Problems in teaching non-Roman script to English speakers
Dr Yavar Dehghani
Head of Persian Department
ADF School of Languages
Reading and Writing are the two macro-skills in learning a language. The student
should be able to put the concepts into words and sentences and paragraphs in order
to write, and he should be able to analyze the written text into concepts. And
moreover, a good writer and reader should consider the appropriate genre, register,
mode, theme, rheme, cohesion and so many other features of a good written text.
Considering these features, writing and reading even in the native language are
delicate tasks. These tasks become more delicate when the writer wants to write and
read in the second language where he should translate his mind (concepts) into the
second language words and sentences and vice versa. This becomes even more
complicated when the student wants to write and read in a script, which is different
from his own. This paper tries to discuss this problem and present Persian script as
an example of a non-roman script and make suggestions for teaching the script.
Keywords: Multicultural education
This paper tries to discuss this problem and present Persian script as an example of a non-
Roman script and make suggestions for teaching the script.
A background on Persian language and script system
Persian is a member of Indo-Iranian language group which itself is a subgroup of Indo-
Modern Persian is spoken mainly in Iran with a population of 70 million, as well as in
other parts of world especially in USA and Europe. Other dialects of Persian are Tajiki,
which is spoken in the republic of Tajikistan, and Dari, which is spoken in Afghanistan.
Unlike existing misconceptions in the West, Persian has no similarity to Arabic in
grammar, and in fact they belong to completely different language families. The Persian
script was written from left to right until the introduction of Islam in Iran, AD 670. After
that period, the Arabic script was adapted and slightly modified for Persian. The
adaptation of Arabic script for a language from completely different language family
cause many problems for reading and writing of the language. It differs from its Arabic
original system as it has added four characters which do not exist in Arabic. The
following problems are among those which exist in this adapted script.
Main problems in teaching alphabet characters
lack of one to one correspondence between alphabet characters and sounds
In general, there is no exact correspondence between alphabet characters and the relevant
sound in the language.
Let’s see how incompatible the alphabet is with the sound system of the language. The
current alphabet consists of 32 letters. Most of these letters have no corresponding sound
in the language and they are there just because they are Arabic letters. These letters are as
1 /s/: Letters which correspond to the sound /s/ are three: ص ث س
Of these three letters, it is only س which corresponds to the sound /s/ which is a dental
sound in Persian. The letter ث which corresponds to an interdental /s/ and the letter ص
which corresponds to a palatal /s/ have no correspondent sound in Persian. So, some
words having /s/ sound are written with س as in ﻢﻟﺎ ﺳ sälem (healthy), and some with ث as
in ﺖ ﺑﺎﺛ säbet (fixed), ad some other with ص as in نﻮﺑﺎ ﺻ säbun (soap).
2 /z/: Letters which correspond to the sound /z/ are four: ذ ز ظ ض
Of these four letters, it is only ز which corresponds to the sound /z/ which is a dental
sound in Persian. The letter ض which corresponds to an interdental /z/ and the letters ظ
and ذ which corresponds to a palatal /z/ have no correspondent sound in Persian, and thus
So, some words having /z/ sound are written with ز as in نز zan (woman), and some with
ذ as in ﻦهذ zehn (mind), ad some others with ض as in ﻦﻣﺎ ﺿ zämen (bailor), and some with
ظ as in ﻢ ﻠﻇ zolm (oppression).
3 /t/: Letters which correspond the sound /t/ are two: ط ت
Of these two letters, it is only ت which corresponds to the sound /t/ which is a dental
sound in Persian. The letter ط which corresponds to an interdental /t/ has no
correspondent sound in Persian, and thus is redundant.
So, some words having /t/ sound are written with ت as in پﻮ ﺗ tup (ball) and some with ط
as in بﺎ ﻨﻃ tanäb (rope).
4 /q/: Letters which correspond to the sound /q/ are two: غ ق
Of these two letters, it is only ق which corresponds to the sound /q/ which is a palatal
sound in Persian. The letter غ, which corresponds to a palato-alveolar sound, has no
correspondent in Persian, and thus is redundant.
So, some words having /q/ sound are written with ق as in لﺎ ﻗﯼ qäli (rug) and some with غ
as in ﻦﻏﯼ qani (rich).
5 /h/: Letters which correspond to the sound /h/ are two: ح ﻩ
So, some words having /h/ sound are written with ﻩ as in ﻪﻤه hame (all) and some with ح as
in بﺰﺣ hezb (party).
Thus, as we see, these characters are redundant and just add to the confusion in writing,
spelling, pronunciation, and in general in learning the language. For example, there is no
justification and logical explanation in writing the following words in one or another
säbun (soap) نﻮﺑﺎ ﺳ
A native speaker student who learns reading and writing in Persian and any non native
speaker will choose one of these forms over another having any clue on if it is wrong or
not. That is why, it is very difficult and time consuming for the native students and
almost impossible for non-native speakers to learn spelling, reading, and writing of
Alphabet and sound system
Middle Persian, which was called Pahlavi, was used to be written by a Pahlavi script.
This was written from left to right like other languages in the same Indo-European
families, until the introduction of Islam in Iran at 7th century. When Arabs came to Iran,
they introduced Arabic as the official language of the whole Persian Empire territory and
consequently writing and reading in middle Persian, or Pahlavi at the time was forbidden.
Therefore, the language remained as only spoken language for almost two centuries and
all the books at the time were written in Arabic instead of Persian. That is why most
Persian scientists like Avesina and Kharazmi and so many others who had no choice to
use the Arabic as the written medium for writing their books wrote their books in Arabic
and consequently the misconception in the west has been created that these scientist were
It should be mentioned that it took at least 2-3 centuries for Persians to begin writing in
Persian again, but this time the script was an Arabic script and not the Pahlavi one which
was used before.
The Arabic script was adapted for Persian but there was no similarity to its own script
and alphabet whatsoever. There was no surprise for that, because the two languages were
from a completely different language groups: Persian belonged to the Indo-European
language family while Arabic was a Semitic language. The only adjustment, which was
made, was introducing four extra characters for four extra Persian sounds, which did not
exist in Arabic. These sound were /p/, /č/, g/, and /ž/.
Thus, the alphabet and script of a language was imposed on Persian, which has no
similarity and genealogical relation to it. This alphabet and script still remains with the
language after so many centuries and still creates numerous problems in teaching and
Vowels: In Persian, there are six vowels:/ä/, /a/, /e/, /i/, /u/, /o/. For all of these six
vowels, there are just three alphabet characters: و ﺁ ا
The first character, ﺁ corresponds /ä/; the second and third characters, و ا are combined to
represent the other five vowels and it is so difficult and sometimes impossible for a
language learner to guess, if it is an /e/, /a/, or /o/. For example, the word ﺮﻬﻣ can read as:
mahr (wedding gift)
Therefore, to make a correct guess, one should know the context and the meaning of all
the other sentences.
5 Scripts with different directions
Non-Roman scripts usually have different direction from English on the page. Some are
written from right to left, some are written from top to button and so on.
For an English speaker whose eyes and brain are used to reading and writing from the left
side of the page to the right side, it is a difficult task to do this in the opposite order. So,
although the student tries to change the direction, it still would be hard for the eyes and
brain to follow this direction. That is why, the speed of reading and writing is influenced
negatively, when the language have got a non-roman script. So, the complication of
reading and writing almost doubles when the script of the second language is not Roman.
7-1. Using transliterations
Since reading a new script is a very difficult task for the language learner, teaching
languages with non Roman script is almost impossible. That is, the students should wait
to learn reading and writing first before being able to learn speaking. In the case of
Persian, those who want to learn the language as a foreign language are keen at the
beginning but later on they become confused with the script and do not continue learning
the language itself.
A major solution for such languages is introducing transliteration system which is used
instead of script to teach the language to non nave speakers. Transliteration system uses a
unified sound and character system where unlike the alphabet system, each character
corresponds one and only one sound; and because it uses Roman characters, it is easy for
an English speaker or any speaker of Roman script languages to read the script with the
use of this system.
The transliteration system is used in the course as long as the students have not learned
the alphabet and can not read and write in the script. After they learn reading and writing
in the script which usually in our intensive courses it takes 12 weeks, they start to learn
the language in the script rather than transliteration. Otherwise, they had to wait for 12
weeks to learn the language before learning the script.
Teaching the script
In teaching the script, we begin with the character and related sound. So, first we teach
characters in isolation, as it is usually in the case of English script. Then, we teach them
in syllables and then in words and sentences.
At the beginning, there are some orthographic problems, although our students are adult
English speakers. Then, the key challenge is to guess what sound corresponds to what
character, as there is no one by one correspondence.
There are two main types of the script: hand writing and print. The first one is very
difficult to learn and is postponed just for higher levels of language learning.
Some issues on language planning
As we see, the consonant sounds discussed in 1-5, have several alphabet characters,
which are redundant and confusing. The vowels, as we see in 6, are also as confusing
and difficult to read, write and spell. Learning these characters and consequently reading
and spelling of words is very difficult for the native students in primary school and for
the adult as the second language learners. To avoid this problem, the radical decision is
just to change the alphabet to the Latin one, like the one for Turkish and many other
languages. In this case, all these problems will be solved, and the incompatibility to the
modern technology of computers, software, Internet communications and so many other
new advances will be resolved.
A conservative solution is just to get rid of the redundant characters in each consonant
group. Therefore, the sounds in each of these five groups will just correspond to one
character, as in:
1 s س
2 z ز
3 t ت
4 q ق
5 h ﻩ
This will reduce the alphabet letters to 23.
For the vowels, the only choice is to use the diacritics above or under the letters to
distinguish them from each other, as in:
By adapting this alphabet system, we will avoid a lot of irregularities and exceptions in
pronunciation and spelling and as a result in reading and writing the language. This will
reduce the time and cost of teaching spelling a, reading and writing subjects to the
students in primary and secondary school, and the language will be easier to learn as a
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