Musings on learning Bangla

These days, I’m spending a lot of time studying the Bangla language, also known as Bengali. Bangla is the basis for the country of Bangladesh’s name: Bangla (বাংলা) is the name of the language, and “desh” (দেশ) is Bangla for “country”. Thus, Bangladesh is simply the country of Bangla—an especially meaningful fact given the nation’s bloody transformation from East Pakistan to Bangladesh, in part through the Bengali Language Movement and its emphasis on the Bengali language and culture.

Despite being the sixth-most spoken language in the world, there’s a great dearth of language-learning resources available for Bangla. Pimsleur? Rosetta Stone? Fuhgeddaboudit. That being the case, I thought I’d mention some of the resources and techniques that have been helpful to me or that I plan to use, in the hope that others will find it useful. As background, this comes from someone who studied 10 hours a week for 4 months with a Bangla tutor 5 years ago, but hasn’t done much formal study since. I’m also pursuing the Dhaka dialect of Bangla in preference to the Kolkata dialect. Thus, consider how your situation differs from mine and adapt accordingly.

A great starting point for your journey is the Everyday Language Learner’s site. It’s an excellent blog, and his $20 “guide” is well worth the money. He has an excellent list of blogs and one of “getting started” resources—see especially the “Language Learning Programs” section.

I’d consider the core resources for getting started (if not living in Bangladesh) to be:

  • Complete Bengali: A Teach Yourself Guide, by William Radice
  • The free Anki flash card program, available for most computer and mobile platforms (with synching). Anki 2.0 is currently in beta, but includes a number of substantial improvements. I’ve been using it, and happily recommend starting with that version. The AnkiDroid beta is available here, the Windows version of the beta is here, and the documentation for 2.0 is here. Get at least somewhat familiar with Anki’s features, as you might find them helpful in designing cards that fit your learning style.
  • Input software to enter Bangla. Many in Bangladesh use the Avro phonetic input software. Based in part on advice from a linguist friend, I’m using a re-mapped Bangla keyboard from Ekushey.org. If you’re in Bangladesh, you might want to consider the “Bangla Unicode” layout or the “UniJoy” layout, as they’re similar to layouts popular in Bangladesh. I started using the “Inscript” layout, and have been quite happy with it—both the other Ekushey.org layouts and Avro periodically “glitch” for me when entering Bangla into Anki. (The main reasons for using a Bangla keyboard rather than going through English phonetics: you’re “thinking in Bangla”, which should aid your language acquisition, your fluency in typing, and your awareness of how words are spelled. Basically, you’re developing the Bangla side of your brain in preference to the English side.)

Go through all of the “script” lessons of Complete Bengali—learning the script is essential if you’re going to go far. Create flash cards for the characters and words in these lessons. Radice’s transcription is great, but for ease in typing consider using “O” for “অ”, “o” for “ও”, uppercase letters for retroflex “D” and “T” sounds and lowercase for dental, and rolling your own transcription for the “æ” or “a as in cat” sound—I often just use “ae” without the special IPA character. If you want the special characters, use Character Map (hold down the Windows Key, then press R; type in “charmap” and hit Enter; then select the character you want, hit Select, and hit copy). Note that there’s a wide variety in systems to transcribe or transliterate Bangla words into characters in the Roman alphabet (or related to such characters).

After learning the script and some basic vocabulary, you’re ready for the next phase. This is mostly based on what you want to know, but here are some of the things in my “phase 2” pantry:

  • Hanne-Ruth Thompson’s books.
    • Her Essential Everyday Bengali is a great intro, but is out of print.
    • The phrasebook has a lot of useful straight-to-Anki content (topically organized sentences with meanings and phonetic transcriptions, a smattering of grammar, and a glossary). I’d suggest not trying to memorize items from the glossary directly—without context, it’s quite difficult. See below for more on vocabulary building.
    • From what I’ve seen of her Comprehensive Grammar, it’s well worth even its frighteningly textbook-ish price. It’s a great reference for “why do they do that” questions, and also includes a huge number of sentences for use in the “sentence method” (see below).
    • I haven’t seen her “practical dictionary”, but have one on its way. I’m hopeful that it includes example sentences—as Essential Everyday Bengali does, but the recent phrasebook does not.
  • The online dictionaries on the University of Chicago’s site are invaluable—they’ll even have a pronunciation dictionary soon! Nevertheless, you may still need to steel yourself for a fair amount of frustration in looking up words. Be aware of the “dictionary form” of verbs and of common suffixes.
  • Google Translate can sometimes help when the other dictionaries can’t.
  • Be aware of the four main language skills: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Consider what balance is best for you. Go back and read some of the articles linked from EverydayLanguageLearner’s “Programs” section.
  • If you don’t have any connections with a native speaker of Bangla, try to figure out if there’s any way you can connect with one who’ll answer questions when you get stumped—perhaps as a friend, perhaps as a paid service. Check out the South Asian groceries/restaurants in town; perhaps someone there knows someone who might help you. Hit the Net.
  • Especially for unassisted study, multilingual resources are great. Bangla translations of books are great, but can be hard to find if you aren’t in-country. One book, of course, that is available in most languages is the Bible—a Bangla version of the New Testament with audio is available here. Add in a contemporary English translation, and you have a trifecta—Bangla text, parallel English text, and Bangla audio for pronunciation, speech rhythms, etc.
  • NHK World Radio has a Bangla-language podcast. I’m also hoping that the Bangla Golpo podcast and the BPA’s Bengali Audio Books podcast have content that will be helpful. Prothom Alo, if I understand correctly, is a Bangla-language sister publication to the Daily Star, and may contain similar articles. SomewhereInBlog.net is a hosting site for numerous Bangla blogs—I don’t yet have personal experience with it. Also, of course, there’s the Bangla-language Wikipedia!
  • Buy books from Bangladesh anywhere in the world through BooksBD.com or Boi-Mela.com. You can also get a number of government-published school-books free in PDF form from the latter site.
  • Unicef Bangladesh has a collection of “Meena” videos in Bangla and English. Great for early listening practice, with relatively basic vocabulary and understandable speech. Some Bangla-dubbed movies and cartoons are also available through in-country purchase or on YouTube.
  • With most of the audio or video sources, you’ll probably get the most from making a number of passes through, each time trying for maximal understanding (and perhaps even transcribing) and noting as much of what you don’t understand as you can for later lookup.
  • The Learning with Texts software is free, open source, public domain, and does a wonderful job of offering “assisted reading” of texts and integrating with Anki for review. The downside is that installation takes a bit of “geek work”, but I don’t think it’s impossible even for non-geeks. 🙂 If you use it, define Bangla as using http://dsal.uchicago.edu/cgi-bin/romadict.pl?query=###&searchhws=yes&table=biswas-bengali as your Dictionary 1, adding “।“ (without the quotes—that isn’t a pipe |, but a Bangla end-of-sentence character) to “RegExp Split Sentences”, and setting “RegExp Word Characters” to “a-zA-ZÀ-ÖØ-öø-ȳ\x{0980}-\x{09FF}”, again w/o quotes.
  • One book available from BooksBD.com is a pronunciation dictionary, “Bangla Uchcharon Ovidhan” (বাঙলা উচ্চারণ অভিধান). This should be especially useful when studying Bangla out-of-country.
  • A friend of mine recommended Humayun Ahmed’s book “Sera Humayun” (সেরা হুমায়ুন by হুমায়ুন আহমেদ), an anthology of his works. Apparently, Ahmed writes using fairly simple language, and includes a lot of spoken-language patterns in his writing. This book is apparently available from the above boi-mela site.
  • If you have Bangla-speaking friends, get them started with RhinoSpike.com, lang-8.com, and Forvo.com. If they’re studying another language, they’ll benefit—and they’ll help others to learn Bangla!
  • So You Want to Learn a Language has a much-more comprehensive list of Bangla-learning resources than this one.
  • The “sentence method” seems like a powerful tool for vocabulary and grammar acquisition. See AJATT’s articles (1, 2, 3), Japanese Level Up’s posts (1, 2) on how (for Japanese)…and Living in the Middle Kingdom’s great “nuts and bolts” article on building useful sentence cards and on integrating Learning with Texts and Anki. Also see an interesting (and somewhat controversial) relevant article from the Mezzofanti Guild.
  • It’s interesting to see other people’s take on learning Bangla—a couple of such blogs are A Tangle of Wires and My Bangla Diary.

So…to a substantial degree, you’ll need to figure out what works for you. For myself, I’m expecting over the next year to use a smattering of audiovisual consumption, trying to transcribe and understand what I hear from various movies and podcasts. I’ve done some skim-reading of Thompson’s grammar, and expect to do more of that, occasionally drilling into one section or another. But most of all, I hope to mine Thompson’s books, Humayun Ahmed’s stories, and other online Bangla sources for real-world texts. I’ll then plug these texts into Learning with Texts, make sure I largely understand them, and then add the learned vocabulary to Anki—with its context—to ensure I retain it. I’ll try to run my transcripts of audio through LWT/Anki as well to ensure retention. By including Thompson’s books in my “mining” of sentences, I hope to gain a fair amount of grammar—both through initial exposure as I enter the sentences in Anki and read the relevant info, and through the subsequent magic of a spaced-repetition system.

Any other great resources or tools? Let me know in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Musings on learning Bangla”

  1. Thanks for the kind words about EDLL and for a great post with a great list of Bangla resources. I’ll be adding new languages to the Language Specific Resource page, and I’ll be sure to not only add a link to this post as well. Keep up the good work and good luck on the journey!

  2. Wow! That’s quite a goldmine of resources there.

    I’ve always been surprised at the apparent lack of learning materials for South-East Asian and Chinese languages, given the enormous number of people that speak them.

    One thing I want to note though – I’m never sure how useful Bibles are for second language study since, as far as I can tell for Chinese, the writing style tends to be somewhat archaic, reflecting the English versions. Of course, this may not be a problem for every language…

    1. That’s an excellent point re. Bibles. I think there’re several different translations in Bangla, including at least one that is, as you mention, analogous to the King James Version in English–full of vocabulary and syntax that no one uses. But, my understanding is that the Bangla version I’m using is much more analogous to the English New Living Translation, using contemporary language and a fairly dynamic style of translation. (Even then, though, I think it occasionally does use vocabulary that wouldn’t totally “fit” in colloquial usage.) I think a similar spectrum exists in Japanese–there’s an archaic, hard-to-read version, but much more readable versions also exist.

      So…the caution is well-taken, though there’re often (sometimes?) ways around the dangers as well. 🙂

      1. Though the lack of commercially produced materials was initially quite annoying, I’ve actually become grateful for it, due to its pushing me to dig into a lot of language blogs and general info about language-learning methods. If Rosetta Stone were to release a Bangla program now, I’d almost certainly not be interested. If Pimsleur released a recording, I probably wouldn’t buy it, though I might recommend it to a beginning learner who wanted a resource for out-of-country self-study. There’re enough powerful and free tools and techniques available that commercial programs would have a hard time competing, based on value for money or value for time.

  3. Yes, that’s a good point – learning languages with little commercial backup does tend to force one to focus on finding more efficient ways of learning. (I’m sure that if you ever try your hand at a European language in the future, you’ll wonder what the hell your school was playing at to ensure that you learnt so little.)

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