Despite being one of the most spoken languages globally, there is a lack of resources for those seeking to learn Bengali online. Bengali, or Bangla (বাংলা), is largely spoken in Bangladesh and in the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam. This isn’t even including immigrant communities.
As with many populous languages in Southeast Asia, there are various dialects. And similar to languages like Hindi, written and colloquial Bengali use different vocabulary.
In this blog, I’ll try to answer the best way to learn Bengali – especially if you are working on it by yourself.
The Good News: Bengali Grammar Is Lit
If you’ve read my earlier post about the language tree, then you may already know that Bengali grammar is different than Hindi. And other European languages.
One of the biggest pluses is the fact that the language is relatively genderless. You don’t have to worry about adding endings to nouns, adjectives, verbs, or articles based on whether a noun is masculine, feminine or neuter. In fact, you don’t have to worry about articles at all.
Furthermore, besides having several variations of sh and a few other sounds that are not present in English, the pronunciation is fairly straightforward.
If you are familiar with other Southeast Asian or East Asian languages such as Hindi, Thai, Japanese, or Chinese, you’ll already have a headstart.
The good news is that you’ll find several English terms and phrases. And if you are in Bangladesh, you’ll find considerably more words based on Arabic and Persian.
|অফিস - office||খবর - خبر (news)||কামিজ - camisa (shirt)|
|ডাক্তার - doctor||গরিব - غريب (poor)||সাবান - sabão (soap)|
|গ্লাস - glass||দুনিয়া - دﻧﯿـا (world)||কাজু - caju (cashew)|
|কলেজ - college||খালি - خالي (empty)||আনারস - ananás (pineapple)|
The Challenges: “Pure Bengali” and Word Order
Loanwords are abundant in colloquial Bengali. But written Bengali is similar to several other languages in the region in that it uses a completely different vocabulary. It depends on a highly Sanskritized register, you’ll find yourself needing to know at least two synonyms of the same word to understand both spoken and written Bengali.
Another common issue is word order. Generally, European languages like English, Spanish, and German have a subject-verb-object order. Bengali generally uses a subject-object-verb order. For many native English speakers, this often feels like speaking in reverse. Take the following example:
English: I am going to school.
Bengali: আমি স্কুলে যাচ্ছি.
Bengali (romanized): ami skul-e yācchi.
Bengali translated: I school-to going (am).
Another challenge that students might have is that there are many different verb patterns to commit to memory. But, luckily, the conjugations are limited compared to many other languages, such as Hindi or Modern Standard Arabic.
But the biggest challenge by far is the lack of quality resources.
The Best Way to Learn Bengali
So what is the best way to learn Bengali? Unlike more popular languages like Spanish, French, or Japanese, you’ll find a few functioning resources. In my own search, many online university resources are particularly dated or have been removed entirely. Apps are usually bland phrasebooks, focusing on “pure” Hindi rather than the colloquial variant. Furthermore, more “hip” language solutions like Mango Languages also focus on extremely formal Bengali. When I tried to use some of the “common” starter phrases with my husband, he had never even heard of them!
As you may be already aware, a secondary problem is the common use of romanized Bengali online – which means it can be hard to consistently use the alphabet unless you’re on a formal news site.
That said, I’ve spent a considerable amassing a virtual library of high-quality sources. But before we get to them, let’s talk about best practices:
- Get a tutor! Bur more importantly, get a tutor who will speak with you and take it slow. There are not many Bengali tutors online, and several of the ones I work with want to go the textbook route of teaching you “pure Bengali” first. I’ll include my preferred tutors in the resource section below. Try to meet at least 1x a week.
- Practice writing the alphabet. There are many sounds that don’t exist in English and it’ll help with your pronunciation later on.
- Keep a diary if you can. And start slow.
- Use loanwords until you get used to the structure of the language. And don’t feel shy about using them.
- Listen as much as you can.
- Watch Bengali cinema – there’s a wealth of films, but unfortunately, they come with English subtitles. So try transcribing the Bengali you hear.
Resources to learn Bengali
I’ve spent some time combing through lists of resources of training and source material for the best way to learn Bengali.
There’s really just iTalki, unless you’ve got a friend. That said, I’d like to let you know my favorite tutors:
- Nil is from Bangladesh. I didn’t have any issues speaking with her, even though I’m focusing on the Kolkata dialect. She’s extremely warm and supportive and is great for beginners.
- Similarly, Chandra is actually an Australian teacher based in West Bengal. He understands learner difficulties acutely and is extremely organized and creative. For those unused to Indian teaching methodology, which is largely based on memorization and recall, his lessons are a reprieve.
You may also be able to find someone to chat with on HelloTalk.
- Screw Netflix, Hoichoi is my go-to Bengali video channel. Subtitles are in English, but you’ll find an array of classic and modern Bengali-language films and TV series. It’s wonderful and well worth the price. The mobile app even offers music playlists!
- It’s not perfect, but Colloquial Bengali offers awesome audio and covers both Bangladeshi and West Bengali dialects (don’t forget to get the book, too).
- Lang Media offers a variety of videos with transcripts, which is great for practicing dictation or just reading along.
- Read Aloud is a free text-to-speech extension for Chrome and Firefox that has a Bengali voice option. Granted, the voice is from Google Translate, but it can really help you practice listening and reading online. I enjoy using it for tweets when I only have a few minutes.
- Read newspapers! BBC Bengali typically ahs both video and text available. More region-specific papers include Sangbad Pratidin, Banglahunt, and Ananda Bazaar. I also keep a Twitter list to easily follow different Bengali media.
- BDE Books has a wide selection of Bengali books for more advanced learners.
- You can also download this prose reader from the University of Chicago.
Grammar and Vocabulary
- The best and most comprehensive platform for learning Bangla online continued to be Supriyo Sen. This online platform is free and offers self-guided courses, verb conjugation tables, and various other resources. While the site can feel a bit glitchy, it’s really indispensable.
- The RaselRAJU Institute on YouTube provides a wide array of videos on conversational Bengali. While the text is romanized, it’s a great way to get started.
- Ling App is fairly accurate but repetitive. That said, it’s better than most of the Memrise courses and is worth looking into. Test the free version first, though.
- The Intermediate Bangla textbook from the Unversity of Chicago is extremely useful.
- Epar Bangla Opar Bangla: Bangla Across Borders is an excellent textbook, complete with audio and visuals. It’s free, but you’ll need to “purchase” it from the University of Washington.
- The US Peace Core has a textbook with audio for Bengali. I’m not sure how accurate it actually is, but it’s worth a go.
- Likewise, the Defensive Institute has a Survival Kit with key phrases and important vocabulary. I haven’t used it, but it’s available for supplemental instruction.
- There are a few dictionaries out there. I prefer Shabdkosh and BD Word.
- Colloquial Bengali – It’s not great for learning the alphabet. But if you want to start learning vocab quickly, this book also has free downloadable audio on its website. It’s my top physical reference, especially since it covers both Bangladeshi and Kolkata dialects.
- Bangla in 30 Days – If you have a few dollars, this can be a good reference for starter Bengali phrases and vocabulary.
- Complete Bengali – This is a great resource to use while working through Colloquial Bengali, since you can reinforce grammar and vocabulary with additional material.
And there you have it! Did I miss anything? Let me know in the comments!
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