Colloquial vs Written Persian

If you have been looking into learning Persian for a while, you've probably been told that you should make sure to learn Spoken Persian rather than Literary, Formal, or Written Persian. You may be wondering what version of the language we are teaching here. You may also feel apprehensive about having to learn two different kinds of Persian.

The TLDR: We offer both kinds of content. The majority of our videos use colloquial, spoken Persian, but we also have a growing library of materials based on literary language. We also believe that the difference is sometimes over-advertised to beginners, and nothing you should be concerned about.

So what is this all about?

When Persian is spoken in everyday life, a couple of things are pronounced slightly differently. There are several common contractions, and certain words you don't use because you would sound pretentious.

If you think this sounds like it could be a description of English (or any language), you're not wrong. But in Persian, the distinction is somewhat prominent and clear-cut. For example, while "can't" may sometimes we frowned upon in formal writing, there is nothing wrong with saying "cannot" in English. In Persian, you'll always want to use the contraction when speaking colloquially - or you'll sound strange.

Here is an example. Colloquial Persian is big on contracting the verb "to be". Let's say you'd want to announce, "I am an Influencer!" Formally, you would write: "influencer hastam!". But in speech, you say "influencer-am!".

A notable change in pronunciation is that an is pronounced un. So xane is spoken xune and instead of tehran we say tehrun. Some verb forms change slightly - instead of the formal darand you'd say daran, dropping the d.

There are other changes - but not too many. In our experience, these things are reasonably easy to get used to.

It's similar in terms of vocabulary. There are English words that you can't use in conversation without being weird (to endeavor, aforesaid), and there are plenty of ways to express yourself in a highfalutin way (or even just miss the mark ever so slightly). But learning English, you can go pretty far without worrying about such subtleties. You can pick any word you come across in the New York Times, use it in conversation, and you'll most likely be ok. In Persian, newspapers and TV anchors do use fancy words that you don't want to use in ordinary speech.

One difficulty in learning to speak any language idiomatically (that is, in a way that sounds natural) is that so much vocabulary has subtle connotations that can make one word just right, but a synonym sound wrong. Degree of formality is an element of that, and it is more prominent in Persian than English. Does this make it more challenging to learn? We doubt it. It's not like Persian consists of "more words" or something. Instead, we'd rather look at formality as one of the many facets of a word.

Ok, but what should I focus on when starting to learn?

Changes are that the materials you are working with will incorporate colloquial language one way or another. But even if you do use an older or very academic-minded book, there is no need to throw it out.

If you are making a serious attempt at becoming fluent, you are ultimately going to learn the differences as you progress. In fact, since the structure of the formal language can be more rigid and regular, you may well have an easier time learning those first - and then seeing what changes occur in speech.

If your main goal is being able to communicate as quickly as possible, you may as well learn and practice the colloquial language from the start.

What do you teach?

We do not provide a guided course but focus on creating a library of great Persian content that you use to improve your reading and listening skills. As such, we want to allow you to practice both registers, and we keep growing our library of both colloquial and literary Persian.

Currently, we'd estimate that our content is about 80% Spoken Persian, 20% Literary Persian.

Is Spoken Persian just a dialect?

Basically yes. It's probably best to think of it like this: Spoken Persian is the collection of many different dialects, which stand in opposition to a formal variant of the language. The dialects share some ways in which they are different from literary Persian, but not others. When you learn colloquial Persian, you are learning the Tehrani accent as a sort of widely accepted standard - comparable with the role of BBC English.

But don't get lost in semantics. The term "dialect" isn't easily defined. What is unique about the formal variety of Persian, and different from the other dialects, is that people don't learn it as babies, so in a sense, it has no native speakers. It's a "high prestige" alternative used in specific, prescribed situations. The existence of such a variant is called diglossia.

There are many variants and dialects of English. However, they just don't align in a way to fit the definition of diglossia.

Formality and Familiarity

We've used the adjectives "literary," "written," and "formal" interchangeably in this article. The first two can be misleading because this variant is also spoken. But it is worth pointing out Persian, like many languages, also distinguishes two types of formality (or familiarity) when it comes to addressing people. English used to have this a long time ago with "thou". So in Persian, if you want to address someone with "you", you say "shoma" when it's a stranger, and "to" if it's a friend.

This is called a T-V distinction. It's a relatively minor language feature, and it's not what we mean when we talk about "Formal Persian".