Saturday, July 11, 2009

Learning Farsi in Isfahan

I am three weeks into a Farsi course at International Scientific Cooperation Office (ISCO) at the University of Isfahan. There is very little information available on the Internet detailing student experiences of learning Farsi in Iran. I have therefore decided to share some impressions and personal experiences.

Because the ISCO does not provide a handbook for new students, most of the information I've provided here you need to figure out by yourself or with your fellow students. My hope in writing this blog entry is that some people will find it helpful.

In the classroom

As a warning to the reader, I must say at the outset that I am not especially good at learning a new language. I have little natural talent for it. I am almost always the slowest student in the class. I was not taught grammar in when I was a student in New Zealand. Furthermore, I did not undertake any formal study of Farsi before coming to the course. I had done a little self-study with the Rosetta Stone Farsi language CDs.

Before arriving, the University applied for a three month student visa on my behalf. It took about five and half months for it to be issued. It took so long that I had to change my plans and shorten my course of Farsi study. Shorter length tourist visas, suitable for shorter periods of study, can take much less time to be issued.

As of mid 2009, the classes are small. This provides many opporunities for individually tailored language instruction. Classes run from 8:30am till about 11:45am, with a small break in between. The teachers are all women. They are interesting, engaging and friendly teachers. They have without expception been patient, polite and a pleasure to learn with. They are all well educated. Almost of them speak adequate English, which is helpful for beginners like me, when explanations are needed. However those who are more advanced in their knowledge of Farsi will of course prefer their teachers teach in Farsi.

Sheikh Loft Allah Mosque, Isfahan
Sheikh Loft Allah Mosque, Isfahan

The classrooms are located in a very beautiful part of the campus, beside a lovely garden. Nearby insects can sometimes be heard creating a enticing symphony of chirps, which can be a welcome respite from the feeling of being overwhelmed by the unfamiliar and strange sounds of a new language.

In the beginners class, a text book called Let's Learn Farsi is used. It can be purchased from a bookshop near Siosipol Bridge (a teacher will tell you where to buy it from). Accompanying the text book is an audio CD, which is not for sale. However this is not a problem as the MP3 files from the CD can be copied from computers at the ISCO. The book is helpful. It contains helpful phrases which are immediately useful in places like shops and homes. It is professionally produced, and has some interesting music to accompany it. However in the accompanying audio, the dialogue can proceed at such a tremendously rapid rate that it is impossible for the beginner to keep up. This can be frustrating. The aim is laudable—ordinary Iranians are inclined to speak fairly rapidly, and the student needs to learn to listen to conversational Farsi sooner or later. However, in my opinion, it would be useful for the audio guide to include the option of dialogue spoken more slowly, in addition to the existing dialogue. Furthermore, new words can be introduced without an explanation of what they mean. Sometimes the meaning can be guessed, but it means that without a dictionary, the teacher's guidance is truly essential.

Fruit and vegetable market, Isfahan
Fruit and vegetable market, Isfahan

Fellow students may be fluent in Arabic (which makes it far easier for them), or may have English as a second or third language. One of my classmates is from Korea. It is very difficult for him to pronounce Farsi. He is much better at understanding Farsi than I am (he has been in Iran for more than a year), but I have an impossible time understanding what he is saying when he speaks Farsi.

I have found it very helpful to continue using the Rosetta Stone Farsi language CDs outside of class. They are logical, and the accompanying audio is always extremely well spoken. I also appreciate the pedagogy they use, where written words and audio accompany images, without any translation into English. Although the text book uses a similar approach, personally I strongly prefer Rosetta Stone to the text book, because of its structure and pace (of course, there is nothing like being in a classroom to ask questions and have errors in pronunciation corrected). To use Rosetta Stone you'll need your own computer, obviously.

Friday Mosque, Isfahan
Friday Mosque, Isfahan

I recommend bringing your laptop, if you have one. You can use it in the accommodation to connect to the Internet using a LAN connection in your room. Otherwise Internet access on campus is not easy. A Internet cafe not far from the Guest House is basic, and closes during summer, when most students are on their break.

The University of Isfahan has a truly vast campus—easily the largest campus I have ever seen. Free buses are available to transport students and visitors to various points throughout the campus. The campus rests on a gently sloping hill, providing a splendid view of the city. Gardens, lawns and at least one orchard are scattered about the campus. Unlike any other University I've attended, fences dominate the campus . One gets the impression that the planners deliberately made it difficult to walk from one place to another using a direct route. Instead of handy gates or walkways between building and fences, one must circumnavigate them to get where one needs to go. That can occasionally add many minutes to one's walk.

View from the Mehmansara

The accommodation provided for most students in the course—those who do not already live here in Iran, or who do not have families with them—is in the University Guest House (Mehmansara). It is a bit like budget hotel. The rooms are spacious and functionally furnished. I have not needed to share my room, but that could change if the number of students were to increase. The quality of room you will receive may vary dramatically depending on exactly which room you get assigned. In the first room I stayed in, the telephone and Internet did not work at all. The shower hardly worked and the toilet was problematic. The balcony was very dirty. After a couple of weeks, when despite repeated requests to the Mehmansara staff it became clear they would not be fixed, I requested a room change from the ISCO. My new room is far superior.

The quality of the Internet connection varies. Sometimes it works without issues. At other times, it does not work at all, or runs very slowly. Naturally, censorship of the Internet is in place, as required by the Government.

There is no laundry facility in the Mehmansara, and it is unclear as to where the nearest laundromat is. The restaurant at the ground floor of the Mehmansara is vegetarian unfriendly. The only suitable vegetarian dish is a mediocre salad. There are a couple of stores a few minutes walk away, selling dry goods, as well as fruits and vegetables. However almost all the rooms in the Mehmansara are not designed for cooking in. If you're lucky, you might be one of the few people to be provided with a small heating element, but don't count on it. If you're going to stay here for three months, that could be a problem.

Armenian Orthodox Church, Isfahan
Armenian Orthodox Church, Isfahan

Not far from the Mehmansara is a handy bus stop, which is regularly served by buses that can take you straight into the center of town. If you are contemplating learning Farsi in Iran, and you've never been to Iran, it is helpful to know that Isfahan is a very beautiful and often charming city. Its architecture can be stunning. Some of my photos of Isfahan (also spelled Esfahan) can be found here and here.

Update, August 13 2010: You can view a followup to this blog entry here: