May 11, 2014 | Persian

Memrise for Persian: A Wee Bit Frustrating

A Persian progress report.

I have previously been addicted to Memrise for Arabic. It was serious: I loved Memrise for Arabic. So far I do not love it for Persian.

Hiking in Central Park: It's Pimsleur Walking Season!

Hiking in Central Park: It’s Pimsleur Walking Season!

In case you are unfamiliar with Memrise: it is a marvelous and free resource for language learners in need of more vocabulary.

The thing is, content is user-contributed, as is the case with many language-learning websites these days. User-contributed content is not always good.

Arabic, for whatever reason, has a wealth of great courses complete with audio, but the Persian resources are less impressive. Many of the courses are without audio and have romanization rather than actual Persian writing. If they do have Persian writing, they often lack a built-in keyboard so I can actually type the words!

My ideal would be a Persian course (even better, multiple courses) with audio and a built-in Persian keyboard so that I don’t have to run back and forth to another window, as I am having to do now. I have been using the Persian keyboard on the Lexilogos site, but it is a nuisance to leave Memrise, go to Lexilogos, peck out the Persian word, copy it, run back to Memrise, and paste the word over there. 

Persisch für Anfänger, by Asya Asbaghi

Persisch für Anfänger, by Asya Asbaghi

You may wonder why I don’t create my own course on Memrise. I could. The thing is, it sounds like a lot of work.

And I like other people to make my courses. That is one tradition in language-learning instruction to which I remain attached.

Speaking of other people’s courses, I have been using my Basic Persian grammar book from Routledge, which is going pretty well, and am also now on lesson 15 of Pimsleur.

Yesterday I was just on lesson 8. Which means this weekend was a pretty big Pimsleur binge. I spent a lot of time walking around Central Park and looked at birds and flowers while learning how to say, “Would you like to have lunch with me?” and “Two teas, please.”

I was excited by the recent arrival of my Persisch book—a Persian language book based in German. The publisher is Buske, the title is Persisch für Anfänger (Persian for Beginners), and the author is Asya Asbaghi.

At first glance, I think it looks pretty good! It will be my first experience studying another language via German.

Comments (10)

Benjamin • Posted on Mon, May 12, 2014 - 4:34 am EST

Why don’t you just install the Persian keyboard layout? You can just use your English keyboard with that. If you have troubles remembering the position of the keys, you can print out the layout, or just open the image file.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Tue, May 13, 2014 - 12:25 am EST

There is a logic in what you suggest, Benjamin. Thank you!  :) For some reason I find that weirdly onerous. But I am trying to take some action tonight. I am actually thinking of ordering trilingual keyboard stickers (Persian, Russian, and Hebrew, I think) to make my life a little easier.

Paul P. • Posted on Thu, May 15, 2014 - 4:12 pm EST

While I can’t say I’ll be using it for Persian in particular, Memrise looks great. Thanks for the post!

Daniela • Posted on Tue, April 26, 2016 - 9:21 am EST

I’ve been studying Persian for four weeks now and Memrise has been very useful. I identified the limitations you are exposing during my first contact with the website, but if you download the app (in my case I have it on my iPad), you are going to be able to write using the Persian alphabet.

There are two courses with audio that I’m following at this moment and I find them very effective. Both of them have audio and the words are written using the Persian alphabet:

1. Basic Farsi: I’m more dedicated to this one because of the structures and the use of contextual forms (I’ve just started with this language ;) ).
2. Jester’s Persian Farsi Semester 1: It’s great for vocabulary.

And about books, the John Mace’s grammar book it’s being amazing. :)

Ario • Posted on Mon, July 17, 2017 - 7:36 am EST

Hi Ellen (and Daniela), I’m having a frustrating experience with Memrise as well as it seems the alphabet classes register correct answers as incorrect (I’m using the app on iOS). Have you run into this and if so, found any good workarounds?

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Sun, September 24, 2017 - 7:31 pm EST

Ario, did you ever resolve this? I’m so sorry for my slow reply. Something like this happened to me on occasion in the browser version, but I think mostly it was because I was typing some characters with an Arabic keyboard, and I am guessing that the identical Arabic characters are on occasion coded differently? (I am hazy on the details now, and I’m not sure I am remembering right.) Anyway, are you typing your answers using a Persian keyboard provided from within the app or are you actually changing your language setting on your phone to Persian?

David • Posted on Thu, January 11, 2018 - 1:55 pm EST

I’m going to absolutely slate Memrise and other courses in the following response, so hold onto your hat!

Frankly, as a fluent speaker, using any of the courses on Memrise to learn Persian is essentially a complete waste of time. In the entire time that I’ve been teaching modern Persian I’ve only ever found one multimedia course (anywhere) that comes remotely near teaching the language in both an organised and practicable fashion: The guys behind if spent YEARS formulating it and the level of planning and wisdom that went into it is remarkable.

And what’s more, it’s free. When a person has covered that entire course I would then send them off to work through the two Farsi Shirin Ast textbooks, with audio. And maybe give them Najafi’s dictionary of colloquial Persian. The Shirin books are tough going but will reward your persistence.

I’ll give you the perfect explanation as to why virtually all Persian courses currently available (including Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur etc etc etc) are a waste of valuable time. Some years ago I met a guy who had spent 8 years learning Persian. He could read the language very well, his vocabulary was great, and he understood the complexities of Arabic plurals etc. But when I sent him an interesting clip from Radio Farhang to listen to his reply came back “This is so depressing; I haven’t got a clue what they were talking about. All I could grasp is that it was something to do with young people in the job market in Iran”. In fact it was about new recruits in the traditional crafts industry.

The reason for his failure is simple and it absolutely astonishes me that after 20 years of a plethora of courses being created I still see the same problem: a complete and total lack of contextual teaching. Persian is a language of almost incomparable brevity which continues to abbreviate all linguistic forms year upon year. As a result, the more formal spoken form even on stations such as those available from the Iranian national networks is so grammatically different from a textbook that learning verbs in their infinitive form serves virtually no purpose. It’s a ridiculous way to learn a language such as Persian.

I looked through the Jester course and I’m afraid I completely disagree with anyone who thinks that’s a useful way to learn the language- the problem isn’t vocabulary, it’s the complete lack of verb constructs in *spoken* Farsi that causes all the problems. So a person goes on Jester and now knows that ياد گرفتن means ‘to learn’ and ياد مى گيرم means ‘I learn’. Great. So when I say to that person “Marda yādesh begire” they are utterly confused because they’ve never heard a Tehrani dialectical form, have no idea what the subjunctives look like, don’t know that subjunctives are often totally ignored to save time. Not so great after all. In fact, all Memrise has done is create a vocab competition for back slapping and high-fives.

Really this boils down to a basic ignorance regarding language teaching, not an ignorance of Persian. I guess the reason I find it so irritating is that these courses lead people down a complete dead end, for them to only find at the end that the difference between being able to say “Can I have some tea?” / “I like bananas” is a world away from conversational Farsi. I absolutely defy any person to follow the Jester course or any other on Memrise to its full completion and then turn on any Iranian radio station and understand what’s going on. Even the most fundamental issues such as the use of dar/tu and vāse/barāye aren’t covered. If a person doesn’t know the commonest forms such as barāt, baram, behesh, tush they will be 100% lost in a simple conversation with any Iranian.

Not only does virtually every single Persian course in existence fail to properly discuss conditionals, colloquial Persian, informal plurals versus formal versions, intensifiers, etc etc etc but they also fail to give a vocabulary the average Iranian uses in a simple chat about life. Rosetta Stone is the Golden Child of useless Persian courses when it comes to this issue, teaching you a form of Persian that nobody speaks in Iran and which is about as useful as a ham sandwich in a Mosque.

All of the above simply cannot be said about 99.9% of French or German courses, which leads me to a conclusion: most Persian courses are written by people who either aren’t fluent in English or aren’t fluent in Persian. I get that the Memrise courses are free but they should come with a warning where it concerns a language like Persian: “This won’t actually teach you how to speak or understand much modern Persian”.

I’ll finish with one final criticism: virtually nowhere on Memrise or in any other currently available course in print or otherwise did I find even a handful of Persian idioms such as those used constantly in written and spoken Farsi. They all play the same trick though- they’ll teach you one or two such as “Be dard khordan” or “sarmā khordan” and then basically that’s your idioms covered! Job done! I cannot stress this enough: the only other language I’ve come across with as many daily idioms of common speech is English. Which is precisely why you can spend a decade learning standard English but still not know what people are talking about when they say “It turned out well” or “I gave him a piece of my mind”. Likewise, a person needs to learn at least 100-200 idiomatic expressions in modern Persian to be able to speak fluently with a native or watch Iranian/Afghan/Tajik tv. And if you don’t know the conditionals/subjunctives in their totality by the end of year one then you’re going to have a lot of problems.

So to anyone reading this take my advice: go learn the persianlanguageonline course to completion, get the two Farsi Shirin Ast books, and find yourself both a colloquial dictionary and a book of Persian idioms. And start listening to Iranian radio or TV!

Good luck!


Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, January 11, 2018 - 2:00 pm EST

Hi David, I’ve never heard “slate” used in that way. I have truly enjoyed Memrise for developing my reading skills with unfamiliar scripts. I find it helpful for that, and fun!

David • Posted on Thu, January 11, 2018 - 5:30 pm EST

Hi Ellen,

Yeah I kind of went overboard on my mini thesis there :) Maybe I should just write a Persian course and sell it- my brother has suggested it too. 

‘Slate’ in the sense of ‘to criticise’ is a great little British and Irish idiom.

Great blog, by the way.



Ellen Jovin • Posted on Thu, January 11, 2018 - 10:50 pm EST

David, I just laughed out loud when I saw this followup comment! You are a good sport. I am excited to know about “slate.” I think that usage will require a Facebook post. And thanks for commenting so thoughtfully and with such linguistic passion. I appreciate it, seriously. - Ellen

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