“They don’t use that word here” — A personal view

A longing look came over the face of my friend the English teacher, “If we just had a tenth of what they have for English in Dari, I’d be happy.” It’s true that as languages go, Dari doesn’t have a ton of resources. All of the grammar books, vocabulary books, and conversation guides have to be developed from scratch.

Or is that true? There certainly are a lot of Persian-language resources: those which have been developed for Iranian Persian (Farsi), rather than Dari. Why not make use of those materials alongside of our Dari ones?

I hear the objection already: Iranian Farsi is completely different to Afghan Dari! They only use higher and educated forms over there! They don’t use those words in Afghanistan!

I confess that I am a little skeptical of this objection. As a linguist, I know that even native speakers have pretty poor intuitions about what words they do and don’t use. As someone learning Dari, I know that in a lot of contexts, all I hear is a wall of noise: I wouldn’t trust myself to say what words I’ve heard and what words I haven’t. If you’re convinced that Afghan and Iranian Persian have a lot of differences, I’m curious to know where you got your information!

In fact, over the past few years I’ve had the opposite experience: many words that I learned from Farsi language-learning resources have turned up in conversations here in Afghanistan. I’ve learned a lot of my vocabulary with Anki, a free flashcard program. I’m such a believer in this program that I’ve written a brief guide for it, and I’ve also put a number of pre-made flash card decks in LCP’s online resources page.

We recently spent about a year and a half in our passport country. About six months before we left I started a deck of Farsi flashcards – around 3200 cards. Then when we were in our passport country I started another deck of about 4600 cards, and I’m about 85% of the way through that now. The result is that I’ve got a lot of Farsi words somewhere in my head. A lot of these words were already familiar from Dari, but probably more than half were new. They are presented in random order: I learned how to say “United Nations,” I learned three words for “darkness” (or rather, two more words for “darkness” in addition to the one I had known), I learned a different word for “length of time,” etc.

Now that we’ve returned to Afghanistan, hardly a day goes by that I don’t hear a word that I learned from my “Farsi” flashcards. Examples? ظرف [zarf] for “length of time.” به [bah] for “good.” ممنوع [mamnu] for “forbidden.” And on and on. These are words I didn’t learn in four years in Afghanistan! I didn’t learn them from reading, and I didn’t learn them from conversation.

You’re free to make of my experience what you will, but I have two takeaways:

  1. Iranian Persian (Farsi) language resources can be very helpful for learning Afghan Dari. The differences between the Afghan and Iranian varieties are not so great as as commonly believed.

  2. Flashcards can be a helpful language-learning tool. The language learning gurus say that we need to know about 10,000 words before we can speak fluently, without feeling at a loss for words. That’s a steep goal. I hope that most of that comes from reading, listening, and conversation. But a good chunk can also come from flashcards. I find it easiest to pick up a word in conversation if I’ve previously encountered it on a card.