Pāli Primer vs. the Dowling method

I found this link Pāli by the Dowling Method
It basically says that the pāli primer is bad and it wont work to read pali fluently.
Is there anyone here, who has mastered pāli and has used either method that can tell me if both work well or if the dowling method is really better and what the differences are between Pāli primer and the book called pāli, the buddhas language from the link.
Thanks for everyone reading.



I taught various languages (Sanskrit, Avestan, Middle Persian etc) for nearly 20 years and one thing I learnt is that every student is different. Beware anyone who claims to teach the best method; it’s just marketing.

Teachers tend to teach according to the method that worked for them, and a good teacher will be sensitive to individual students’ learning styles. If you’re going it alone, one of the challenges is working out for yourself what kind of learner you are.

Best of luck!


I know that the Pali Primer does not work for me so personally I’ve been struggling to find something that does. I kind of resigned myself to the fact that every course was basically going to be like that, but I’ll see what this one you mentioned is about.


So, the Pali Primer is by Lilly DeSilva, not Ven. Buddhadatta, as the page in the OP mentions. I didn’t read enough to figure out which book they are actually talking about.

However for those who don’t know, the Pali Primer does not use sentences or phrases from the suttas. In the early chapters it has “the brahmin climbs the tree.” By the end the brahmin is still climbing the tree, but in much more complicated ways and for a variety of reasons.

The grammar for the first 5 (10?) lessons are ok but after that it’s rather useless.

The third odd feature of the book is that half of the exercises have you translating into Pali, which may have pedagogical justifications, but barely.

Bhante Bodhi only recommends using PP for the first several lessons and doesn’t recommend translating into Pali. But if you have experience with inflected languages (like German where the endings of nouns and adjectives change) you can probably skip it.

The most helpful advice I got from Bhante Bodhi was to not expect to understand every lesson completely before moving on. That you just need to keep moving and then circle back around for things to make more sense.


Thanks for your answers, my native language is german and I began learning from Reißmüllers book, Pali, eine Einführung in die Sprache des Buddha. I guess I can start with that and when it doesn’t work I can still try the dowling method. I don’t think I would create hindrances by learning in a particular way that prevents me from later learning it the other way. Am I right?


It’s fine.

In the end, proficiency necessitates committing a lot of information to memory. It’s a dry, tedious process, but unless you do it, you will have to look up virtually every word in the dictionary and grammar tables.

I think translating into Pali is an important part of the learning process, as it requires you to really understand morphology, syntax etc. Plus, it can be really fun: when I was at university in India, the Sanskrit department had a ‘speak Sanskrit day’ once a month, where everyone had to talk in Sanskrit. And I heard stories about my old Pali teacher speaking Pali with monastics in Sri Lanka.

Enjoy the learning process and treat it like a game :slight_smile:


As per my typical insomnia, I was up last night, so I read the whole article. I found it sort of odd.

Dowling’s “Recipe for disaster”:

  1. begin studying from Buddhadatta’s [sic] Pāli Primer,
  2. following the book, learn little snippets of Pāli grammar, always moving around among categories so that you’re thoroughly confused – e.g., study a couple of verb forms the first week, then learn a noun declension, then learn a different verb tense, then move to adjectives – and
  3. make sure that your reading consists of short sentences taken from Pāli commentaries about how the girl with the stone chases the black dog.

Dowling’s “Recipe for success”:

  1. learn a few simple concepts necessary for understanding Pāli grammar – what the “case” of a noun is, for instance
  2. sit down and systematically learn the main categories of Pāli grammar by “brute memorization,” and
  3. begin reading a great direct-method Pāli reader entitled Pāli, the Buddhas Language, doing all the end-of-chapter exercises and making sure you understand every word of every sentence.

So the argument is “memorize all the tables all at once.” I guess some people could do that, I sure can’t. The other argument “this reader is fundamentally better than any other book.” I haven’t seen the book, but I’m a little dubious. Is there really anything that’s new about this “method”?

Second concept: the nominative
This is easy. A noun occurs in the nominative case when it is the subject of the verb. In the sentence

Ācariyo deti potthakam sissato.

it is the nominative form of ācariyo that tells you that the ācariyo (teacher) is doing the giving here.

“It’s so easy!” Is it? Here’s what DeSilva says about the nominative:

2. Declension of masculine nouns ending in -a
Nominative case:

The case ending -o is added to the nominal base to form the nominative case singular number.
The case ending is added to the nominal base to form the nominative case plural number.

A noun thus inflected is used as the subject of a sentence.

It’s the same information without all the breathless “THIS IS SO EASY!”. It’s not easy. There are dozens of nominative forms. It takes a long time to learn them all, even to learn to recognize them all.

It’s good to be determined and work hard, but still… what’s the hurry? Should learning Pali be a source of stress and despair? :rofl:

Also, why are there weird references to Latin scattered around the article? …you go from the simplest Pāli sentences to reading unaltered Livy in a series of easy, graduated steps. Wait, what… Livy? Graduated steps that go through Proto-Indo European, maybe? Also: The ablative and locative are the hardest Pāli cases to get an “intuitive” feel for, because the Romans used the ablative and locative for all sorts of different grammatical purposes. Oh, it’s because there’s a Dowling method for Latin from which this article was probably derived

Anyway, I don’t know why I wrote all this :sweat_smile: Have fun learning!


Few random things about learning languages from me.

Disclaimer: I have tried to learn Pali few years ago, I had to give up due to lack of time. I’m intensively learning German now, I know English quite good, Polish is my native tongue.

There are two important parts of learning a language. First is the grammar. This is the easy part. No, seriously, even with Pali… grammar is easy. You can get 80% of it in a few intensive weeks. But it will not sink in, and you will forget the details quickly. The second part, in my opinion more important, and definetely much more difficult - is building vocabulary. Don’t expect to build a good vocabulary in less than 5 years unless you have exceptionally good memory.

My advice would be - read through any grammar book, but don’t try to remember the details, learn the big things - what are cases and how they’re used (if you know a language that has this it will be easy), learn tenses, basic sentence structure. And then work on the vocabulary. Since there are probably no vocabulary building courses for Pali I would suggest getting a dictionary and start translating suttas + consult line-by-line translations. There are good line-by-line translations by B. Anandajoti. There are line-by-line translations by B. Sujato here on suttacentral. (EDIT: I’m not sure how easy it would be to use B. Sujato texts for this purpose, I think they’re not very literal most of the time? I might be wrong though)

Vocabulary building will be 90-95% of the work you have to do, so don’t waste too much time on grammar. Once you have enough vocabulary to read the texts, grammar will sink in on its own (with the exception of exceptions and obscure uses, but don’t be bothered by that in the first few years).


The best advice I ever got Pali was from my friend Ajahn Samvaro: “Grammar is a paper tiger.”

The meaning comes from the words, and often is intuitive. Grammar is there to help in cases where it is not intuitive. Think of it as extra information that is added to help you sort out the relations between words.

Other handy tips:

  • Master the pronunciation in detail and chant a lot. You get a sense for the rhythm and feel of the language.
  • Memorize prose suttas, starting with the first three.
  • Intensive is better than extensive.
  • Keep circling back on your knowledge, again and again, until what was hard seems easy.
  • Don’t imagine that you’ll solve deep philosophical problems after learning a bit of Pali.
  • Learn together with others by asking lots of dumb questions on this forum.

I’m studying Pali from Pali Primer. Now I’m at course 12. I have struggled to make sentences when it’s too complex, especially when there’s gerund and present tenses (nta/ mana). Yes, it’s more difficult everytime I take more course… :sweat_smile:

For me, it’s work on simple sentences but not on complex one. Anyway, I haven’t read about Dowling method.


Good advice Bhante.

What is a good way to master the pronunciation? Is there a good source to listen to specific sutra chanted? (I am primarily interested in getting deeper into SN)


There are various guides around, such as this one:


But just beware, even the best guides have quirks, often due to the dialect of the speaker. In this one by Anandajoti, for example, he says:

a is short as in another, academic

But to me, these two sounds are quite different. The correct sound is like the u in but.

Here’s an excellent video on the topic:

Take the time to practice each of the individual phonemes, taking care to correct for particular biasses in your language. In English, for example, we tend to “dipthongalize” most vowels, i.e. vowels glide from one sound to another. But this is never found in regular Pali words (or most languages for that matter) so we need to train ourselves. The system of voiced and aspirated consonants is also more systematic and complex than most languages, so study it carefully. Finally, the retroflex is normally only found in certain specific language groups, so it needs to be carefully practiced.

If you have a background in a traditional Theravadin language such as Sinhalese, Myanmar, or Thai, then you will be conditioned by the local colloquial pronunciations. Be aware of these and compensate. The same characters when used for writing Pali are pronounced differently than they are in the local language.

When you’ve got a good grasp of the phonemes, start with reciting short phrases, taking care to get everything right. For example, everyone can do this, right?

buddhaṁ saraṇaṁ gacchāmi

Here’s some things to check:

  • Are you pronouncing the aspirate after the d? (Hold your hand before your mouth to feel the aspirate.)
  • Are you giving equal weight to the long syllables?
  • Are you pronouncing the retroflex ? It’s tricky, it’s very fast.
  • Are you articulating the double consonants?
  • Are you sure the vowels before double consonants are short? (not “Booda”!)
  • Are you sure that the pronunciation of cc and cch are different?

Take the time to get short, common phrases exactly right. Ensure that you can read precisely one-to-one from the letters on the page to the sounds you make. Test yourself: write from memory a Pali passage that you know.

(Let me test myself with a random Vinaya rule: bhūtagāmapātabyatāya pācittiyaṁ, yep that’s it!)

Then work with longer passages. Develop the ability to sight-read Pali and pronounce every letter exactly right.

There are various good Pali recitations on the web, and many of them are posted here, too. That’s great for reinforcing learning, but it’s no substitute for actively training yourself in the specifics. Ideally we’d have a personal Pali voice coach, but that’s not so easy to find!


Correct unless you’re from Birmingham :stuck_out_tongue:


Thank you, Venerable, and anyone who contributed as well. I have two questions:
What are prose suttas and which are the first three? I didn’t find an answer by googling.
What do you mean by Intensive vs extensive?

I found these two videos on the pronunciation. (but be careful it has small mistakes in it, as I read in the comments) It sounds indian to me, so I think it could be accurate.

It seems the course was not continued, when someone finds the later videos please post it.
(I hope editing the text as often is not a problem)

There was someone who used to post quite a bit on this site but I haven’t seen him around lately. I think his name is @frankk though not sure. His first name is definitelyy Frank. Anyway, I believe he runs (or used to) a website that has a lot of suttas chanted beautifully (IMO) in Pali by a Sri Lankan (I think) monastic named Van Jiv (again, I think; all this is from memory). But for some reason I cannot locate the site anymore.
Frank, are you still on discourse SC and are you still doing that wonderful audio site?

Bhante @sujato, if you’ve heard him chant, I would be interested to know waht you think of his pronunciation.


I think this is what you are looking for:


Thanks so much! I can’t however figure out how to navigate to the original site that had all the Pali sutta recordings by
Ven Jiv (or whre they are now). What am I missing?

Yes, it’s difficult and obscure. By random clicking I got to: https://audtip.org/
You can then click on SN, for example: 4👑☸ SN
then scroll down to SN56 and click: 4👑☸ SN 56
You have to look for suttas with a link (a chain and speaker) to click on, which takes you to another site.
E.g. SN56.11: audtip-lucid24-SN-56-1 : Free Download, Borrow, and Streaming : Internet Archive

Good luck!

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Not verse (gatha). People often learn the popular verses such as Metta Sutta, etc. Of course these are beautiful and inspiring, but the language and grammar is quite difficult. It’s like trying to learn English by reading Shakespeare.

Or you can see them in their narrative context in the first chapter of the Vinaya Khandakas.

Ideally, do a Pali retreat such as offered by Richard Gombrich: immerse yourself in nothing but Pali for two weeks. Then continue on a daily basis, reinforcing basic learning over and over: chanting, listening, reading, studying for at least an hour or two every day.

Extensive learning is more like how we learned languages at High School. I did Italian for two years. Umm, ciao I guess? But that’s about it. It’s not very effective.


Thanks so much @mikenz66. I will try. Gosh his site used to be quite simple and it was very easy to find suttas and the various recordings. This seems so counterintuitive now!

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