Is there a way to learn Pali like a natural language?

OK I understood the problems with Pali as natural language.

As long as there are scholars (or better, venerable scholar monks), a dead Pali language is still okay.

It’ll be interesting to see that.

Let’s start learning Pali the hard way.


For anyone interested I just heard that Prof Gombrich from the Oxford Center for Buddhist Studies (link in a post above) will be offering his 3-week intensive on-line course again in November.


Thanks for a good thread. I have been thinking about this too. I keep hoping that someone will do Pali for Duolingo. However, there were some very valid points why this might not be appropriate.

Though I do love that Duolingo ‘gamifies’ the repetitive aspects of language learning. I’ll just have to come up with my own ‘games’


The free Pali course on Pariyatti has games in each lsesson :slight_smile:


I might humbly suggest that, should Pali become a living language, as a vehicle to greater understanding of the Buddha’s meaning it might suffer; that is, as a living language it would quickly transmute to the needs of the speakers as all living languages do. Just a thought. As a language teacher, I recognize and acknowledge the solid advantages of applying all skills – speaking, comprehension, writing, and reading – to language study.


it certainly would, but as exemplified by the story of Hebrew revival, knowledge of an updated form of the language still allows understanding the Hebrew Bible written in its ancient form

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Good point. Thanks.

The great advantage of a so-called ‘dead’ language is its (relative) stability.

One can wonder if a thousand years hence Pali will still be Pali while so much else will have changed. I am thinking that might be a good thing.

How I rebel at anicca! Just noticed that (again!)… lol.


Dhamma Greetings Michelle,

you don’t have to wait for that to happen. There are Pali courses in Memrise.

Best Wishes

Dhamma Greetings Bachew,

althought this is not about learning Pali a ‘natural’ way you described it, I’d like to hint to this method, since it respects the nature of this kind of language: Pāli by the Dowling Method

Kind Regards

P.S.: Please ignore the link to buy a book somewhere in the text. This page was not done to sell a book :slight_smile:

Thanks for the mention of Memrise! I’d not heard of it; looks like a fun way to get started.

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what worked for me:

to learn pali like a natural language, use it everyday.

  1. chant 30min every day in pali.
    it works better if you make your own chant book with suttas you like.
    then every word you take the time to learn feels worthwhile, and by chanting 30 min
    every day you reinforce it until you own it, just as one would do with a natural language.

  2. chant slow enough that you understand what your chanting, at least a sentence or phrase at a time you understand what you’re speaking. then gradually break it down until you know every single word as your chanting it. pause if you have to. on particularly hard sections, repeat that section a few times to give it extra reps.

  3. memorize the important sutta passages. fine to start off reading from a book.

  4. challenge yourself by chanting sections out of order. for example, every day i chant dasa dhamma sutta, 10 frequent recollections . after i memorized the 10, then i woudl chant the sequence out of order, or example, backwards 10 through one, or 1-5, then 10 down to 6, or just hold out my 10 fingers and randomly pick a finger until i worked through all 10.

  5. challenge yourself further by chanting a sentence backwards.

  6. gradually increase your speed until before you know it your chanting at a fluent speakers speed and understanding every word clearly as you say it.

  7. i believe this is also an important part of the traditional training in samadhi for disciples in teh buddha’s time. this is the dynamic aspect of samadhi. in the 30 min i chant, were there any other intruding thoughts besides the meaning of each word as i was chanting it? also, becuase the chanting book is constructed of all worthwhile suttas, i’m getting deep joy, peace, as i’m chanting. factors of the 7 bojjhanga unfold quickly in real time sequence, which i believe is the primary intention of that model.

i’ve been doing this for 3 years now, and guess what? pali is a living language. pali is my lifeblood, my connection to the buddha. english, my native langauge, to me that’s the dead language, the path to death again and again.


For someone who’s mastered the basics of Pali grammar and is interested in learning spoken Pali there’s a rather nice Thai cartoon phrasebook called Kathāsallāpa. Each phrase is given in Pali in Thai script, along with Thai and English translations.

There are a few drawbacks to the work: some of the English translations are missing, some are rather poor, and the choice of phrases is rather stilted. Still, as there isn’t very much else available for anglophone would-be Pali speakers I thought I’d post the link.


Would be so good to have this romanised.

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@vstakan, your grasp of language is amazing! Would you please think of doing a glossary of Pali terms, and their drift of meanings over the centuries and over cultures, as far as possible- I can understand there will be gaps? Your reference to the importance of fire in Vedic culture and how it influences what the Buddha meant by the fire similie was very good!

I wish I could commission you (but can’t :confused:).

With metta

I think it should be done by someone who is way more competent than me and has a better command of the Ancient Indic languages. Pali, Sanskrit, Vedic and to a lesser extent Ardhamagadhi and Gandhari are a must. In other words, it should be done by someone who graduated in Indology or spent enough time within the tradition to acquire sufficient comparable knowledge, e.g. by being a member of the Sangha (cf. Ven. Analayo). I think that Bryan Levman’s paper that I linked in this thread is a good starting point. Obviously, the list of Pali terms is far from full and some of Levman’s conclusions may be wrong, but the sheer amoun of time and effort he put into his work show that it is a no-go for an amateur like me.

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That’s really lovely, ven! Do you know who produced this?

Āma, bhante.

It was first produced in Burma as a text-only work by the Mahā Gandhayon Sayādaw (Ashin Janakābhivaṃsa), an educational innovator. The Thai translation and cartoons were done by Phra Mahā Pranom Dhammālaṅkāro of Wat Jaak Daeng in Samut Prakarn.


I’ve been using Memrise to aid in my Pali learning, as well as dabbling in it for Sinhala.

Using memes to aid memory is a great tool, as recommended in Harry Lorraine’s ‘Memory Book’. Memrise has other great features such as audio. Though the Pali courses currently don’t have audio for their vocab. Do we have someone who would volunteer their pronunciation skills to bust through the vocab lists? I’d love to co-opt one of the local Sri Lankan monks, but I doubt it’ll happen.

I thought I’d link to a couple of memrise stacks that I’ve found useful.


Rev. A.P. Buddhadatta prepared a romanised one called Aids to Pali Conversation and Translation, but it’s been out of print for decades. I’ve found an online edition, but unfortunately it’s so poorly scanned as to be virtually unreadable even with the page set to full screen.

The libraries of Sri Lankan and Burmese temples in the West often have copies of it.