learning English by learning Persian

At the end of July, when I was waiting at Cairns Airport for my flight back home, I had the idea to translate my “rationalising my commute” poem thing into Persian. It was going to be my next project/assignment to help prod me along with my studies.

This idea came to me because I was re-reading it for some reason (I occasionally go back and re-read things I wrote months or years ago), and it occurred to me that I probably knew a lot of the words in Persian. I jotted down some of these, which wasn’t really that much, but it was enough to give me the feeling that this was an achievable goal. 

I didn’t like my chances of randomly coming up with a poem in Persian from scratch (like my story about the fox) since I hardly even write poetry in English, so I figured translating something I’d already written was the next best thing.

Of course, I knew it was going to be tricky, but some nights I’d spend an hour flicking through the dictionaries my friend lent me, and only get through one line of the poem.

(I prefer using the hard copy dictionaries rather than the app on my phone – both because I like using books, and because the app severely drains my battery.)

One reason the translating process is taking so long is because I’ll look up a word that I need, and then get distracted by words around that word. The great thing about these dictionaries is that sometimes there are related phrases or sample sentences after a word. These are always of great interest to me, since I’m still having trouble wrapping my head around Persian sentence construction.

The other reason this has taken so long is because a lot of words have more than one meaning or interpretation. So what I do is look up an English word in the English-to-Persian dictionary, write down the first few entries it offers, and then go to the Persian-to-English dictionary to check if these mean what I want them to mean.

For example, the word “clean”, as simple as it seems, is quite nuanced. It could refer to purity or tidiness or hygiene. Even a word like “early”, which surely could only mean one or two things, also had several options – most of which didn’t seem to match what I wanted to say. And then I eventually found a completely unrelated way to say “early morning” or “daybreak”.

So the surprising benefit of learning another language in this way is that it’s kind of making me work on my English too. When I got to the line about “crisp early morning air”, I knew I wouldn’t get the right word from looking up “crisp” (I looked it up anyway, and it was all about crunch), so I actually had to pause and figure out what we actually mean when we say that the air is “crisp”.

I know I’ve never thought about what “crisp” actually means in that context, but this made me wonder if I really think very hard about what anything else means either. I mean, of course I think about meaning to some extent because I write regularly, and I can be quite pedantic about semantics, but this is sort of more about parallel words rather than words branching from other words (if that makes sense).

And if you’ve read and heard a word frequently, and in various contexts throughout your life, it’d probably never occur to you to stop and think about what it really means, and you certainly have never looked it up in a dictionary. But you still know what that word means, or at least how to use it in acceptable ways.

I’ve been tempted to just ask MM for help, but I’ve decided I want to do this on my own, and show her once it’s completed (something about making her proud, but probably more for my own pride).

Of course, another reason this little project has taken so long is that I don’t get a chance to work on it as often as I’d like. Still, I’m trying to find ways to study/practise Persian more often:

When I’m driving or on the road or otherwise somewhere with cars, I used to look at number plates and think of words/phrases/drug names with those letters. Now I think of them in Persian (or try to, anyway). I also write shopping lists in Persian, and I try to count things in Persian too. I still have days when I think I’m never going to actually get good at this, but it is a beautiful language, so I’m persisting anyway.

2 thoughts on “learning English by learning Persian

  1. I used to translate quite often – I still do on occasion – and I would never use an online dictionary. A good old dictionary gives you references, plenty of choices and, sometimes, ideas. I am so impressed with you learning Persian!

    • Did you do translations professionally, or just as a way of learning/practising languages?
      My Persian friend just proofread my translation of the poem, and made significantly fewer corrections compared to the story. I’m considering doing more translations to help my learning

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