Struggling with Persian alphabet

a break in persian studies

So, I learned Persian in Germany with an awesome tutor. Then I moved to US and with all the changes in my routine, I just couldn’t keep it up. Now I’m getting back to it, but I also wanted to learn to read, which I was starting back then, but I never really learned. I really wanted to learn the alphabet so that I have access to more content and I have easier time studying. Basically, I haven’t really touched Persian in 1.5 years. Lot to review. 

I’ve worked about 2 weeks now and I’m starting to be able to read. I’m still missing a few letters, because the way they are introduced in the course I’m using, but I got the most common letters by now. It’s been difficult getting back and learning to read is definitely hard, much harder than I thought, since I’ve studied Russian and Japanese before and in both I learned the alphabet fairly quickly (in Japanese, I don’t talk about kanji here). On the other hand, in both of those cases I was learning in a classroom with a teacher, not on my own. But I thought I could apply the same techniques. And I am, it just was a bit harder.

Resources to learn the alphabet

Difficulty of finding good introductions to reading

One of the toughest things was to find a good resource to learn the alphabet. Most beginner books do introduce the letters, but they do them all together in a table or possibly talking a little bit a bout them and not really having any reading exercises to practice. And even if there’s reading exercises, it’s hard, because you are dealing with all these new letters together.  Most of the beginner books use transliteration, though, so maybe they don’t assume that you even need to know the alphabet at this point. 

Before I was concentrating on the alphabet, I saw that the famous polyglot Ellen Jovin rave about the Assimil course for Persian. This only exists in French, but I thought that my French should be good enough for me to try. And anyway I have some basis in Persian after my iTalki lessons, so I could judge some stuff by myself.  So, naturally, I ordered it 🙂 But I didn’t really have time to start it. I actually got it more to have good audio and that seemed to be the case in Ellen’s post.

To learn the alphabet, I actually bought 2 resources: Learn to read Persian in 5 days and Learn to read and write Persian in 7 days (see also the video, the book is actually supplemental and you get all the information for free also, but I do want to support people who make these materials). The problem with the 7 days was that I got that as a pdf, and then coronavirus isolation happened, so I found it a bit annoying to read from my computer (and harder to practice the writing). So, I started with the 5 days one.

Testing and using different resources

I actually quite liked this book. However, there was a bit of the same issue as with the other resources: they should have way more words to practice reading with per unit. You can practice reading the words in the glossary, but I really needed more examples with just the few letters at a time. I finished the lessons quite quickly, but then I didn’t feel like the knowledge was solidified in any way. But then again, I didn’t use the glossaries. Also, it might be useful to do this actually in 5 days instead of 1. This way your brain has time to absorb everything. But I’m nothing in not impatient.

However, if English is the only language you can study from, then this is your book! I see on Amazon a lot of people criticizing that this is not a full beginner’s course and doesn’t actually properly teach you the words. I would say that’s true, but then again this is not the purpose of this book. I think it can do what it promises: you can learn to read in Persian. Maybe you won’t be fluent in reading after this, but it’s a good start. I would also really use the thematic glossary to practice reading. Not the alphabetically organized one, because then you always know the first letter and I find that less useful. 

The best approach for me was actually in the Assimil book! I was surprised, since I’ve been very suspicious of Assimil. I don’t like this learning by sentences, I prefer a bit longer chapters and I don’t like having the full translation right there. However, now when I’m still learning to read, these are bitesized enough that I won’t get super fatigued and also, there is a vocabulary, so you do get the meanings of individual words. The full translation helps to make sure you really understood.

On the other hand, I still would like more examples and it seems to expect you to fully learn each word from each chapter. I’m more of Steve Kaufmann’s school of thought, so I think it’s better just to get a lot of input and then the words you need will repeat enough that you will learn them without having to actually study flashcards or trying to remember words out of context. But the alphabet is introduced few letters at a time and then only those letters were used in the sentences. So you coud read the whole lesson in Persian with the letters you just learned. Weirdly the new letters are introduced after the chapter, but I just skipped to those first, then tried to read and then checked my reading with the transliteration. 

It does take 28 lessons to be finally through them (28 being the review lesson), but then again, these are super quick episodes with only a few sentences, so you should work through them fairly quickly. I’m concentrating on learning Italian, but I’ve still managed to do 2 lessons per day (few days I had to skip because of work and social commitments). Also, not all of the 28 lessons introduce new characters. You get most of the characters in the first 6 lessons, with a review on the 7th lesson. Then some of the lessons concentrate on the letters that have similar forms with different amounts of dots, so you’ll learn to differentiate between them.

my progress

I’m now done 21 lessons, and as I said, I do like 2 lessons per day. I ended up practicing the writing with this too, I used my colloquial Persian that had a simple guide for this to understand how and where on the line I would write the letters. I took the picture of the page in the colloquial book, where all the different forms of letters were written in relation to the writing line. The drawback with the Assimil is that if you don’t understand French, you can’t really use it. Otherwise it gets my warmest recommendation!

I’m hoping to be done with the first 28 lessons by the end of next week and then it’s just practice, practice, practice… In the beginning I’m planning on using the Assimil course and a few other beginner courses I have that have audio and/or transliteration included, so that I can check my reading. And probably I will keep writing the chapters in my notebook, so that I get writing practice as well. This is how I learned the Russian letters and the hiragana and katakana for Japanese: the old-fashioned copying of the texts to a notebook (mostly while watching tv…).

Conclusion (TL;dr)

So, in Persian, I would definitely recommend getting the Assimil course! Of course if you don’t know French that is an issue. It doesn’t exist in English at least, not sure if in other languages (I know there are Assimil courses at least in German and Spanish).

If French is not one of your languages, I think you can use the two other resources I got in English. I really liked the little booklet that just teaches reading, but since there are so few examples, you might need to work a bit harder with the vocabulary or use the 7 days one to also learn to write and then practice also writing these words: I think then they will stick much better.

I definitely recommend writing the characters as well. And I mean by hand, not on a computer. At least for me this really solidifies the learning and I can recall the letters much better.

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