In April, succumbing to the anxieties over lost time during the quarantine, I signed up for Farsi lessons at the New York Persian Center. It turned out to be a great decision.
I’ve been told I’m “good with languages”. While I don’t really know what that means, it is hard not to be multilingual when you’re from India; the constitution recognizes 22 official languages and at least 3 show up wherever you go.
I grew up speaking Tamil at home, Hindi on the streets and English in school. This was a fairly healthy way of learning as I had separate spaces to immerse myself in each of the languages. A side-effect of that is I have come to deeply associate certain social relations with certain kinds of langauges — and it can drive me nuts when the barriers collapse.
Most education boards in India also follow the three-language formula, in which schools teach two languages besides the medium of instruction. A result of this is my beginner/intermediate proficiency in Sanskrit, the only language that I learned in an exclusively formal setting without the comfort of immersion.
Sanskrit is a nicely structured language that lends itself very well to a top-down approach of learning. It’s fascinating how the mental framework acquired from learning Sanskrit became quickly apparent and useful when I set out to study Farsi. The verb-conjugation charts and noun-ending charts in Farsi were an instant callback (for me, anyway) to शब्द and धातु रूप.
All things considered, learning Farsi from scratch turned out to be easier than expected for a few reasons:
- Farsi shares a non-trivial amount of vocabulary with Hindi/Urdu and Turkish. Prior knowledge in these (my proficiency in Turkish being laughably dismal) gave me a massive head start. Shared words like گرم/गरम, تازه/ताज़ा and سبزی/सबजी sent me down a fun rabbit hole.
- Having a certain level of familiarity with the culture (not entirely different from that in India) proved to be helpful while learning distinctions between formal and informal speech, or other colloquialisms. Also, subtler things like the tragicomedy of تعارف was not lost on me
- While being different from anything I’ve learned to read so far, script for Farsi bears some fundamental similarities with Devnagri — which meant that I had the dexterity necessary to write letters that didn’t follow the left-to-right convention.
Studying Farsi also helped in ways that I didn’t expect. For one, it was the perfect excuse to lean further into my note-taking habit. Besides, sentence formation in Farsi with the constraints of my minuscule vocabulary has been an oddly meditative exercise in the midst of all the crises and constant mental rerouting. I’ve coasted along for an entire decade without having to learn a new language, so using these parts of my brain after all this time is exciting.
I’m still pretty bad at sight-reading and conversational Farsi, and so I’m exploring better ways of combining both immersion and structural learning to get Farsi phrases to stick around in my head. I’m also yet to develop a muscle memory for phonetics and how they morph in a colloquial context. I’m in no position to surround myself with Persian-speakers although that would be perfect, but I’m curious if dipping my feet in spaced-repetition tools like Anki would yield any benefits. Refrain-ladden pop music from Iran has been a great source of phrases — coquettish ones nonetheless.
Learning to read, write and speak beginner-level Farsi over the last couple of months was surprisingly fulfilling. I intend to continue doing this for at least the foreseeable pandemic-ridden future. I don’t have a strong end-goal in mind but for some reason, I like learning this new language. It helps me catch up with my mind.