This is a detailed look at one of my favourite non-free courses to learn Persian online, Chai and Conversation.
In late 2019 ago I began a quest to improve my spoken Persian. My Persian has always been at “home conversational” level, which means I felt natural speaking it, but had large gaps in my vocabulary, and lacked style and fluency of expression.
After having learned several other languages better than Persian, I thought — it’s time to fix this and properly learn Persian. It’s time to reclaim my Persian identity and, rather than try to avert someone’s eyes when they asked me if I spoke Persian, be able to confidently tell people: yes, I speak Persian. Come at me with your big words and your Rumi quotes.
There are quite a few good free resources for learning Persian on the web already. These will get you quite far.
But if you want to focus on spoken Persian as it’s really used, then Chai and Conversation is a good resource. And it’s more than a website — it’s a community, and one I think it’s worth joining as a beginner.
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Why I Like Chai and Conversation — A Quick Overview
Chai and Conversation is the original brainchild of Leila Shams, an American Iranian who studied Persian at university in Texas (Texas A&M, who produce some awesome free Persian learning materials, too).
Leila got help from some learned friends and put together a course to perceive what she perceived to be a gap. She also manages a Facebook group called Learn Persian with Chai and Conversation which — despite its name — is helpful to anyone on a mission to learn Persian.
After a couple of emails back and forth, I quickly realised Leila’s a great person. The helpful personality of the authors/founders, more than anything else, is what helps me recommend Chai and Conversation.
The whole website carries the genuinely helpful spirit of its founders, who are at the core of the business, and of the learning community around it.
Essentially, Leila’s goal is to just help. She wants to help people learn spoken Persian. If they do it through her course, all the better. But she’ll help anyway. And it was this attitude that made me take a deeper look at a course I had originally passed over.
The dialogue was put together with another Persian Texas A&M major Matt Bourneuf, with whom I’d love to speak Persian one day (though I suspect he knows more professional vocabulary than I do!)
Previously, I covered a few resources to use to learn Persian online. Surprisingly — comparing to other similar-sized languages — there are quite a few that are comprehensive and totally free! So much so that I never ended up paying for anything other than a “teach yourself” style book.
Chai and Conversation’s emphasis is on, as you might guess from the name, conversational, spoken Persian.
What’s the difference between spoken and written Persian? Well, the difference is subtle (much more so than the difference between spoken and written Arabic), but important.
I put down a whole article on the differences between spoken and written Persian here, but in a nutshell, the difference between spoken and written Persian is this: some conjugation is simplified, some extra sounds are inserted in speech, some grammar is shortened, and some words are pronounced very differently.
If you learn Persian as it’s written in textbooks you’ll be understood by people, but you’ll sound like a BBC presenter would in a small country town — although you’d seem like that even while speaking in the middle of Tehran. People don’t speak formal textbook Persian unless they’re presenting the news. So, you need to learn conversational Persian to get by in almost any situation.
For example, if you want to translate “They want to eat this watermelon, but it’s too big”, it comes out as follows in thef forms of formal and spoken Persian (I boldfaced the bits that change)
- Formal: aanha mikhaahand iin hendevaaneh-rah bokhorand, vali kheili bozorg ast
- Spoken: Oona mikhan iin henduneh-o bokhoran, vali kheili bozorg-e
So to learn Persian as it’s spoken is paramount if you want to actually speak to people about important issues like the challenge of eating large watermelons, a cornerstone of Persian culture.
Contents of Chai and Conversation
Chai and Conversation focuses on the elementary to the intermediate levels.
There is a little advanced content (like Poetry) that I really enjoyed, but that’s not the focus.
The content is broken up into three main sections: a) conversation (“Speak”), b) writing (“Read/write”), and c) Culture.
The bulk of the course is in the “Speak” section. These are for those who want to learn Persian as it’s spoken. In there, you’ll see units each addressing an individual topic.
A few examples of these from the first sections are
- How to talk about your job and where you work
- How to speak about the languages you know
- How to talk about food and specific Persian meals
In other words, these are exact everyday conversations you have over and over as a language learner.
I find myself having those conversations in every language that’s not English. What other languages do you know? Have you eaten much xyz food? And so on. All of the lessons are like this.
As you get to the more advanced sections, the topics include regular grammar topics (like “The Past Tense” or “The Subjunctive”… yay!), then general dialogues (“What we should do tonight” or “travel”), and finally, some cultural tips like introducing how “ta’arof” works.
(In a nutshell, ta’arof is the Persian custom of never accepting something the first time it’s offered to you — even if you want it. You must always politely decline, let the host insist, and then accept. Leila has been interviewed on the topic of Ta’arof and is somewhat an expert, it turns out.)
The dialogues are from everyday life. Sometimes they’re from the authors’ actual lives, like in the conversation with Leila’s grandmother.
The reason I like this so much is that many textbooks focus on the life of a tourist — catching a bus, ordering food, and so on. Chai and Conversation is more intimate — it’s about two people having a conversation in Persian. This places the learner in a Persian world, talking to Persian people, and as such it’s a much more effective bridge across cultures.
And Chai and Conversation teaches you about culture without being trite. For example, in the section about routines, one of them is “I go to yoga every week”. Modern Persians go to yoga. If you want to learn Persian, you should learn to say things like this.
Or in the conversation about doing something, the participants talk about going to eat Chinese or Italian food. Persians don’t just eat Persian food! My uncle was telling me that even in Iran they have a concept of Persian Pizza — loaded with toppings, cheap, and rich with flavour. Guess I’ll have to go one day, if they let me in!
Of course, Persians don’t live in Iran. They live in Europe, the UK, Australia, and all over the US (like the authors of Chai and Conversation, who live in Texas). Small numbers of Persians are everywhere. So it’s nice to see dialogue about things that aren’t just what an archetypical Iranian would do.
(In fact, I’ve searched and I’ve searched and I think there’s no section on Islam in all of Chai and Conversation…!)
Since everything at Discover Discomfort is about bridging cultures, Chai and Conversation’s intimate style of teaching makes it easy to recommend.
Persian Grammar for Regular Humans
I’ve talked grammar to a lot of language learners for many different languages. Basically, people seem fine with grammar… until someone says “subjunctive”. Then all bets are off. People wail, gnash their teeth, and so on.
(If you’re confused about the Spanish subjunctive, check out my simple guide I put together here.)
I’ve never thought of Persian Grammar as “hard”. This is from the perspective of having learned a lot of other languages, including Spanish (hard), spoken Egyptian Arabic (not as hard), and Chinese (quite easy, but only from the perspective of grammar).
Nonetheless, despite anything I might think, Persian does have features that make it hard, including the dreaded subjunctive. It’s a little different to the point that when I decided to learn Persian I was surprised to see that Persian had one at all.
So, enter Chai and Conversation. This is how the subjunctive is presented.
First, the podcast gives you a plethora of examples. The one below shows how the verb for singing, khoondan, conjugates to the subjunctive in a really common use case.
There’s then a table showing all the ways in which a common verb might be conjugated to the subjunctive, so you can repeat it in your head.
Other grammar topics get full sections. The hosts explain the grammar thoroughly and give a number of examples to let it sink in.
Most of the content of Chai and Conversation is in English.
The hosts are English speakers who are fluent in Persian. They take you through a complex topic and give you the explanations in English, frequently using Persian words and phrases to illustrate what they mean.
For example, in the section about ezaafe, the dialogue goes:
Matt: When we want to talk about someone related to us, like zane man…
Leyla: Right, so the e sound is called ezafe.
Matt: And so it means “my wife”. It’s a way to link zan, or wife, to man, or me.
Leyla: Ok, great way of explaining it. So basically anytime you have a noun, such as zan, and you want to say more information about it, you link the word to the extra information with the sound e. So let’s go through the many ways we can illustrate the concept.
The first is, as Matt said in his example, to denote possession. So the formula in this case is that you first say the word that describes the belonging — this could be a person or an object. Then you say the sound e and end it with the owner. So, we learned before ketabe to.
Ketab is the belonging, then the sound e, and to, or informal you, is the owner. Matt, what’s another example?
Matt: Khooneye ma
Leyla: Khooneye ma. Ok, in this case, you’re talking about a house, and this is a good example, because in this cause the e sound changes to ye since khoone ends in a vowel. It would be awkward to say khoone-e, so the ezafe becomes a ye sound. Khooneyeh ma. Our house.
This is from lesson 24 (of a total of 80+ lessons at time of writing). In later lessons, the content is still in mostly English. This is great for people who are on the learning journey and learning to think in the language and to understand the grammar through many examples. It’s not so great for advanced learners (C1/C2 level) who want to fully immerse themselves in the language.
But… even I, who am roughly at the C1 level, find their explanations useful for concepts like words and language of poetry. I could have understood it in Persian, but because they explained it in English there was overall less mental load on me, letting me focus on the poetry. That’s very useful to me.
Chai and Conversation is currently priced at $19.95 a month, and you get a 30-day free trial to check it out.
You can sign up (or double-check the latest pricing) here (we don’t get anything from it, but they did give us a free membership to try it out).
If you have any concerns about the course after signing up for the trial definitely write to them and let them know — the authors are friendly, responsive, and available.