I had learned some Persian in London. I had visited Iran and spoken some Persian with Iranians. I took the plunge: I decided to study Persian full time in Iran at Dehkhoda. The application process took some time, but eventually my visa was issued. I organised a flight, and then one day I arrived in Tehran for the start of what was to become an unexpected odyssey.
The intensive language course
Dehkhoda offers part time courses, which take place three afternoons a week. But I am writing here mostly about the intensive (فشرده /fe’shor’deh/) language classes which are held five mornings a week between 9am and midday, with a half hour break in the middle. The lessons are cumulative. The term length is six weeks.
We used three text books: one was concerning reading and comprehension; the other two were devoted to the drier but essential aspects of grammar (though the books themselves are not too dry). These books are written in-house at Dehkhoda with input from the tutors, several of whom taught me. In total they add up to about 720 pages. This may seem somewhat daunting at first, however it is not tackled all at once – there is a logical progression through the books.
The Reading Comprehension Book
This book, informally referred to as the yellow book for obvious reasons, contains 18 lessons in almost 200 pages. There is a review after each six lessons. Hence it can be used for three six-week intensive terms. At the back of the book there is a Persian-English dictionary of about 30 pages containing relevant words.
Each week we read one lesson from this book, and it became evident to me after the first week that we would indeed do every exercise in the lesson. So in my free time I prepared accordingly. The photograph below shows the latest edition of this book, which has minor changes compared to the version I used.
The lessons have a standard formula:
- Questions before the lesson
- A list of about 50 new words for building one’s vocabulary
- A text about one page in length, the subjects are varied
- Questions referencing the text, with true or false answers
- A question concerning the overall theme of the text
- Questions referencing the text, with answers in one’s own words
- Matching synonyms, with reference to the text
- For compound verbs, finding reasonable and correct verb parts
- An exercise writing sentences with the compound verbs just listed
- An exercise filling in the gaps from a list of words
- A similar exercise filling in gaps from a list of compound verbs
- An exercise referencing the text to find expressions with the same meaning
- An exercise referencing the text to find who or what a pronoun refers to
- An exercise referencing the text, filling in gaps in a summary of the text
- A discussion concerning the text
- Another text, this one a bit longer, to be read in a few minutes
- An exercise with several questions concerning this text
The text for the first lesson in this book was taken from acclaimed author and prizewinner Zoya Pirzād‘s collection of short stories ‘Three Books’. Some of her books have been translated into other languages.
As its title suggests, it should be evident that this book is aimed at building vocabulary and comprehension. Some of the questions were straightforward, some were not (at that stage in my learning Persian). Although each lesson ostensibly has about fifty new words, in reality the number of new words is easily twice that. Some compound verbs have multiple infinitives, and one really has to learn these.
There was homework several times a week involving the various exercises, and this together with other classwork forms part of the final score in the term.
The Applied Grammar Books
There are two Applied Grammar (دستور /da’stur/) books: one pertains to verbs, the other to grammar other than verbs. The books shown in the photographs below are the latest (June 2019) versions, which are a little bit different from the versions I used.
Volume 1, the red book with more than 280 pages, contains:
- prefixes and suffiixes
- conditional clauses
For each section there are explanations, examples, and numerous exercises. For example in the noun section, several different methods of forming the plural are illustrated. In the current edition of this book the answers to the exercises can be found at the back. I am in two minds whether this is a good idea – the temptation to cheat nibbles away at one’s resilience. But if one is studying alone, without a competent tutor, then this may be a reasonable option.
Volume 2, the blue book with about 240 pages, contains numerous verb forms and tenses including (but not only):
- present tense
- simple past tense
- present subjunctive
- past continuous
- causative verbs
- sentence construction
As with Volume 1, there are explanations, examples, exceptions, and exercises. Likewise to Volume 1, the answers are in the back of the book. In addition there are five review sections.
Once each week we watched a part of an Iranian film. This took us out of the usual classroom environment, and exposed us to a much looser use of language – written and spoken Persian can and does vary quite a lot both in structure and pronunciation. There was also far idiomatic use of language. My weakness at listening came to the fore in these lessons (see below for more information).
Examinations (امتحانات /em’ta’khān’āt/)
Each term there were two sets of examinations: the mid-term and the end of term. These encompassed writing, listening, and some multiple choice questions. During examination time Dehkhoda is a quiet place.
More writing in the advanced classes
In the advanced classes we spent more time writing than previously. Set homework usually included writing a couple of essays each week. They weren’t particularly long, but they still had to be written. There was also more writing in the class itself and without the aid of a dictionary, which quickly reveals weaknesses (and perhaps laziness).
One time we learned how to write a formal letter, which requires particular vocabulary instead of the more usual words. For example instead of من /man/ meaning ‘I’, in formal letters the word اینجانب /in’jā’neb/ is used. At the time one wondered how useful this would be. But… some time later I wrote a letter to Hassan Rohani about the bad driving that I saw every day in Iran, and I used this style of writing in that letter. (I have no idea if he ever received my letter, but I did send it).
The Presentation (ارائه /er’ā’e/)
Towards the end of each term, each of the students had to make a presentation lasting about 20 to 30 minutes to the rest of the class. We were given suggestions about subjects to present. In my first class, Intermediate 2, I worked with somebody else: we presented about a subject called ‘the naughty boy’, but I really cannot much else about it now.
In the Advanced I and II classes I presented alone. I chose two of my own subjects somewhat loosely related related to the suggestions of ‘the environment’ and ‘history’:
- The scarcity of water in Iran
- A short history of oil in Iran
The subjects themselves were not actually important. Instead it was our ability to present a subject, speaking and explaining and answering questions in Persian, which was being assessed. I did my homework, I researched my subjects, I found some suitable photographs and statistics, and made a short presentation in Keynote.
End of term celebration (جشن /jashn/)
At the end of some of the terms, all the students were gathered together in the main conference room at Dehkhoda for a presentation and celebration. These presentations often had a guest speaker who spoke about a specific subject.
The end of the Persian year presentations were larger events, with musicians, other small functions and so on. There was a haft sin (هفت سین) which we don’t have in English culture. It was a more Iranian event.
Students were called up onto the stage to receive their certificates for studying. The exam certificates with the actual results were dealt with elsewhere. We were also given a 1,000 rial note by way of a souvenir. I carry it with me.
In the first term I didn’t take any additional courses as I was unsure what the workload would be.
In later terms I took additional afternoon courses including: reading Iranian newspapers, history of Iran, and free conversation. These all had their uses, however they were just one session a week each.
I regretted not taking a calligraphy course. My Persian writing is not too ugly, but I have never considered myself to be a calligrapher (خوشنویس /khosh’ne’vis/). However I saw the results that some other students obtained after just a few weeks and I was impressed.
My Persian language deficiencies
I can read Persian quite well now. I have developed a good vocabulary, and reading is something I can practise on my own anywhere. It is a practical skill that I take some pride in (which doesn’t mean that I am too proud of myself).
Notwithstanding that, one has to be honest and admit and recognise two areas where I am weaker.
The first is putting my own words into Persian. Sometimes I have very good conversations with people in Persian, and I do pretty well. More or less I would say that I am satisfied with my performance. I judge every one of my significant conversations and ask myself how well I did. If a subject is familiar, I can do very well. However sometimes I (still) have a problem using the correct grammatical constructions, although I am certainly familiar with them. So this shortfall is not through lack of instruction, it is solely rooted with me. And although my interlocutor may fully understand me, they do so while my faults are evident to them. Supposedly this is a weakness in most learners of foreign languages. But one strives to be better, and one does see progress with this.
The second problem is listening when a speaker is talking quickly and without any pauses – it’s just too fast for me to absorb sometimes. I describe it as being a flood or a tide of words. And just like King Canute I too cannot stop the tide. This seldom occurs in classes where there are natural breaks when a tutor is talking, and is eliciting a response from the class to ensure we have understood their comments.
I have also experienced this problem sometimes in conversations with taxi drivers. If they speak too quickly (and unclearly) I ask them to slow down a little. If they don’t do this, I lose interest and that is pretty much the end of any conversation I would have had with them. Despite that, I have enjoyed some very good conversations with taxi drivers. I have picked up new words, new idioms, and new expressions from them. One supposes this is about cooperation when engaged in a conversation. If somebody is prepared to work with you, rather than talk at you, one can make good progress. This is probably the greater of my two main shortfalls.
My overall experience about studying Persian Language at Dehkhoda
I started in Intermediate 2, then went through Intermediate 3, Advanced 1 and Advanced 2 in turn. Between each term there was a break of about ten days. In total this was about six months of studying. This brought me to a level where I function reasonably well.
I don’t need anyone to assist me when visiting the bazaar or shops, or booking a hotel room, or taking taxis, or exchanging money, and so on. I can do all of these things in Persian with a high level of confidence. I can handle buying practically anything speaking in Persian, though sometimes I may not know the exact word for an item. But simple terms such as larger, smaller, lighter in weight, different colours, and so on, are completely second nature to me now. Even more obscure things, such as asking the tailor in the dry cleaners to sew a dozen loops onto a hand-printed cloth (قلمکار /qa’lam’kār/) so I can hang it from my wall, are handled without any problems.
One has some apprehension about using the word ‘fluent’, as it clearly means different things to different people. To me, I would say that fluency in a language means being very articulate with a wide vocabulary. In some circumstances and some subjects I have fluency, but in others I do not. Therefore I would say I have good functional Persian with some fluency.
I would like to have spent more time at Dehkhoda learning and practising spoken Farsi, for use in everyday situations. To give one example, in my earliest days at Dehkhoda, at the bakery (نانوایی /nā’na’vā’ee) near my khabgah, I would ask for one loaf (یک نان /yek noon/). The baker replied to me by way of question ‘ye’doo’neh’. I had no idea what mean. I looked for it in a dictionary and found nothing. So I asked my tutor and then it was explained: یک دانه /yek dā’neh/ in spoken Persian becomes ‘ye’doo’neh/.
After I finished the Advanced 2 course, I stayed for two 12 week literature courses. I will write about those elsewhere as they deserve their own reports. From this it should be evident that I enjoyed my time at Dehkhoda very much. My experience was completely positive.