BIPS building

Learning Persian in London

I recall reading an article in a newspaper or magazine about Persepolis, the capital of the Achaemenid empire, several years ago. Then, around the same time, I chanced upon an article somewhere else about Adam Ölschläger, or Olearius, a 17th century German scholar who had travelled to Persia (as Iran was often known then) by way of Russia. Iran was in the news. Putting all these together, something clicked. I decided I would try to learn some Persian.


After some searching I found something which seemed to be suitable: a once-a-week 10 week introductory course at the British Institute of Persian Studies (BIPS). The classes would be held by Narguess Farzad from SOAS using her own book Teach Yourself Modern Persian as the material. So I booked the course.

On the first evening there were perhaps a dozen people sitting around a large table and we covered some basics. I had no knowledge at all about Persian and didn’t know a single word. From that very first day I was interested, which doesn’t mean that I was any good. We started off saying the equivalent of ‘hello, my name is Sadface. I am from England’.

A couple of weeks into the course, I sat down at home and wrote out the Persian alphabet, which is a modified version of the Arabic alphabet. There are 32 letters in the Persian alphabet compared with 28 in the Arabic alphabet, amongst other differences. Then I wrote the alphabet again, and again. And after a while I could write the whole alphabet without reference to the book. I felt like a genius. I had achieved something. Then I wrote the word for book (کتاب), and I felt like a giant! I loved the way this foreign script appeared under my pencil. This was possible, I could do this. I was hooked.

We continued and I noticed that after 3 or 4 weeks the number of participants had dropped to seven or eight. Then after 7 or 8 weeks the number had dropped to four or five. I don’t know what happened to the other learners. Perhaps they found the course too difficult even at this stage, perhaps it was not what they were expecting, perhaps they didn’t have the motivation to learn Persian, perhaps something else. I was puzzled that people had paid for something then not turn up.

The course came to an end and I was somewhat at a loss. It’s very easy to end up doing nothing and wasting time in the evenings, and this had become a fixture in my week. Fortunately a while later Ms Farzad held a second level introductory course which I signed up to. Eventually this course too came to an end, and then I was stuck. There were no more courses.

I discussed this with Ms Farzad and she recommended I contact one of her fellow tutors at SOAS to arrange private lessons. I duly did this and was pleased to learn that a small group was learning Persian in the evenings. I joined the group.

I still have fond memories of the BIPS courses, and my copy of Ms Farzad’s book is well used and repaired with sellotape. This is the book I recommend to anyone who wants to learn Persian by themselves.

The Small Group

I went to the first meeting of the small group and there were four people in the group including me, plus the tutor Shabnam Mirafzali. The level was a step up from the absolute beginners course at BIPS.

We mostly used the first two textbooks from the series Persian Language by Dr. Ahmad Saffar Moqaddam, but also print outs of other material. I later made a point of meeting him in Tehran at the Institute for Humanities and Cultural Studies. He generously gave me Book 4 of his series after my fruitless searches in the many bookshops on Enqelab Avenue. These are very good books, full of examples including many translations to English. These translations are very useful particularly with verb tenses.

Dr Moqaddam has since published a new book: Spoken Persian which I bought in Tehran.

There were some memorable events, funny at times, during these sessions. One of them was seeing a dictionary from Farhang Moaser, a publisher in Iran. I pronounced this as /mo’zer/, to which the tutor replied /mo’a’ser/. It’s strange how the seemingly trivial mistakes remain in memory for a long time. I now have several of my own Farhang Moaser books.

The small group sessions continued for several terms, and then one day in 2011 I decided that I would travel to Iran for the first time. I will write about that experience another time.

I returned to the United Kingdom and continued with the small group. At one point I had a crisis of confidence in Persian abilities. I seemed to be making no progress at all. I decided to give up, but fortunately I was talked out of that.

Beyond and outside the small group

In my own time I printed out Persian language articles from IRNA or elsewhere and tried to translate them. I wasn’t always very successful in this but I did at least start to build a vocabulary of words. I would typically select articles which were topical in the United Kingdom too, and from that try to relate the new words to what they might be – I was guessing their meanings. It is still interesting to me how some words immediately stick in one’s mind, while others are quickly forgotten. Now that I have studied in Iran my horizons have broadened. I frequently read new material, and am able to read more quickly. Words do sink in.

I red somewhere that knowing 90% of words in a sentence is not enough to understand its correct meaning, and even knowing 95% is not sufficient. Take a simple example: I bought a book at Foyles today and it’s blue. If we don’t know the meaning of the word ‘blue’ we might guess it is an adjective, but not know that it is a colour, or if we know it is a colour we may not know that colour. It could also be the book’s size or weight or its condition. It could be a possessive pronoun. So knowing 90% of the other words correctly is indeed not sufficient. If this sentence was much longer we would still be at a loss. So I suggest that learning a large vocabulary is useful by itself.

Persian dictionaries I have used

My first Persian dictionary was Persian-English English-Persian Learners Dictionary by Yavar Dehghani. Although useful, I had a somewhat troubled time with this dictionary for a few reasons. Firstly the Persian-English section is organised by English transliteration, not by Persian, and the ordering of the words is confusing. Take two simple words گل /gol/ and گل فروش /gol forush/. In this dictionary /gol forush/ appears before /gol/. I don’t understand why.

My second quibble with this book is the choice of words. This book contains ‘nippers’, ‘narghile’, and ‘negativist’, but not ‘none’, ‘nobody’, nor ‘nothing’. Narghile, meaning qaliyun or shisha or hookah, is common enough in Persian. But I don’t think I have ever used nippers or negativist in English. Meanwhile none, nobody, and nothing are everyday words. I can recommend this for beginners.

Farhang Moaser Larger – Persian to English by Haim. Sometimes hard to find and usually expensive in the United Kingdom, but easy to find and cheap (cover price 250,000 rials) in bookshops in Iran. There are often short examples along with the definitions. I rate this dictionary very highly and thoroughly recommend it.

Farhang Moaser Bi-Directional Dictionary by Haim. As with the the Larger dictionary above, it’s hard to find in the United Kingdom. It’s a very good two way dictionary. Amazon are today (April 2019) quoting over £200 for this. I picked up mine in Tabriz in 2013 for 250,000 rials (equivalent to about £5 at the time).

Aryanpur Progressive Persian-English Dictionary by Manouchehr Aryanpur Kashani. Very expensive in the United Kingdom, cheap in Iran. I bought mine at Book City, Alef. This is another very good dictionary.

It does seem clear that buying some of these dictionaries in the United Kingdom is a bit of an investment, and often they are not easy to find. If I was sure of selling a dozen of these I would bring them back as freight on my next trip.

Other books

Being aware that language is inseparable from people, in the course of my Persian studies I have built a small library of language and history books related to Iran. Some of them I have read thoroughly, others I have dipped into and look for examples. They all have a lot to offer. I’m listing a selection here.

Colloquial Persian by Abdi Rafiee. Very useful for spoken Persian, which sometimes differs from written Persian in both pronunciation and form.

A Modern Persian Prose Reader by H Kamshad. I spent many Saturday mornings in the cafe at Foyles trying to get to grips with some of the stories, before my abilities would allow me. But some of it sunk in, and it exposed me to literary Persian from different authors. This book is so useful because the stories are not long, covering 140 pages. There are also 140 pages of dictionary.

One of the stories which remains in my mind is The Patient Stone, a story from Iranian folklore, here rendered by Sadeq Hedayat. While awaiting my visa I joked I had become like a patient stone.

Media Persian by Dominic Parviz Brookshaw, which is a group of 13 word lists covering subject as diverse as politics and government, trade and industry, environment, energy, and human rights. These word lists are up to date and one can reasonably expect to encounter many of them in the Iranian mass media. I found this useful at times when reading some texts from IRNA.

1001 Persian English Proverbs by Simin Habibian. Persian, like English, is full of proverbs and idioms. This book has the Persian and the close English equivalents. I found this somewhat useful, but as with the English one would be better hearing them rather than reading them.

Persian Newspaper Reader by Michael Craig Hillmann. This is an advanced book and rigorous, suitable for university level study. Iranian newspaper writing tends to use a higher proportion of Arabic root words, and the style is different from ‘normal’ prose. One really needs a tutor to get the best from this book, though it is useful. It was very expensive at Foyles when I bought it, even with a promotional 10% discount. It may be found secondhand on Amazon or Abebooks. If you see it for a good price, get it.

Persian Grammar: For Reference and Revision by John Mace. A former diplomat, and British Council lecturer, Mace even typeset his own book. It’s very useful with many examples, and very easy to ‘dip into’. I still use this as a reference.

Intermediate Persian: A Grammar and Workbook by Saeed Yousef. This is a very good book with lots of examples. It has one flaw in that no matter what I did to it, it would not lay open. The binding is so tight that this is impossible, and when using this as a text book one needs to make one’s own notes.

Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Ferdowsi, and translated by Dick Davis. Over 900 pages long, this is a mammoth work. Davis is erudite rendering Persian poetry into both English prose and English poetry. He is truly a master translating another master’s work.

Among the Iranians: A guide to Iran’s Cultures and Customs by Sofia Koutlaki. A Greek woman’s experiences and perspective about living in Iran. Like me, she discovered that the experience and the perception of Iran from overseas are two different things.

An Introduction to Shi’i Islam by Moojan Momen. 99% of the population of Iran follows Islam, and of that 99% about 90% follow the Shia branch. This book gives one deeper understanding about Shia Islam. This book does have its faults for somebody reading about Iran. Most obvious is the use of Arabic pronunciation for certain letters. So Ali Reza, which is the pronunciation used in Iran, is rendered as Ali Rida, which is common in Arabic countries.

Isfahan – Pearl of Persia by Wilfrid Blunt. Roughly 200 pages of history about Esfahan, its architecture, customs, and life at the time of Shah Abbas the Great. It’s a very accessible read.

Iran – A Chronological History by Saeed Alizadeh, Alireza Pahlavani, and Ali Sadrnia. A timetable of Iran from 590 BC (birth of Cyrus the Great) to the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. There are some snippets from world history alongside some of the entries to help place events, for example 1440 Johan Gutenberg invented a method of printing with movable type.

I’ve also read some selected texts from The Cambridge History of Iran. I don’t own these books as they are expensive. However they do contain a vast amount of information in the form of essays.


While I was waiting for the issue of my Dehkhoda study visa for the first time I took two introductory Arabic courses. Although I had no problems writing Arabic, the pronunciation of several letters is different, the grammar is different, and in simple terms Arabic is a different language from different roots.

However there are many Arabic words in use in current Persian so these classes were a help.

I used two Arabic dictionaries. First the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, and the Oxford Essential Arabic Dictionary. They have their own strengths and weaknesses for learners.

Online dictionaries

One can search multiple dictionaries, including English to Persian, at once using Vajehyab online. It’s available as an Android app through the Google Play Store.

Francis Joseph SteingassA Comprehensive Persian-English Dictionary published in 1892 can be searched online at the University of Chicago. Steingass’ dictionary is an updated, corrected, and edited version of Francis Johnson‘s Dictionary of Persian, Arabic and English published in 1852. This is useful for obscure words found in Persian literature.

Persian poetry in Persian online

A great resource of older Persian poetry in Persian, but also a very few more recent poets, is Ganjoor (meaning treasurer). It certainly has the more important and popular poets such as Hafez, Sa’adi, Ferdowsi, and Molana.


Finding Persian language evening courses in London at introductory and beginner levels is relatively easy. Lower intermediate part-time courses are available, but not many. Beyond that one is really either at attending university full time, or making use of private tutors.

Persian language text books in the United Kingdom are a bit limited, and to get the best from them one really needs a tutor. Dictionaries are relatively expensive compared to other languages.

About the author: Sadface