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Learn Pali: Best way to start? 5 Tips to make it easy

monks learning Pali

Once people have answered the question:
Why learn Pali? 
The next query is:

How do I learn Pali?

Here’s the way I suggest you begin with your study of Pali.
  1. Build foundations for language learning
  2. Start at the right level
  3. Stick with it
  4. Build vocabulary
  5. Make use of the Pali language tools

1 Build foundations for language learning

One thing that you really should have before beginning to learn Pali is a basic understanding of general grammatical terms and concepts. Many of the Pali language grammar guides seem to assume you have studied Sanskrit or Latin before. If you haven’t, and you really don’t know the difference between a subject and an object, or the meanings of such terms as nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, or declension and conjugation - then perhaps you should spend some time studying English grammar. I found that even though I'm a native English speaker I had to do this in order to progress. And, while I have made a certain effort to explain the grammatical terms I use on this blog (see the Glossary), it is important that readers are familiar with the basic concepts.

As an aid I've put together some video tutorials, that, although they are not a replacement for this blog, I think they are a useful introduction for beginners learning Pali language.

2 Start at the right level

Its all too easy with Pali to pick up a guide like Warder's 'Intro to Pali' and be overwhelmed. Many of the so called 'Intros' and guides out there presume some previous knowledge of Latin or Sanskrit!

If you're an absolute beginner, I recommend starting with one of the Pali primers like:
  • Lily de Silva’s the Pali Primer - also available here is possibly the easiest. This is a simple, if rudimentary introduction to the language. Each chapter deals with just one aspect and offers lots of exercises. (See Pali Resources page for answers to exercises). It progresses gradually through the noun cases and verb conjugations. It's main short coming is that it lacks depth and the later chapters become somewhat baffling - I gave up on it after about lesson 19. Also the examples and exercises are mainly 'made-up' Pali sentences and bare little resemblance to the Pali canon. So feel free to switch to other primers/courses at any stage.
  • Narada Thera's  An Elementary Pali Course is available through a couple of web sites, also freely available here.. It is a complete beginners course in Pali that moves a bit faster than de Silva's Primer, and covers a more in-depth range of topics. It is a little brief in its explanations in a few places, but the grammar is quite complete, and there are several large text passages included for translation, with vocabulary.
  • And there are others so check out the 'intro courses' section on the Pali Resources page page.

Learn Pali youtube channel
Learn Pali on YouTube
Though I'm no expert, I'm putting together some brief video lessons to help the absolute beginner in learning Pali grammar, as there seems to be a lack of quality video tutorials available.

The videos begin with some English grammar basics and work up to the Pali case system. This is definitely an ongoing project!...

Grammar Concepts #1 : Word Classes [Parts of Speech] | Learn Pali Basics

This is the first - the very beginning - of a series of introductory Pali Language tutorials for anyone wishing to learn the Pali language of the Theravada Buddhist canon. This video discusses the basic parts of speech or the different classes that word fall into according to their function in a sentence.  Being the first tutorial, it lays down some concepts of basic grammar in preparation for learning Pāli grammar. For instance, we look at the difference between:  Verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs & prepositional phrases. 

3 Stick with it

Of course anything worth doing, including learning Pali, takes time and effort and the more you put it the quicker and more successful the process will be. That said - RELAX. This is supposed to be fun. Making mistakes is part of learning. Find your way of learning. Here are some ideas.

A TED talk to inspire you:

Start a Learning Journal. If you are busy set timetables & goals. Make notes of key grammar points, vocabulary etc. and write out your attempts at the various exercises. Mark where you have made mistakes so in the future you can see just how much you have progressed. I found having an organised method for listing vocabulary very useful as I progressed I didn't have to search through page after page...

4 Pali Vocabulary

If learning vocabulary, why not start with the most frequently occurring terms in the Sutta Pitaka?
There are:
  • 3 terms that occur over 100,000 times...
  • 70 terms that occur more that 10,000 times...
  • 900 terms that occur more than 1000 times....
If you learn just 900 words you have covered 42% of all word occurrences in the Sutta Pitaka!


Here's a list of Pali terms sorted by frequency.
There are also apps to help with this like Memrise:
https://www.memrise.com/courses/english/pali/

Interestingly, if you wish to read and listen there is now SuttaCentral Voice where you can listen to the texts being read in both Pali and English.

5 Use tools

Make it easier for yourself. Get Pali Keyboard so you can type diacritics directly or check out my Velthuis diacritic conversion tool. Familiarize yourself with the dictionaries and also how to navigate the Suttas and their numbering systems.

In the next few blog-posts I cover:


Here's a glimpse of a few tools & resources to help you start with your study.

Suttas

First you will need access to the Buddhist texts known as the Tipiṭaka. There are many renditions available online. I recommend SuttaCentral as it contains the entire canon as well as many modern language translations.

Sutta Central websiteOne very cool feature at SuttaCentral is their translation pop-up. To enable this, navigate to the required sutta selecting the English translation; then click on the cog-wheel icon marked 'text settings'. This will bring up a text box where you can choose to view a translation 'side by side' (this only works from the English translation page). This will give Pali text and English translation side by side.

And below this, on the same menu, if you scroll down, is 'Activate Pali word lookup'. By selecting 'Pali->English', and then if you hover our mouse over any Pali word, a short English translation pops up. It's fun, if not very comprehensive. I've provided a video tutorial to Sutta Central here...

Dictionaries 

Unicode Document ReaderOf course the Pali Text Society's Pali-English Dictionary aka the PED is essential. I find Leigh Brasington's Unicode Document Reader and the associated offline version of the PED very useful.

Ven. Buddhadatta dictionaries available for download here.

There are many more on the Pali Language Resource page but this will get you started.  

More Cool Pali Language Tools

I give a list here with some brief details from the dedicated posts to each tool below.  

The Digital Pali Reader (DPR)

Digital Pali ReaderThe Digital Pali Reader is a most useful tool for the amateur translator. It provides a database of the Tipiṭaka in romanised script with a search facility and the inbuilt dictionaries allow for instant lookup of words. It does not provide translations - which is where SuttaCentral is useful. It is available online: DPR-online.

Tipitaka Pāḷi Projector (TPP)

Tipitaka Pāḷi ProjectorLike the DPR, the Tipitaka-Pali-Projector is a project by Bhante Subhuti providing the Tipiṭaka in romanised script with a search facility and the inbuilt dictionaries allow for instant lookup of words. The project aims to produce the best Pali reader possible. There's now a standalone version for download from: Bhante Subhuti TPP
And the TPP YouTube channel providing help.

Pali Lookup

Pali Lookup
There's another great tool called Pali Lookup by Aukana Trust which helps with Pali word inflections. The latest version is, supposedly, available from software.informer, but I was unable to download this version. So I've sourced version 2.0 here. You may need to install CSX fonts. Download the zip file and install in windows fonts folder.

I have provided a video tutorial for  Pali lookup v2 installation here.

Where to go from here...

This helps get alot of the mechanics out of the way. Now, if you wish, why not dive right into my post on the Pali case system and noun declension. Or start with the Alphabet and how to use the dictionary.

With these under your belt you will probably be keen to get on and try some dictionary look up translation of the Nikāyas,  I recommend starting with the Aṅguttara Nikāya as it's grammar is fairly straightforward and shows the same sentence pattern repeatedly.


I hope this has been of some use.
Next post up: How to Navigate the Sutta Pitaka's various numbering schemes.   Metta.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Hello,

Thank you so much for your valuable information!
Unfortunately, the SortedFrequencyPali.txt can't be opened after unzipping it. No matter what program i try to open this text file, whether Notepad or other text programs, they keep crashing. Is the file corrupted?

Kind regards!
Pali Studies said…
Sorry to hear that. But It seems to work for me OK.
I used WinRar to unzip it. It's 42Mb when unzipped so...
Could also try this link:
http://web.archive.org/web/20070719042649/http://www.nibbanam.com/sortedFrequencyPali.zip
This might also be of interest:
https://www.amazon.com/Frequency-Dictionary-Pali-Vocabulary-Learners/dp/145387013X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1303990171&sr=8-1-spell
And this post at Sutta Central
https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/a-better-pali-dictionary/2445/19
Anonymous said…
15 minutes later i suddenly did succeed in opening the file. Thank you very much for your reply and the links!
I've created a new deck with your file, using ankiweb, and doing so learning a lot! Your efforts are much appreciated. Have a nice day :-)
Pali Studies said…
I've created an open document spreadsheet at merely 7Mb:
https://drive.google.com/open?id=1SZC1Y5heaquRBrr2IqmZ39a9a6X4kdZr
This isn't zipped and you should be able to open it in openOffice or Excel.
Peder said…
@Faithful Buddhist, can I find the SortedFrequency deck you made in Anki?
Dao Yuan said…
Thank you so much for sharing!
Unknown said…
Thank you for all your help, the SortedFrequency list has only the Pali words, not the English translations?
Pali Studies said…
That's true. I have sourced this from another site. But I agree with you it would be more useful with translation. Of course some words would have several. There is "A Frequency Dictionary of Pali"
https://www.amazon.com/Frequency-Dictionary-Pali-Vocabulary-Learners/dp/145387013X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8
But as this isn't freely sourced I don't promote it.
Yeye said…
Hello

You may open this file "sortedFrequencyPali.txt" with Notepad++ in faster way.

https://notepad-plus-plus.org/downloads/


Kind regards
Eddy Gan said…
Thank you very much, the information is useful 🙏
Unknown said…
Thanks a lot. Your post helps me alot.

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