Tips for Learning Indian Languages

Approaching India

Looking at India’s culture differently

I think this video by Dr Devdutt Pattanaik explains a part of Indian Philosophy very well. Dr Pattanaik acknowledges that monolingual speakers struggle to make sense of India’s ‘chaotic’ urban life. But might there be an alternative way of viewing this ‘chaos’? Dr Pattanaik suggests that we look at the ‘chaos’ as a different kind of pattern, using the Rangoli, aka the Kolam, as a starting point.

This raises questions about the way to organise life in Singapore. We have been much influenced by English and its history, worldviews, and philosophy. Might we be able to approach our Indian relatives and immigrating Indians by appreciating how they view the world differently from us, the younger generation?

Don’t be afraid of using English

Well, grammatically modified English anyway. As I mention in [[Using English words while speaking your target language]], English is substituted in languages like Tamil. For example, using ‘cinema’ or ‘computer game’ is normal, as long as you add the proper suffixes to them.

I am unsure of other Indian languages, but I wager that given India’s shared history, the use of English words is not as rare as we think it is.

General tips for Indian Languages

It’s not (quite) an alphabet

Note: The scripts used in writing Indian languages are Abudiga scripts.

In English, we use discrete (individualised) letters. ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’. In Indian languages, one symbol normally represents a consonant and the vowel ‘a’. You will see/hear ‘Ka’, ‘Pa’, ‘Sa’, ‘Sha’. English has something like this when you try to pronounce sounds like ‘B’, where you say ‘Bee’, or ‘Dee’ for ‘D’.

The consonants are the important unit in Indian languages. From the simple ‘Ka’, we can create ‘Ki’, ‘Ku’, ‘Kau’, to name a few of them.

There can be different versions of the same sound

In Sanskrit, there’s 5 types of n sounds, represented with different diacritics (marks) on top, or below, the letter. You might struggle to understand how these different sounds are produced or how to differentiate them at first. I think it’s worth the investment of time to know how these sounds are made theoretically (See ‘Learn about tonuge and mouth positions’ below).

The closest example I can think of is a Japanese speaker trying to learn English. If you know some Japanese, you might know that people with Japanese as their first language have difficulty distinguishing between ‘R’ and ‘L’ when listening. This is because the ‘R’ sound is a cross between ‘D’, ‘R’ and ‘L’ sounds.

Similarly, English speakers will have trouble distinguishing the different ‘R’ sounds at first, but with repeated and deliberate practice, it’s possible to differentiate them!