Farsi Friday Week 9: Overcoming childhood fears

Burney Fell, South Lakes (Panorama)

I leave for Iran next week. This is frightening. I am afraid.

Last summer I spent an enjoyable afternoon wandering around London’s South Bank, stopping random passers-by and asking politely if they wouldn’t mind sharing their impression of Iran with my video camera. I was shooting some vox pops for a film about my journey in Iran. I expected responses along the lines of ‘dangerous nuclear-fixated fundamentalists’, thus setting the stakes for a film which would prove them wrong.

But I’d underestimated the nuances of people’s views. I was surprised to hear strangers talking about — yes, about concerns over nuclear conflict, but also their suspicions that many Iranian citizens did not share their government’s ambitions (nothing new there), and also that the matter of international relations alone was no basis for general judgement. And others acknowledged Iran as a cradle of civilization and regaled me with tales of Persian colleagues and neighbours being amongst the kindest and warmest people they’d met. Those with longer memories even spoke of an era when Britain and Persia walked hand in hand.

So my fears are not about the country or its people or its position on the world stage. I fell in love with Iran when I first visited 5 years ago, and I’ve longed to travel the country in depth ever since.

No — my fear runs far deeper and represents my single biggest challenge on this upcoming trip.

It’s the fear of making mistakes. Of getting things wrong. Of being ridiculed, rejected and humiliated, over and over again.

Like most fears, this one is illusory — a symptom, I suspect, of a style of schooling that rewarded the kid who got the right answer first. Poor performance produced red-pen punishment. Being average meant teachers forgetting your name.

But learning a new language purely by attempting to use it amongst native speakers will mean making mistakes. A lot of mistakes. To someone with a deep-set belief that ‘wrong equals bad’, this a very real, very big hurdle.

There’s an easy way round the hurdle, of course, which is to avoid speaking unless I know that what comes out of my mouth is going to be perfect, as I was supposed to for my GCSEs. Then I won’t have to suffer the indignity of being corrected, or the feeling of inadequacy for getting it wrong.

But shortcuts like this are not the point. As with past trips, it’s curiosity and challenge that is leading me back to Iran. The curiosity of whether it’s possible to absorb a language by throwing yourself at it, and the challenge of following it through and making a meaningful journey in the process. To leave Iran having made no progress with Farsi will be a far greater mistake than the sum of errors made while navigating the language. That’s why I’ve ditched the film project in favour of committing to my primary aim: learning Farsi, and achieving fluency by the end of this year.

And so it’s imperative that I must leap this psychological hurdle at the earliest opportunity. In any case, I will not be rejected, ridiculed or humiliated for making mistakes. The people I meet won’t be my childhood authority figures. They’ll be normal folk, tickled to discover that some English bloke is attempting to say more than just “thank you” in their native tongue.

I can’t wait to meet them!

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9 responses to “Farsi Friday Week 9: Overcoming childhood fears”

  1. Lee Carruthers avatar
    Lee Carruthers

    Congratulations on traveling to Iran. I spent a month there in 2004, backpacking and bussing around the country. Wonderful, generous people and generally felt quite safe. Was drugged (date-rape drug) in Qom but got away without losing anything. Also experienced a strange bus accident which banged me up a bit. The most paranoid could attribute it to an attempt to short circuit my trip, by authorities. Considering returning on a bike some day soon. Best of luck!

  2. Kevin, you reminded me of a similar event to your own when I was learning German. I told the waitress the soup was ‘ridiculous’ when I actually meant ‘delicious’! Again everyone was amused, not insulted.

    1. I love it! I’m sure we can enumerate a long list of funny language learning moments.

  3. As you’ve discovered on all of your travels, no one will laugh or make fun of you for “butchering” their language; it just never happens. Besides, those mistakes lead to some funny memorable moments. 

    In Turkish, I once told a group of people at a dinner that these were my “bleeding friends” instead of my “best friends” and instead of everyone getting upset they erupted in laughter. Was I ostracized? No, the opposite actually! 

    I’m sorry to ask this of you Tom but I would appreciated you documenting in detail your time learning Farsi and most of all the time you’ve spent using it. After I finish my Turkish studies I’m actually considering to obtain a B.A. in Persian studies and would like to use (some of) your experience as a guide.

    1. Kevin, that’s a reassuringly silly story — thank you!

      I’ll certainly be documenting my Persian adventure throughout the year, particularly over the next two months in Iran itself — watch this space…

  4. Made me think of the analogy of learning to ride a bike, there will be some grazed knees along the way, but you only ever learn from those and improve. By the time you finish your trip I’m sure you’ll be flying down those mountain passes. Sometimes you need failure in order to succeed.

    1. Damn right — thanks James!

  5. Good luck! And give Iran my love. 🙂

    1. به روی چشم

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