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

Is there a way or has anyone learned Pali like other languages, through speaking, making sentence, writing, etc. I always wanted to learn it naturally as opposed to learning through reading suttas.

The way many of us learn Pali not effective for me for I can relate that to my experience. English is not my mother tongue and I sat through so many grammar lessons, reading and writing in school for years but still couldn’t get it right. Only after graduated when I was forced to speak and write that it started to be natural.

Another obstacle of learning a new language is the usage of medium language, when you read:

Pali text -> English -> You

When you write:

You -> English -> Pali text

Can we learn Pali like a kid? Like A for apple but d for dukkha. Pali words in flash cards maybe? If we can express our thoughts through Pali then we know for sure we know the language.

Can we just speak and make sentences with trial and error without memorizing full grammar, just like how we learned native language? Gradually make it right and have the natural feel of correctness instead of in a hard and dry scholarly manner.

I know Pali is not a spoken language and can be regard as a dead language, but still I would be interested in exploring possibilities.


what would be amazing is if Pali was resuscitated to become live language within the Sangha

that would create a natural albeit limited environment for its study by anyone interested

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I think the hardest thing about Pali is that it’s quite dead - nobody speaks it. You could probably find someone to talk to in a monastery in the jungle, but otherwise you have to put a lot more energy yourself. Learning English you can be lazy, watch movies, live in English speaking country etc. - not so for Pali.

But if you can generate enough energy and motivation for learning, you can do it. Reading suttas is probably great way to sink the language in, but if you don’t understand more than 20-30% of words it’s probably useless exercise. What works for me is learning words and grammar in use in sentences, by using many, many examples - this should be stressed, the more examples you practice, the more you will get a feel for how the grammar is used.

Flash cards are a great tool. I personally use Anki and Ankidroid for that - great, Open Source applications. But I don’t put words on the flashcards - I found out, that it doesn’t really work. Words usually have few meanings, sometimes completely different. Naturally words are used in a context, in sentences - and that’s what I put in the flashcards, full sentences, learning them both ways: Pali -> Polish and Polish -> Pali. The other way is of course harder, but I see much value in such exercise, It helps to familiarize the language. Of course there are no materials for learning Pali in Polish, so I use the English ones, but I never use English in the flash cards, and I don’t learn English translations for words - English is a tool here, but I dispose of it as soon as possible.

There are some sources of sentences / examples you can use for beginning. What I found useful:

  • Pali Primer by Lili de Silva, available online for free: lots of exercises for the bigger grammar topics; some of the exercises later on are quite cumbersome, but I still find them useful. I put those sentences and translations on flascards and review
  • Navapadamañjarī - A New Collection of Sentences by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu, also available as free pdf online. Lots of sentence examples.
  • Udāna - line by line translation by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu, also lots of sentences, and this time it’s a full Pali text, not sentences made up by someone

So basically, the tools are there, but no one is going to do the work for you, or even help you much with it. Learning Pali is a great exercise and practice of self motivation.

Hope this helps :wink:


Also, Warder’s Introduction to Pali is very useful, once de Silva’s work has been digested.

For my part, I didn’t try to develop the ability to read Pali, I sought only to be able to follow linguistic discussions of knotty terms & phrases. This tighter compass can prevent accidentally being misled by one-off translations, and they can prevent unique passages from supporting huge speculative edifices, in my experience.

The Buddha didn’t speak Pali, though, and it was never used as a natural language as far as I know, only a liturgical one. So, I’m not one to treat it as sacred, nor even as very important in and of itself.

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That is my wish also, although the reality is that a language thrives if there are better reasons like social and success. :moneybag:

I think you just nailed it! Right now there’s no other way but to go through the standard hard ways:

  • Pali Primer
  • Introduction to Pali
  • A New Course in Reading Pali (collecting dust in my book shelf)
  • Bikkhu Bodhi’s audio
  • Pali-English dictionary
  • Pali readers

Oh man, all those tools remind me of my failure to learn English back in school for years.

My laziness is not giving up, I still hope for something more natural because:

  1. It can speed up me learning Pali
  2. More (lazy) buddhists like me can master this dead language

OK, how about some ideas? I’ll throw one, let’s say there’s a site with community of Pali teachers and students. A teacher can create a Pali word, attached description and illustration, pronounce and record void right from browser. The teacher or another can arrange a set of words as a short lesson. Similarly can be done for sentences, or better - a student can make a sentence and let teachers correct it.


Hi bachew, here is someone speaking Russian as his native language, German on the native speaker level, English on a pretty decent level. I also can read and understand spoken Romanian, read in French, Portuguese and Polish and lead a meaningful discussion about old Indo-European languages like Old English, Old High German, Latin and Old Slavic languages. I also used to work as an interpreter and every now and then work as a translator. Besides, I taught my Romanian girlfriend Russian, a language that is typologically quite similar to Pali. My intention is not to boast how cool I am (well, not 100 % at least), I just wanted to show that I know what I am talking about.

In my experience, when it comes to highly synthetic languages like Old Indo-European ones, Russian or Baltic languages, the first thing one should do is to learn the grammar. By saying it, I don’t mean merely getting familiar with grammatical categories like tenses, cases or degrees of comparison, but really doing literally hundreds if not thousands of boring declension and conjugation exercises till you can conjugate or produce grammatical forms of any given word without giving it any thinking at all, it should become a fully automated process. It is not an organic process and it is pretty hard to achieve while watching movies or talking to people, since grammatical forms do not have a meaning on their own, and the only thing you practice when doing it is learning how to build these forms.But in a highly synthetic flexive language like Pali it is of crucial importance. Learning the vocabulary or idiomatic uses of grammatical forms is, on the contrary, a pretty organic process that you can and should enhance by the contact with the raw language material like books, movies, listening to people speaking in the public transport, etc.

This is where we start facing great difficulties. First, Pali is a dead language, it is not used as a native language by anyone. It means we can never be 100 % sure even about how correct our pronunciation of it is. On the other hand, it is a productive dead language, new texts in Pali were created even as late as the 19th century. As any dead productive language (Latin, Sanskrit, Old Church Slavonic, Classical Arabic) it was and is subject to linguistic interference with the native languages of people writing in it or speaking it. The Mediaeval Latin is pretty different from the language of Caesar and Cicero in grammar, pronunciation, and crucially in the vocabulary and idiomatic uses of grammar forms. Look at the Hebrew language: it had been dead for nearly two thousand years when it was adopted as the official language of Israel after small groups of enthusiasts started using it as their everyday language. However, there is not a single person who will tell you the Modern Hebrew and Ancient Hebrew are one and the same language, because they aren’t.

From all the above it follows that if you start using Pali as a spoken language you will likely not be speaking Canonic Pali but rather some language form we may conventionally call Modern Pali. For example, a native English speaker is not very likely to be using in his eveyday speech contructions like ‘having developed the right insight, you achieve liberation’ (interestingly, these constructions are pretty frequent in Russian, so a Russian speaker presumably wouldn’t have much problems with it making ‘mistakes’ in other areas of the Pali grammar). The same should be to a more limited degree true for the Commentaries by Buddhagosa, as they were written about 700 years later after the compilation of the bulk of the Pali Canon and must inevitably bear signs of linguistic inteference.

Therefore, if you want to learn Classical Latin of Caesar and Cicero, you will have little to no choice but to read texts by Caesar and Cicero, occasionally having a peak at graffiti from Pompeii to get an idea what the more colloquial language was like. The same is true for the Pali Canon. If you want to get an idea of the idiomatic use of grammar and / or vocabulary units at the time of the compilation of the Canon, you have no other choice but to read the Canon. Alternatively, if you just want to speak Pali no matter what, just like Zionist enthusiasts wanted to speak Hebrew in the 19th century, you can try to learn it as you learn English or German, but you should be aware that the result will most likely be (probably very) unsimilar to the Pali used in the Canon.


any liturgical language at one point in time must have been vernacular, because viable languages are not constructed (definitely not 2500 years ago) in laboratories for specific purposes but develop naturally in a process of communication between humans

i think the fact that its phonetics demonstrate principles of sounds reduction similar to those we can observe in modern Italian, very much speaks for it being live at certain point in history


However, modern scholarship has regarded Pali as a mix of several Prakrit languages from around the 3rd century BCE, combined together and partially Sanskritized.[5]

[5] Bhikkhu Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words. Wisdom Publications, 2005, page 10.

Pali was indeed constructed.

not from scratch however, according to Norman, to whos “Pali Literature” (pp. 2-7) Ven Bodhi makes his reference, it’s a result of gradual normalization of the Canon text originally composed or transmitted in a number of dialects

so i agree that in its present form is was never naturally spoken, but it’s present form is derived from spoken languages



In case people haven’t seen it, here’s another discussion on learning Pali, with some resources that might be helpful. Also Richard Gombrich teaches both in person & on-line sometimes, and from what I’ve heard, uses a more ‘natural’ approach than some teachers. I’ve heard the Pariyatti live Pali courses does this as well, but unfortunatley you have to be a Goenka student to attend… sigh. But you can use their on-line course resources, inc some audio.

I’ve been studying Pali on my own and have to say, its not been easy for me at all, partly due to my ignorance of any languages other than English (sad & rather embarrassing, but not unusual growing up in the middle of the US to not even have the opportunity to study other languages in school, especially back then. Well, until University but I didn’t then, only picked up phrases here and there when I traveled). I really admire all of you who know more than one language & even multiple languages.

Personally, I’ve found Ven Brahmali’s recordings (see other discussion) very helpful as he reads the passages, so hearing it really augments just learning from texts. Also listening to recordings of the suttas in Pali, such as those from Ven Jiv here. But I agree, it would be great, and much easier, if it were a current spoken language (even if not exactly the same as Canonical Pali).

@Vstakan thanks for your post, with the very intersting points.


Totally agree, I found back when I first started that even learning some of the key terms in Pali was incredibly helpful.

Thanks for your kind words :anjal:

There is one little thing in your post that I sort of disagree with.

This is not necessarily the case. Sometimes, it can make things even worse. You see, Russian and Polish are closely related language, and they share a very large number of similar sounding words. This words can have wildly different meanings or connotations. E.g., the Polish uroda ‘fashion’ means ‘ugly’ in Russian. That is why it is sometimes more difficult for Russians to learn Polish than it is for people speaking Germanic languages.

To give you another example, imagine the British Isles disappeared and Australia, New Zealand and South Africa didn’t exist in the first place. There would be only two large English language cultures - the British one, which would be dead because of the disapperance of the British Isles, and the American one. Oversimplifying to an extent, we can characterize these cultures by the typical British understatement (‘I am afraid one cannot quite say he is the most pleasant chap ever’) and the American love for exaggeration (‘Dude, he is the most disgusting human being who anyone has ever seen!’) respectively. Imagine now, the Americans would have to access to old British texts. Would they be able to understand the connotations, the subtle nuances of meaning conveyed by the British understatements without any preceding knowledge of the British culture? How would they interpret statements like ‘I am afraid he one cannot quite say he is the most plesant chap ever’? I dare to predict that some of the connotations would be interpreted by Americans pretty correctly, but some of the subtler hues would be totally lost on them - and don’t even get me started about the Americans and the English grammar.

You see, the closer our culture and speaking language is to a language we are learning, the more likely we are to project our own expectations and connotations on the texts in this latter language. By making Pali a spoken language again, you will not bring the whole cultural background, all the subtle connotations of old Pali terms, puns and ways of speaking back into existence. Instead, you will substitute them with new connotations and language games (as used by Wittgenstein), most likely derived from your own cultural background. This new system will then be projected back on ancient texts and obscure the real intent behind a term. E.g., we accept Gombrich’s theory about khandhas being a part of the fire metaphor as true. We start to project this view into our own spoken Modern Pali and, correspondingly, into the Suttas. But what if it is not true? In fact, I don’t see how using Pali as a spoken language will not intefere with our understanding of the Suttas as coming from an entirely different culture. This could be one of the reasons why Pali as a semi-artificial Sanskiticized language was adopted for the Canon in the first place: No one would distort the meaning of the terms because no one was speaking this language at all. Cf. with any Quran translation being called ‘translation of the meaning’, as it is considered impossible to render it in any language other than ClassicalArabic without losing some of the connotations.

If you want to use Pali as a lingua france of Buddhist communities, I think English would most certainly do and will not have a negative effect on your understanding of Pali terms. What can have a positive effect on it is studying the old Indic culture of the Buddha’s time as well as the old texts themselves, carefully avoiding any projection of our own connotative structures onto Canonic Pali, i.e. the method that is used, I assume, by any decent Pali scholar out there. In other words, there is really no need for the spoken Pali, there is in fact a need for the dead Pali.


It’s ok, you are cool :sunglasses: and know what you are talking.

I guess it’s kinda like learning chinese characters by mindless repetitions.

Alright, speaking Pali in modern world is not really needed. I’m just thinking at least one can read, write and expressing buddhist words and thoughts in Pali without going through English, hence natural. Wait, maybe some are doing that already? Do you guys (Pali experts and scholars) able to make arbitrary sentences easily?

Thanks Linda, let’s see what I can do it.

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You are absolutely right, and this is one of those cases where mindless repetition is not bad at all. Anyway, there is a system underlying each grammar, and doing these exercises you unconsciously internalize it. It may happen consciously to an extent, but repetition is the most important part.

You can’t if English is your native language, unless you have an extensive knowledge of the old Indic culture and how these words were used in the old Pali texts. Not that you will still have to translate words into English, no, the connotations you attach to them will be influenced by English. So, in order to avoid English language games interefering with Pali texts, you’ll have to read about Ancient India and / or ancient Pali texts a lot.


Oh ya Linda, Pali is your second language, not sad at all! Further more if English is your native then you can do way better job in translating to English.

In my case it’s Chinese and English, but then I can actually switch between Chinese and English when I think. Maybe I will be able to do it in Pali? I mean the connotations I attach to the words can be of Buddha’s teaching rather than ancient India culture? Like Nibbana is just fire extinguished, fading away, etc, there’s no cultural influence.



Well, I don’t think my level of Pali qualifies as a second language (maybe some day…), but thanks for your kind remarks :slight_smile:

The Buddha did not have any other language than the language of the Ancient Indic culture, he could not borrow terms from Ancient Greek or Latin, so he took appropriate words from the everyday language and infused them with new meaning. The appropriateness of a word was determined by its connotations, sometimes these connotations play a significant part in how we should understand the term doctrinally. Take the word nibidda: we are pretty sure what it means generally but we don’t know the exact connotations, so it is both translated as ‘disenchantment’ or ‘disgust’, pretty different things if you ask me.

If you know how important fire is in the Vedic culture in particular and in the ancient cultures in general, you will see new shades of meaning in that term. I highly recommend you to have a look at this paper to just evaluate how much of the meaning we don’t notice because of being completely out of touch with that culture.

The Buddha’s teaching, unless you are having a direct insight into it, should be formulated in some language and is thus inevitably embedded in a cultural context of this language. Since it was first attested in the ancient Indic culture, we should first assess this culture, apply ou conclusions to the linguistic data we have and then try to render the results in an English or Chinese term that has the highest semantic correspondence to the Pali one, including connotations and cultural associations. If that is totally impossible, you should provide the English or Pali term with a commentary clarifying the semantic nuances lying under the surface. Eventually, you will be able to use Pali terms without mentally translating them into English or Chinese, and having been thoroughly informed about the connotations of the terms, you will avoid possible culturally conditioned misinterpretations.

Words have more power than we think. For example, almost a century of bad blood between the Eastern and Western halves of the Cristian Church in the Ancient Rome were caused by the linguistic peculiarities of the terms they chose to refer to the essence and three persons of the Holy Trinity. I cannot go into detail here, but the bottom line is they are still having problems understanding each other merely because of their choice of words and their connotations about 1500 years ago.


I found a nice example of English language connotations applied to the original Buddhist ideas. In Chapter 1 of his seminal work Buddhist Precepts and Practice, Professor Gombrich describes his difficulties in translating the sentence ‘What are you religious beliefs’ into Singhalese back in the 1960-s. The closest, even though still somewhat unnaturally sounding rendering turned out to be something like ‘What are your opinions about religion?’ In other words, in the Singhalese culture religious beliefs are or at least not cogntively different from any other opinions you can have about any other matter like politics or science. While this does not tell us anything about the connotations of the Pali term saddhā directly, considering the orthodoxy of the Mahavihara tradition, close relations between the Ancient Indic and all Sri Lankan cultures and etymological relations between the Singhalese adahanavā and Pali saddhā, there is a fairly high chance of the connotations in the contemporary Singhalese and Ancient Prakrit languages being quite similar to each other. Other indirect evidence in support of this would be the possible historical origin of the Singhalese in West Indian Prakrits, with Pali showing a number of Western Indian influences and possibly even originating in the area. This is not all conclusive evidence, but it still provides us with something to work with.

The Western attitude to religious beliefs is very different. ‘I believe because it is absurd’ is an unpopular idea in the Western secular society but it is very deeply entrenched in us. It may be even one of the reasons why people with the scientific worldview are not really fond of religion. However, this cognitive attitude is a thing, and you cannot guarantee it will not mess with your understanding and use of the word saddhā when speaking Pali. That is not say that feeling warm and peaceful when thinking about Dhamma is a bad thing, on the contrary, it is a very good thing. However, we are primarily discussing renderings and connotations of Pali terms, and attaching new connotations to them can be misleading.

Admittedly, I have no knowledge about these things in the Chinese language culture, but I think you can catch my drift :slight_smile:


Maybe this would be possible, but first it would be necessary to analyze early sources in order to determine common speech patterns.

A surprising amount can be reconstructed sometimes just from old texts. I have heard that Buddhist texts are being used to help in reconstructing vernacular Middle Chinese, so that is quite interesting.

Researchers may learn an amazing amount just from analyzing an old tooth, or some broken bones. Who knows what type of linguistic treasures may be hidden in something the size of a Buddhist canon?