Teaching My Children Farsi During the COVID-19 Pandemic
BY HOLLAY GHADERY
Photo © titovailona/Twenty20
Jul 15, 2020
The first words I learned in Farsi were profanities. As a young child, I'd listen to my father on the phone with his sisters and brothers, laughing and teasing each other. I'd mimic the sounds coming out of his mouth — the guttural rolls and melodic lilts of the language and I'd feel a tugging at my insides. I didn't know what I was saying, but I knew I wanted to learn.
It never happened. My father had left Iran to join one of his older brothers in Canada in 1973. He met my mother, a sixth-generation Canadian of British descent, at the Nickelodeon nightclub in Toronto a couple of years later. In 1976, they were married.
"Farsi has always been a language of warmth, love and security for me."
As my father grew older, he would embrace many of the traditional Iranian and Muslim ideals that he shook off in the ideological high of his twenties. But when I was young, he still clung to some of the Western-centic ideas that brought him to Canada in the first place.
"Don't worry for Farsi," he'd say when I asked him to teach me. "Learn English very well. Or, if you have to learn another language, learn Chinese. Those are languages of the future. There's nothing for you in Farsi."
Except as I raise my four young children, I realize that there is. Even as a child, when I'd practice my limited Farsi on my dad's brothers and sisters — my amoos and amehs — they'd squeal with delight and hug me. Farsi has always been a language of warmth, love and security for me.
My amehs in particular pushed my father to teach me more conversational words.
Haleh shoma chetoreh? How are you?
Man khubam. I'm well.
And then there were the words that I'd heard my whole life — the terms of endearment my dad lavished on me that had no meaning until he agreed to teach me a little.
Ghorbunet beram. I'll die for you.
Khoshgelam. My beautiful.
This family is capable of speaking three languages, but have defaulted to English as soon as they had kids. Read that POV here.
This past March, when in-class learning was suspended indefinitely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, my children eagerly jumped at my proposition to take some of our school time to learn Farsi. I spoke with my children's teachers to let them know we would be completing some of the school work, but not all of it. We would be learning independently and I would send videos and updates of our progress. Without exception, they supported my decision.
Our first lesson involved submitting a video to the school news broadcast that taught other students a bit of conversational Farsi. A simple greeting.
Salam! Haleh shoma chetoreh? Man khubam.
In this introduction, my children also explain that they have Persian heritage.
This Persian mom is TikTok famous for perfectly fitting her homecooked leftovers into containers. Read that phenomenon here.
Over the course of the next few weeks, we dive deeper into the language. My children learned how to say please, thank you, nice to meet you and other common pleasantries.
They also drew vocabulary words they wanted to learn. Ice cream. Bastani. Big. Bozorg. Lemon. Lemoo. Beach. Saahel. Poop. Ann. Cousin...
The last one is tricky because there are eight different ways to say cousin in Farsi, and which one you use depends on how the cousin is related to you. For instance, dokhtar dâei refers to the daughter of a maternal uncle, whereas dokhtar ameh refers to the daughter of a paternal aunt. While confusing at first, my children began to see the elegant logic of it: how it revealed exact family relationships.
“Family’s really important in Iranian culture,” I explained to my children.
“You mean it’s really important to us,” my eldest daughter corrected, her blue mallow eyes sparking indignation. “I’m Iranian too.”
With the help of my father and some Farsi classes on YouTube and Instagram, we're speaking more Farsi every day. When any of my children use Farsi, unprompted, in conversations, I celebrate with a Persian dance, swinging my hips and clapping my hands overhead, singing Atal Matal, a popular and nonsensical Iranian children's song. They join me, giggling and singing along. My husband is even picking up some Farsi, delighting the kids like I delighted my relatives with endearingly mangled mispronunciations.
My goal in teaching my children Farsi is not for them to be bilingual, though perhaps with time, that will happen. I also know that no amount of distraction can protect my children from being touched by the anxieties this epoch in our history carries. Still, learning Farsi reminds us of who we are and what we do have.
Each other. Fameel.
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