Bengali is the 7th most commonly spoken language in the world. Yet not a lot of people are studying or learning Bengali as a second language. This is a shame, because speaking Bengali brings you closer to some 300 million people who speak it around the globe. Most of them in Bangladesh, but a lot of them In Northern India too. There’s also quite a large number of Bengali speakers in Europe, the Americas and Australia. This article will help answering the question on how you should learn Bengali by yourself.
Learning the Bengali language by yourself may seem like a huge challenge. It’s certainly not something you do in a few months, but on the other hand, Bengali is a much easier language than most East Asian languages like Japanese, Chinese and Korean. Compared to Arabic, Bengali is a walk in the park. Bengali is actually closer related to English than any of these languages. Like English, Bengali belongs to the Indo-European language family. Yet it doesn’t share much vocabulary with English, and the verbs have a lot of inflections even though they’re generally quite regular.
Lastly, Bengali has a whole other Alphabet than English.
- 1 Learn to write and pronounce the Bengali Alphabet
- 2 Pick up one, or preferably two Bengali beginner’s courses
- 3 Improve pronunciation, speaking comprehension, grammar and vocab in Bengali with Glossika
- 4 Start reading in Bengali to improve
- 5 Start speaking and writing Bengali
Learn to write and pronounce the Bengali Alphabet
The Bengali alphabet consists of 28 letters. Even though many people feel intimidated by learning a language that uses another alphabet, it really can be learned in a very short while.
Think about it: To learn to properly speak English, you need to learn some 5-10.000 words by heart! Whichever alphabet a language uses is quite irrelevant in that regard. In the case of Bengali, you’ll have to learn 28 symbols. The vocabulary is what you should worry about!
But first things first: How to learn the Bengali Alphabet?
Learn Bengali letters by writing and spelling
Have a look at this video. What you see is a woman who works her way through the letters of the Bengali alphabet one by one. First she writes the letter while pronouncing it, then the writes a word that uses the same letter while pronouncing the word.
I suggest that you do the same. But don’t do everything at once. Try repeating this exercise over a week or two, spreading out the letters, so you gradually add new letters to your study session as you move along. I recommend that you do your writing exercises at least twice per day. Try doing it once in the morning and once in the evening. As you move along, don’t forget to repeat the letters you’ve learned the previous days.
At first, while looking at the letters of the Bengali alphabet, they might seem complicated. You will quickly discover, however, that if you’re consistent with your exercises, you will easily learn them by heart. I’ve made sure to find a video where the letters are written by hand rather than being typed, so you can imitate the order in which the lines are drawn. It’s important to write as neatly and correctly as you can, so don’t rush it! And be sure to say the name of the letter and the word out loud as well as you can. Don’t worry if you don’t understand the word, however. This is just a way of learning the alphabet.
Pick up one, or preferably two Bengali beginner’s courses
Around the same time as you begin studying the Bengali alphabet, you should start studying the language with a self-study guide. Bengali is not a commonly studied language for English speakers. This means that the amount of language learning guides for Bengali is a little limited. I can, however, recommend the Teach Yourself Bengali book. Teach yourself is a course that has a certain focus on grammar, drills and exercises. These are things I’m not normally a huge fan of. I believe that grammar should be learned from context rather than studied and drilled. If you enjoy the grammar exercises, however, please do them. Otherwise, you can skim over these and instead focus on the dialogues. For this you’ll also need the audio CD.
The book will start by gradually introducing you to the alphabet. This is great, because it gives you another perspective on the exercises you’re doing simultaneously. Studying something from two different points of view really help new information stick.
With the Teach Yourself book, you’ll study dialogues in Bengali along with their English translations. First read through the English text to know what the dialogue is about. Then listen to the Bengali recording, following along the text while listening. After finishing the dialogue, try repeating each sentence one by one, while pausing the recording. I recommend that you do one lesson per day, and that you review 5-10 of the previous lessons daily!
Doing a second beginner’s course
When I study languages, I always try to approach the language from different fronts. When you learn Bengali, this is certainly helpful. Even though you’ll be revising and repeating lessons you’ve already been through, hearing the same word or grammatical concept from another source is just much more potent. This is why I recommend that you keep your study approach varied. So if you can fit another study session into your busy schedule, try doing another course in parallel with Teach Yourself. One that’s really good is “Beginner’s Bengali” This book is also based on dialogues. It starts out by introducing the Alphabet, but a little less thoroughly than Teach Yourself. Where Beginner’s Bengali shines is with the dialogues.
As you finish working your way through the alphabet by doing the exercises in the YouTube video above, try dedicating your morning to Teach Yourself and your evening to Beginner’s Bengali. If you’re consistent with your studies and you do your reviews, you’ll quickly improve.
Improve pronunciation, speaking comprehension, grammar and vocab in Bengali with Glossika
As you work your way through Teach Yourself and Beginner’s Bengali, it’s time to start branching out. Roughly a third into the two books, have a look at Glossika Bengali.
Glossika is a language learning website with a huge archive of sentences in Bengali. The idea is that you learn grammar and vocabulary through repeatedly seeing examples in sentences. This resembles the way children learn languages. In your native language, you immediately notice if something is incorrect, yet, you might not be able to explain why. In the same way, you might have studied a language in school; When you studied its grammar, you could probably conjugate verbs and explain the rules to the teacher or a classmate. But actually using the language correctly was more tricky.
While the idea behind Glossika is both a little theoretical and complicated, using it is extremely simple.
With Glossika you study a batch of 5 sentences at a time. I recommend that you add 5-20 new sentences per day. Be careful with doing more than this, because the system will schedule all of these sentences for later review several times, and you’ll end up with a lot of reviews!
For each sentence, you’ll hear the English, then the Bengali sentence two times with pauses in between. After the English sentence, try reading the Bengali text out loud. Then after hearing the recording in Bengali, repeat. Try mimicking the tone and melody of the voice as well as you can. It’s also very important that you try speaking at the same speed as in the recording. At first, you won’t be able to, but don’t worry, it’ll come.
Reviewing or “doing reps” with Glossika Bengali
When you’ve done your 5-20 new sentences, put Glossika aside for a while. After around 12-24 hours, you’ll notice that they’re up for review. Go through the sentences once more. Then add a few more sentences to the mix.
Glossika schedules your reviews for you just before you forget them. This is based on an algorithm that gradually places reviews further and further into the future. If a sentence is particularly easy, you can tag it is such, and it’ll be scheduled even further into the future. If you let the system know that you find the sentence difficult, it’ll show up a little sooner.
I recommend that you study with Glossika 2-3 times per day. The more often you can get back to Bengali, the better. Doing several short 10-15 minutes study sessions per day is actually better than studying for hours and hours one or two times per week. The reason is that by constantly coming back to your Bengali studies, you keep your brain “soaked” in the language, and you’ll be less likely to forget.
Keep studying with Glossika like this for months. Glossika has the potential to take you to the upper intermediate level of Bengali, but I recommend that you do other things as well.
Start reading in Bengali to improve
When you’ve finished your beginning courses and you’re a few thousand repetitions into Glossika’s sentences, it’s time to start reading.
You’ve got some vocabulary down, you know the alphabet and you get the grammar. But reading might still seem like a difficult thing to do. I often recommend various language learning apps that are great for reading in foreign languages. But they don’t offer Bengali. There are, however, many ways to approach getting in to reading in the Bengali language.
One is to start with children’s stories. Try making a Google search for “শিশুদের গল্প”. You’ll find thousands of pages with material to read. If you use Google Chrome, I can warmly recommend installing the free browser extension “Google Dictionary“. With this extension, you can click any word anywhere on the internet and get an instant translation.
When reading in Bengali, it is extremely important to choose texts at the right level. If texts are to easy, you won’t progress much, and if they’re too hard, you’ll loose motivation before progressing at all. Choosing texts can be quite difficult for someone at the intermediate stage, because most texts remain difficult. This is where tools like Google Dictionary come in handy.
As you progress, you might want to move away from children’s stories and start reading other types of texts. Try looking something up in Bengali that you’re interested in. There is a great wealth of Bengali cooking recipes, articles about pets, science and gardening online. Go read them!
Reading parallel or bilingual texts in Bengali
Another way of making Bengali text more transparent, is to read an English version of a book and a Bengali version side by side. You first read a sentence, paragraph, page or chapter in English – then in Bengali. With this approach, you know what the Bengali text is supposed to say. Even if there are words or concepts you don’t understand when reading directly in Bengali, you easily figure out what they mean when you have the English equivalent fresh in your recollection. I enjoy this approach very much with Agatha Christie crime stories. These have the advantage of being relatively easy, exciting and available!
As you get better at reading in Bengali, you should of course try reading some of the classics of Bengali literature. The Bengali language has a long history of producing great literary works. Try picking up “The Chieftan’s Daughter” in Bengali and English. This is a love story written in the 19th century. It takes place in a time of conflict and involves some of the opposing parties. Read more on Wikipedia. If you’re more up for reading poetry, have a look at Gitanlaji, the poetry collection that won the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore the Nobel prize in literature.
Start speaking and writing Bengali
When you close the final pages of your beginner’s books in Bengali, and you’re progressing along with Glossika and your daily reading sessions, it’s time to start speaking and writing.
I recommend that you go and find a good Bengali tutor through Italki. You might have to try out a few different tutors before finding one that you like working with. Don’t be discouraged by this, and don’t worry about switching tutor once in a while. You’re going to pay someone for helping you, so you’ve better get your money’s worth!
With your tutor, I suggest that you decide upon a topic of discussion before scheduling a tutoring session. Then converse about said topic for 30-45 minutes. Make sure to explain to your tutor what you expect from him or her before hand. I recommend that you keep the sessions strictly in Bengali. If you have a hard time explaining something, try doing it in other words rather than switching to English. And ask your tutor only to correct you if your mistakes are very severe. After the discussion, you can request that your tutor write you a few notes about things you should improve.
If you’re looking for a free alternative to getting a tutor, try looking into Language Exchange. Getting a language exchange partner means that you’ll spend half of your time helping him or her learning your native language in exchange for them helping you. It’s obviously a disadvantage to spend half your time speaking English, however. It can also be difficult to find a language exchange partner with the same ambitions and dedication as you have, and you’ll easily end up dissatisfied with what you get out of the exchange. If you keep looking, however, you can get a lot out of it.
Write texts in Bengali and have them corrected
When you finish your conversation, sit down and write a short text or essay in Bengali about the topic you just discussed. In the beginning, you can make it anywhere from 100 to 300 words, and as you become more advanced, you can write longer texts. Send this text to your tutor and have him or her correct it. I recommend that you do your writing on a tablet or a phone where you can easily switch languages and keyboards. Writing the text by hand, is obviously a possibility (and something that would help you with your handwriting) but it could be a little complicated for your tutor to make the corrections. Stickers with the Bengali characters might be available to stick unto your computer’s keyboard too, but the ones I’ve found online were a little expensive.
Try scheduling conversations with your tutor 2-3 times per week. And do push yourself. You will notice that you will quickly improve in conversing in Bengali, and doing written exercises will help you perfect your grammar. When writing a text, we’re also more likely to use advanced vocabulary than when we’re speaking, so writing can also help you activate your passive vocabulary.
As you keep doing your daily repetitions through Glossika, reading native texts in Bengali and conversing and writing, you’ll gradually get better and better. At this point, there are no new methods to add to your schedule, other than start consuming Bengali language movies, TV and entertainment. Start doing what you normally would to pass the time – only in Bengali. After a while, you’ll realize that you now speak Bengali! Congratulations!