you, too.


In this guide…

  • Why learn Farsi (Persian)?
  • In which countries is Farsi spoken?
  • Where are the best Farsi schools?
  • How else can you learn Farsi?

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Why learn Farsi (Persian)?

The best reason I think exists to learn Farsi and Persian culture is to bridge cultural gaps between the West and a misunderstood and under-appreciated part of the world.

Many in the West are vaguely afraid of Iran and Persian people, conflating the two things. It’s true that the Government of Iran acts unpredictably and is often in the spotlight for it. In the last month alone (September 2019), Iran was accused of a missile strike against Saudi Arabia, shooting down a US drone, and imprisoning several bloggers who were foolish enough to take a drone into the country (c’mon guys). On top of all that, a woman (Iran’s socalled “Blue Girl“) who was accused of indecent behaviour for attending a football game died from self-immolation in court.

And that was September. What’s next?

But Persians are not the same as the Iranian government. This is no surprise to you if you know any Persians from LA (“Tehrangeles”), Toronto (“Tehranto”), London (“London”, but in a Persian accent) or any other major city with a large diaspora.

Persians are a gentle, philosophical, quiet people, whose culture is historically a blend of traditional Persian culture dating back thousands of years, with regional influence from the Indian subcontinent and the Arab states.

But more immediately, you can relate to Persians just like you can relate to most people: They’re mostly a generation or two out of poverty, value things like family success of their children, and enjoy eating lamb, and rice with lots of stuff in it.

Javaher polo aka "Jeweled Rice"
Javaher polo, aka “Jeweled rice”

Why we can’t travel to Iran

I was raised Bahá’í, a religion deemed illegal in Iran, and many members of whom have been arbitrarily imprisoned or killed. I myself was detained for two months on my last visit, in 1992. “You don’t get to have a passport!” they told my family, making us miss our flight by two months.

My family did eventually get our passports back, but my mum went through hell first. She was taken from office to office in various cities for months, always being made to wait for anywhere from hours to days, and then told to come back the next day, or go somewhere else.

We nearly gave up. My parents were looking for jobs in Iran. We started researching schools. I may not have been here today. I’m lucky that I am, knowing that many people have gone through worse — arbitrary imprisonment and psychological torture for much longer. I want to keep the freedoms I have.

Secondly, I like to travel to Israel. I go there for consulting work often, and love Tel Aviv one of the cities where I can disappear. I have big problems with what the state of Israel is doing in the West Bank and with the general disenfranchisement of millions of occupied Palestinians, but I like that I’m allowed to say so publicly, even in Israel… even if the Israelis like to ask me questions for multiple hours before letting me in (last time, mid 2019, was for a personal record of nine hours).

Thirdly, Iran will only let me in to the country with an Iranian passport (which I don’t have). Their rationale is that Iranians “nationals” must use an Iranian passport. The definition of a “national” is broad, and includes anyone born to an Iranian father, which includes my Dad even though he no longer has a valid passport. Going in with an Iranian passport means I don’t get Australian or British consular protection from things like arbitrary detention, and may subject me to military service.

Finally, I’m a journalist. Sure, I’m a travel, language, and motorcycle journalist, but I do say things like “Iran, I really wish you’d let me visit. Be cool.” And this isn’t very cool with them.

Jo has an American passport, which makes the visa application process difficult for her. Unlike nearly everyone else, she can’t get a visa on arrival. The visa application takes 60-90 days, and can only be done after travel is booked (which means I’d need to have my travel booked too).

As an American, she’d have to have a guide with her at all times. This is a mandatory part of the visa application process. It usually means travelling with a tour group. This would make an extended stay in Iran to learn Farsi impossible.

So we can’t go to Iran. What else can we do?

The two best options for learning Farsi outside Iran are Tajikistan, or Afghanistan. In these countries, the language is effectively the same, save for what they’re called (Tajik and Dari, respectively), some variations in pronunciation, everyday vocabulary, and orthography (in Tajikistan, where the language is written in Cyrillic script).

Learn Farsi/Tajik in Tajikistan

The best place to learn Farsi that isn’t Iran (and isn’t a war zone) is in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.

The flavour of Farsi that people speak in Tajikistan is the closest to that spoken in Iran. The language is called Tajik, but it’s mutually intelligible. However, there are some important differences between Tajik and Farsi.

Firstly, in daily life, Tajik is written in Russian Cyrillic letters. This is in contrast to Iran, where Farsi has used an Arabic alphabet (technically the Perso-Arabic alphabet) for many years. The language stays the same, but the script is different.

Here’s an example of a paragraph from the Declaration of Human Rights in Tajik (Cyrillic), Farsi (Perso-Arabic script), and the English translation in the Latin alphabet:

Tajik (Cyrillic)

Тамоми одамон озод ба дунё меоянд ва аз лиҳози манзилату ҳуқуқ бо ҳам баробаранд. Ҳама соҳиби ақлу виҷдонанд, бояд нисбат ба якдигар бародарвор муносабат намоянд.

Farsi (Perso-Arabic)

تمام آدمان آزاد به دنیا می‌آیند و از لحاظ منزلت و حقوق با هم برابرند. همه صاحب عقل و وجدانند، باید نسبت به یکدیگر برادروار مناسبت نمایند.‎

English

All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.

In day to day life, this means you need to know the Cyrillic script to get by. But if you go to a good Farsi school, you’ll still be taught the Perso-Arabic script.

There are actually some advantages to the Cyrillic script for learning Farsi. It’s much easier to read for fluent English speakers (or those raised in the West) because it’s left-to-right, has some recognisable characters, and it has vowels. Vowels! What a luxury. Perso-Arabic script (like Arabic, or Hebrew) is an “abjad”, a kind of orthographic system that omits vowels. Not having vowels makes learning quite a bit harder.

Secondly, Tajik has a lot of Russian words. A lot of words have entered the vocabulary, including many day-to-day ones. This came about because of decades of Soviet rule and isolation under the USSR.

A few words that are different include:

Englishточики (Tajiki)فارسی (Farsi)
potatoкартошка (kartoshka)سیب زمینی (sib zamini)
tomatoпомидор (pomidor)گوجه فرنگی (gorjeh farangi)
bicycleвелосипед (velosiped)دوچرخه (doh charkheh)
airplaneтайёра (tayyora)*هواپیما (havapeima)
ticketчипта (chipta)بلیط (bilit)
watermelonтарбуз (tarbuz)هندوانه (henduneh)
veryбисёр (bisyor)خیلی (kheili)
tomorrowПагох (pagoh)فردا (farda)

* Interestingly, the Tajik word for airplane is from Arabic (طائرة, “Taa’irah”).

The majority of everyday words are the same. If you go out to buy milk, bottled water, honey and bread, you’ll do so in much the same way as you would have in Iran.

The final difference between Tajik and Farsi is the accent. This is pretty significant. Speaking Farsi (or Dari or Tajik) with a different accent does not in any way mean you speak it better or worse, but Tehrani and Shirazi Farsi are by far the most widely understood in the region and across the Persian-speaking diaspora, simply due to economic power and the impact of media.

Some major differences between Tajik pronunciation and Tehrani are:

  • The long vowel for the alef (ا) changes from aa in Tehrani Farsi to a shorter o in Tajik
  • The vaav (و) is more often pronounced as av in Tajik, rather than abbreviated to o in Tehrani Farsi
  • The general rhythm of speech is different (something best observed)

If you speak Tajik to an Iranian, they’ll understand and be fully able to communicate with you, but there’ll be an accent obstacle to overcome. It’s a bit like speaking New Zealand English to an American. It’s totally intelligible, but the American will need to focus hard to not think of scenes from Flight of the Conchords, or ask their interlocutor to say “Please miss, give me six large bits of your best ham” (something I highly recommend you do, by the way).

Otherwise, the day-to-day experience of learning Tajik in Tajikistan is different from learning Farsi in Iran. When you study the language, you’ll learn a pure, literary form of the language – possibly even the same Farsi spoken in Iran, from Iranian teachers.

But on the streets of Dushanbe you’ll have a different experience. Aside from the accent and vocabulary changes, many Tajiks speak “a mash-up of Persian, Russian, and Uzbek” and have “a habit of switching to Russian whenever they need to be understood” (source: Reddit). Russian is definitely the second language of the country and thus many people educated during USSR rule will feel more comfortable communicating in it.

If you’re hell-bent on learning Tajik — or Farsi, in Tajikistan — your best best is a school.

The best — and possibly only — school is the “Dushanbe Language Center”. There’s very little information about it on the internet, but essentially, this is where American universities and government organisations send their students and staff to get trained. It’s expensive, and usually sponsored by a home country organisation. The last prices I saw ere US$13,000 for a semester, or $7,000 for a summer program — but I can’t find those prices online now.

For Americans, the Critical Language Scholarship program, sponsored by the US Department of State, gives American students access to an intensive summer program. This might be your best bet!

Learn Farsi/Dari in Afghanistan

The second best place to learn Farsi is in Afghanistan, where the language is known as either Dari or Farsi, depending on who you ask. Politically,the language is referred to as Dari, but everyday speakers call it Farsi.

Let’s start with the most obvious obstacle to studying in Afghanistan: it is still a war zone. Travel advisories from every major country (UK, France, China) say you just shouldn’t go there.

Travel warning against most parts of Afghanistan
Travel advisories say don’t go to Afghanistan. Don’t even look at it

But this shouldn’t stop you by itself. After all, Kabul is still in orange, which means you can go there and you’ll probably be fine if you take effective precautions.

Afghan women medical students wearing modern european fashion
Afghan women medical students in the 1950s. A few things have changed…

There are two main languages of Afghanistan: Dari (which is Farsi, with variations), and Pashtun. Both are from the same broader language family, but similar French and Italian, are not mutually intelligible.

Both Dari and Pashtun are official languages of Afghanistan. Dari is the most widely spoken, with some 80% of the population speaking it as of 2018, and around half of those speaking it natively. Dari is also the lingua franca for people of many smaller ethnic groups in the country.

Pashtun is the language of the dominant ethnic group, and as such people who speak it have a strong cultural connection with it. So if you choose to learn some Pashtun, you might get a high return-on-investment for just learning a dozen words, just like we experienced learning some Maasai language, for example.

Farsi in Afghanistan is written in Perso-Arabic script, just like in Iran. So the differences are reduced to accent and everyday vocabulary.

The most prominent difference between Farsi in Afghanistan and Tehran/Shiraz is the pronunciation.

Again, just as I mentioned with Tajiki, there is no “correct” accent of Farsi, but the Tehrani/Shirazi accents are the ones most widely understood, just because of the economic and cultural influence of those regions.

Some of the differences in pronunciation between Farsi spoken in Afghanistan and Tehran/Shiraz are:

  • The letter qaff (ق): Afghans pronounce this similar to Arabic, whereas in most of Iran it’s pronounced as they pronounce the letter ghayn (غ), like a French r as in rouge.
  • Preservation of the short a and long aa vowels: In Tehrani and Shirazi Farsi, a long aa (alef, ا) is pronounced with a u, and a short a (not written) is often changed to an e. For example, to say “I don’t know” in Farsi (), a Tehrani/Shirazi would say “nemidoonam”, whereas an Afghan would say “namidaanam”.
  • The letter waaw/vaav (و): In Afghan Farsi the vaav consonant is pronounced as a w sound, as in Arabic, whereas in Iran it is more commonly pronounced as a vowel v.

The second difference between Farsi in Afghanistan and Iran is some everyday vocabulary. These are much more subtle than between Tajik and other forms of Farsi, and are akin to slang/colloquial differences between British and American English. For example, the expression “غلط کردی” (ghalat kardi), translates literally to “you did a mistake”. When said by an Afghan it literally means this: “it appears you made an error”. In Farsi, however, it is very accusative, and means “How dare you!” This is just one common example.

Learn Farsi… at home?

Both Tajikistan and Afghanistan are ultimately impractical choices for learning Farsi. The best choice is definitely to go to Iran, if you can, and second best is probably to learn wherever you can find a Persian language teacher in your home country.

For me, as a “heritage” Farsi speaker, this means going to my parents and asking them to humbly teach me to get to the next level. Of course, I’ll be arming myself with books and learning resources to make sure I can make the best use of their time.

But other options you have are to get a teacher on italki, where a well-reviewed and experienced tutor can cost as little as US$4 an hour.

iTalki persian farsi teachers for as little as $4 an hour to learn farsi
italki teachers for as little as $4 an hour

Our personal advice: If you can travel to Iran, go there and learn Farsi. Otherwise, consider learning in your home country, and visiting Tajikistan and Afghanistan to learn a little about how Farsi is spoken there.

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