Tamil belongs to the Dravidian family of languages, which are spoken throughout India and Southeast Asia, as well as in countries such as Pakistan and Nepal. The majority of Tamil is spoken in southern India and is the official language of the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, and the Andaman and Nicobar islands of this country. Also, Tamil is one of the official languages of Sri Lanka and Singapore and is widely spoken in Malaysia. Approximately 65 million people speak Tamil around the world. This is a language that has been spoken for over 2,500 years and has a long and rich literary tradition of poetry and philosophy. Learning Tamil can open the doors to a world of possibilities.
Part 1 of 4: Learn the Tamil Alphabet
Step 1. Get familiar with the Tamil script
This script consists of 12 vowels, 18 consonants, and a character known as āytam that is neither a vowel nor a consonant. However, this language has a syllabic and non-alphabetic writing (that is, the symbols represent phonetic units that encompass consonants and vowels), so it consists of 247 phonetic combinations in total. In many cases, to write them, diacritical marks are added to the basic 31 letters to denote the changes.
- The Tamil language is written from left to right along horizontal lines, just like Spanish.
- Here you can find a chart with basic Tamil writing.
Step 2. Study the vowels
There are 12 vowels in the writing of this language and, when these appear at the beginning of a syllable, they are written as if they were independent letters. Their shape is modified depending on whether they are combined with a consonant or if they are short or long vowels (long vowels hold for about twice as long as short vowels). Sometimes diacritical marks are placed at the end of consonants to represent vowels. However, in other cases, diacritical marks are placed elsewhere.
அ a and ஆ aa
- Similar to the scripts of many other Southeast Asian languages, consonants in Tamil have an intrinsic sound of அ a, so அ a does not change when added to a consonant.
- If ஆ aa is added to a consonant, a diacritical mark representing it must be placed at the end of that consonant (for example, கா kaa).
இ i and ஈ ii
- If இ i is added to a consonant, a diacritical mark representing it must be placed at the end of that consonant (for example, கி ki).
- If ஈ ii is added to a consonant, a diacritical mark representing it must be placed at the top of that consonant (for example, கீ kii).
உ u and ஊ uu
- If உ u is added to a consonant, a diacritical mark representing it must be placed at the bottom of that consonant (for example, கு ku).
- If ஊ uu is added to a consonant, a diacritical mark representing it must be placed at the end of that consonant (for example, கூ kuu).
எ e and ஏ ee
- If எ e is added to a consonant, a modified form must be placed before that consonant (for example, கெ ke).
- If ஏ ee is added to a consonant, a diacritical mark representing it must be placed before that consonant (for example, கே kee).
If ஐ ai is added to a consonant, a modified form must be placed before that consonant (for example, கை kai)
ஒ o and ஓ oo
- If ஒ o is added to a consonant, the diacritical marks for e and aa must be placed around that consonant (for example, கொ ko).
- If ஓ oo is added to a consonant, the diacritical marks for ee and aa must be placed around that consonant (for example, கோ koo).
If ஔ au is added to a consonant, the diacritical mark for e should be placed at the beginning of the consonant and another mark at the end (for example, கௌ kau)
- There are consonant and vowel combinations in Tamil that are not standard and do not follow these rules. You can find a complete list of these exceptions here.
Step 3. Study the consonants
There are 18 basic consonants in Tamil and these are divided into three groups: vallinam (hard consonants), mellinam (nasal and soft consonants), and idayinam (middle consonants). Since some of these consonants do not have a direct equivalent in Spanish, you should listen to how they are pronounced whenever possible.
- Vallinam consonants: க் k, ச் ch, ட் t, த் th, ப் p, ற் tr
- Mellinam consonants: ங் ng, ஞ் ng, ண் n, ந் n, ம் m, ன் n
- Idaiyinam consonants: ய் y, ர் r, ல் l, வ் v, ழ் l, ள் l
Likewise, several consonants have been borrowed from Sanskrit. These are often referred to as "grantha" letters from the original script that was used to write in Tamil. These sounds are usually found in modern Tamil speech but less so in written classical Tamil. The letters are as follows:
- ஜ் j
- ஷ் sh
- ஸ் s
- ஹ் h
- க்ஷ் ksh
- ஸ்ரீ srii
- Finally, there is the special letter ஃ akh, which is called āytam and is often used in modern Tamil to indicate a foreign sound, such as F or Z.
Step 4. Listen to recordings of the vowels and consonants in Tamil
There is a University of Pennsylvania website where you can find audio recordings of the sounds of all Tamil vowels and consonants. If you can find a native Tamil speaker to help you pronounce these sounds together with you, even better.
Part 2 of 4: Understand the Basics
Step 1. Get basic materials to start your classes
You can find a number of resources online that will be helpful when you start learning this language. You should also get a good dictionary. The standard for those who want to learn Tamil is the Oxford English-Tamil Dictionary, published by the Indian division of Oxford University Press, which has more than 50,000 entries. You can also find an extensive free Tamil dictionary online through the South Asian Digital Dictionaries project at the University of Chicago.
- At the University of Pennsylvania, you can find a set of 36 classes on grammar and sentence construction in Tamil.
- The University of Texas at Austin offers a suite of Tamil language and culture classes.
- The Central Institute of Indian Languages offers online classes in Tamil writing, grammar, and sentence structure. You can access sample classes for free or pay USD 50 or Rs 500 to access the full course.
- The Polymath website offers an extensive set of Tamil classes, covering a large list of vocabulary words and lessons on pronouns, tenses, and common questions.
- On the Language Reef website, you can access a set of 14 simple Tamil classes.
- When you reach a more advanced level, you can find 11 free intermediate Tamil classes at the University of Michigan, which include audio files that go with each class.
- On the Tamil Nadu government website, you can find a "Virtual Academy" where there are games, classes and a library of Tamil fonts. In many cases, the content is free, but in others, it may also be for sale.
Step 2. Get a couple of good books
The standard text is A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil by Harold F. Schiffman, Professor Emeritus of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania. This is the book to buy if you want to speak Tamil because the Tamil spoken differs a lot from the one written. The latter has hardly changed since the 13th century.
- Kausalya Hart's Tamil for Beginners book is currently out of print, but you may be able to find it at used book stores depending on where you live.
- Colloquial Tamil: The Complete Course for Beginners by E. Annamalai and R. E. Asher focuses exclusively on spoken Tamil and contains audios for classes. While it might go a bit fast for a beginner, it is highly recommended.
- The Tamil Language in Context book, published by the University of Pennsylvania, includes a DVD with videos of dialogues performed by native speakers of the language.
- A basic e-book that gives you an introduction to Tamil writing and the basics of grammar can be downloaded for free from the Tamil Nadu government website.
Step 3. Understand the basic construction of sentences
Tamil is an inflectional language, which means that prefixes and suffixes are used to modify words to express person, number, mood, time, and voice. Tamil sentences may not always have a subject, verb, and object, but the most common order is subject-object-verb or object-subject-verb in cases where these elements are present.
In Tamil, simple sentences can be formed by simply putting two nouns or noun phrases together without even using a verb. In this case, the first noun functions as the subject and the second as the predicate (that is, the part that says something about the subject and has the function of a verb).
For example, it is possible to say அங்கவை Angavai பல் வைத்தியர் pal vaiththiyar to express "Angavai is a dentist." If you wanted to negate such a sentence, you would add the word இல்லை illai ("no") at the end of the sentence
In Tamil, imperative sentences are often used to request something in addition to giving orders. This can be done in two ways: informal and intimate and formal or polite. You can determine the appropriate form by being guided by the social context. For example, you should never use informal mode to address older people, public figures, or others who are often shown respect in public.
- For the informal or intimate mood, only the root form of the verb without inflection is used. For example, பார் Paar means "to see" in the singular. You should use this mode when talking to close friends and children, but it is not common to use it in polite conversations with people you don't know well unless you mean to insult them.
- For the formal or polite mood, the plural inflection must be added to the root form of the verb. For example, பாருங்கள் paarunkal is the plural form of paar. However, you should use it if you are addressing someone even just one person in a polite or formal way.
- To be particularly polite, you can include the interrogative word ஏன் een ("why") in the imperative polite form. For example, பாருங்களேன் paarunkaleen means "Why don't you see / look?" or "Could you look at ___?"
Step 4. Start with simple words
As this is an ancient and complex language, it is unlikely that you will be able to fully immerse yourself in it and speak in fluent sentences right away. You can learn some common vocabulary words as a way to help you communicate with others even if you are not yet fully familiar with Tamil grammar.
- One of the most enjoyable reasons to learn a new language when traveling is to be able to order new food. Common Tamil dishes include சோறு choru (rice), சாம்பார் sambar (a lentil stew), ரசம் rasam (a soup made from tamarind), தயிர் tayir (yogurt or curd), and வடை vada (salty fritters). You might also come across சாம்பார் சாதம் caampaar caatam (curry rice) or மீன் குழம்பு miin kulampu (fish curry), which is a well-known dish in the southern regions of India. ஒபுட்டு Oputtu is a sweet dish very similar to a pizza that is prepared with coconut. Before ordering, you should check if the dish is காரம் kaaram ("spicy"). If you want to drink coffee, which is a characteristic drink of Tamil Nadu, you should ask for காபி kaapi. You can also order tea or தேநீர் teeniir. Your server may say மகிழ்ந்து உண்ணுங்கள் Magizhnthu unnungal or "Enjoy your food."
- In Indian culture, haggling is a common practice. In case you want to buy something, you can start by offering பாதி விலை paati vilai or "half price". You will then work with the seller to come up with a satisfactory price. You may want to get things that are மலிவானது malivaanatu or "cheap", while the seller will try to get you to buy something more விலை அதிகமானது vilai atikamaanatu or "expensive". You can also check if the store accepts கடன் அட்டை katan attai ("credit card") or just பணம் panam ("cash").
- If you are not feeling well, the following words might help: மருத்துவர் maruttuvar ("doctor") and மருத்துவ ஊர்தி maruttuvuurti ("ambulance").
Step 5. Learn to ask questions
Questions in Tamil can be formulated by placing a question word at the end of the sentence. Keep in mind that the emphasis placed on the question word may have an effect on the meaning. Common question words include என்ன enna ("what"), எது edu ("which" for things), எங்கே engkee ("where"), யார் yaar ("who"), and எப்பொழுது / எப்போது eppozhutu / eppoodu (" when").
- For example, can you say உங்கள் பெயர் என்ன? Unga peru enna?. This means "What is your name?" The correct answer would be என் பெயர் In peyar ___ or "My name is ___".
- The "question mark" ஆ is placed after a noun or sentence to make it a question with a yes or no answer. For example, placing ஆ at the end of the noun பையனா Paiyaṉaa ("boy") makes it the question "Is it a boy?"
- Other common questions you might learn include எனக்கு உதவி செய்வீங்களா? Enakku udhavi seivienkalaa? ("Can you help me?"), புதிய என்ன? Putiya is? ("What's new?"), நீங்கள் எப்படி இருக்கிறீர்கள்? Niinkal eppati irukkiriirkal? ("How are you?") And இது என்ன? Itu enna? ("What is this?").
Step 6. Learn some common phrases
You may want to learn common phrases to help you start conversations in Tamil. A good starting point is தமிழ் பேச முடியுமா? Tamiḻ peeca muṭiyumaa? ("Do you speak Tamil?") And நான் தமிழ் கற்றல் Naan tamil karral ("I am learning Tamil").
- You can also learn to say காலை வணக்கம் Kaalai vanakkam ("Good morning") and நல்ல இரவு Nalla iravu ("Good night").
- Can it be a good idea to know how to say அது எவ்வளவு செலவாகும்? Atu evvalavu celavaakum? ("How much does it cost?") When shopping. Also, it will always be useful to know how to say நன்றி Nanri ("Thank you"), வரவேற்கிறேன்! Varaveerkireen ("You're welcome") and மன்னிக்கணும் Mannikkanum ("Excuse me" or "Sorry").
- நான் நோய்வாய்ப்பட்டவாறு உணருகிறேன் Naan nooyvaayppattavaaru unarukireen means "I feel bad." Can you ask மருந்துக் கடை அருகில் எங்கு உள்ளது? Maruntuk katai arukil enku ullatu? to find out where the nearest pharmacy is located.
- You can say நல் ஆரோக்கியம் பெருக Nal aarokkiyam peruga to toast a friend. This roughly means "I hope your good health builds up."
- If something gets too complicated, you can learn to say புரியவில்லை Puriyavilai (male) or புரியல Purila (female), which means "I don't understand." மெதுவாக பேசுங்கள் Medhuvaaga pesungal (masculine) or மெதுவா பேசுங்க Medhuvaa pesunga (feminine) means "Please speak more slowly". You can also ask அதை ____ தமிழில் எப்படி சொல்லுவீர்கள்? Adhai ____ thamizhil eppadi solluveergal? or "How do you say ____ in Tamil?"
- காப்பாத்துங்க! Kaappathunga means "Help!"
Part 3 of 4: Expand Your Knowledge
Step 1. See if you can find classes available in your area
Classes are offered in Tamil at many universities, especially those with some focus on Southeast Asian studies. If so, these classes may be available to the community. If the place where you live has a large population of people from South Asia or India, there are likely community classes available in this language.
Step 2. Read a lot in Tamil
Reading blogs and newspapers online will help you learn the most common vocabulary in this language. Also, children's books are an excellent starting point because they are aimed at an audience that is still in the process of learning the language and, therefore, images and other educational aids are often used.
- The Education Department of the Tamil Nadu government has a website where you can download various textbooks for free, which are used in public primary and secondary schools in Tamil Nadu.
- You can also find a large collection of free Tamil stories on the TamilCube website.
Step 3. Listen to spoken Tamil
Find YouTube videos, Tamil movies, music and popular songs and listen to as much of Tamil spoken as possible. If you can practice with a friend who speaks the language, even better.
- You can find samples of recorded Tamil texts on the Omniglot website.
- Also, the Spoken Tamil website offers many classes and audio recordings.
Part 4 of 4: Practice Your Skills
Step 1. Find someone to talk to
Make friends with someone who speaks Tamil and ask them to speak to you. You can also ask him to teach you words and check your dictionary against him. You could even learn from this person about grammar and culture.
Step 2. Watch Tamil movies with English subtitles
The number of Tamil movies is not as abundant as Hindi movies (which are the product of the Indian film industry known as Bollywood), but you can still find plenty of movies at your disposal. You can check Netflix, YouTube, and your local video store.
Regardless of your tastes, it is likely that you will find a Tamil movie suitable for them. For example, Poriyaalan is an action thriller, Appuchi Gramam is an epic sci-fi catastrophe movie, Burma is a mixture of film noir and car heist comedy, and Thegidi is a romantic movie
Step 3. Join a language group (or start one yourself)
Ideally, you should be able to get a local online group or local discussion forum. If there isn't, you could set one yourself. With a conversation group, you can meet other people who are interested in studying Tamil and learn more about the culture.
A common place to organize and get language groups is meetup.com, but you could also contact a local university as they may have more resources
Step 4. Visit a cultural center
In larger cities, there are often Tamil cultural centers that are established to serve the local Tamil population. However, you could find cultural centers and events in India even in the smallest cities, which could still allow you to meet someone who knows Tamil and wants to share their knowledge with you. You will also learn a lot about the culture and customs.
Step 5. Travel to a country that speaks Tamil
After mastering the basics of the language, you can explore the world. Tamil is widely spoken in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia, and also by sizeable immigrant groups in Canada, Germany, South Africa, and Indonesia. நல்ல அதிர்ஷ்டம் Nalla atirstam ("Good luck!").
- Sympathy and courtesy are highly valued in Indian culture. Most of the time, Tamil speakers will greet you even if you are a stranger, so be prepared to smile back at them. It is possible for men to shake hands, although this is not common among women.
- Also, in Tamil culture, guests are valued, so a host will often go to great lengths to make sure their guests are comfortable. At a meal, it is important that you try a little of all the dishes that are served, otherwise this will be considered rude and embarrass the host. When served, you should never say "I don't want / need anymore." In case you feel full during a meal, you should say போதும் Pootum ("enough"), even better if you later say நன்றி Nanri ("thank you").