Journal : Learning Tamil

Learning Tamil


Learning a new language can be a challenge, but it is also extremely rewarding. The Tamil language is very different from either English or Spanish, which are the two languages I’ve learned throughout my life in the United States. Read on to learn about my experience learning Tamil.


Before I came to India, I was nervous about the language barrier. Do you know what a language barrier is? It is the difficulty in communication between two people who don’t speak the same language.

Although a lot of people speak some English in Madurai, the official language is Tamil. In fact, Tamil is the official language of the state of Tamil Nadu as well as in the nearby country of Sri Lanka. Before arriving in Madurai, the only language classes I had taken were Spanish language classes, which I took throughout elementary, middle and high school. I soon discovered that learning Tamil is very different from learning Spanish!  I even sometimes mix up Spanish and Tamil words, though I never told that to my professor.

Evolution of vowels in Tamil throughout time

When I got to Madurai, I could not read the signs that were in Tamil. This is because the Tamil language is written using a different script than the English language is. Thus, instead of seeing a’s, b’s, and c’s, I was trying to understand something that looked more like a picture to me than anything else. However, by the end of my intensive Tamil classes, I could read every character on Tamil signs! I felt so accomplished. However, reading the Tamil characters was still pretty useless because unless I knew what the Tamil word actually meant in English. So, the meaning was still lost in translation for me. Luckily, there are many helpful people in Madurai who could direct me to places, even if I could not read the signs.

In my experience, it is often a source of amusement to not be able to communicate with someone who does not speak the same language as you. While it can be frustrating, usually I am able to get my point across through a variety of gestures, simple words and even by drawing pictures if necessary! Also, the Tamil language has borrowed a lot of words from English. So, even if someone says they only know Tamil, they will often understand some English words. For example, in Tamil, everyone says “coffee,” “table,” and “hello”. There are no separate Tamil words for these objects or expressions.

As a last resort, if communicating is still an issue, usually someone else who can translate will be called over to help. Thus, I have not had any problems communicating with residents of Madurai while I have been here.

Here we are about to go into a cave that has Tamil letters carved into it

Perhaps you are wondering how to say some basic phrases in Tamil. The first phrases we learned in class were about how to ask for something. “Enakku coffee veenum” we would say, or “enakku tanni veenum.” This means “I want coffee” or “I want water.” In the beginning we also learned how to say “yes” or “no.” “Yes” in Tamil is aamaa while “no” is illa. A lot of words in Tamil sound very similar to other words in Tamil, so this was a constant source of confusion for my classmates and me. For example, ammaa means “mother,” but it sounds very similar to aamaa. Can you try pronouncing these words? Do you hear any difference?

As with any language, there are some tricks that I use to help myself remember and absorb Tamil words and phrases. I think that the most important part of learning a new language is to practice it with native speakers. Thus, I try to use my Tamil in interactions with taxi drivers, shop keepers and even with my host family. I also try to relate each word or phrase I learn to something meaningful so that I will better remember the word or phrase in the future. When studying for tests, I tend to use flashcards to memorize the words and phrases. This is a technique that has always worked well for me.

Unlike other languages that are more widely spoken, Tamil is mostly spoken in south India and Sri Lanka. Thus, if I go elsewhere in the world, it is unlikely that I will have the opportunity to use my Tamil language skills. However, my college has recently started a Tamil language club specifically for people who have participated in my study abroad program (or who are from countries where people speak Tamil) and who want to continue to develop their Tamil skills once back on campus. I feel like I am already forgetting a lot of what I learned in my Tamil class though, so we will see how much I will actually remember by the time I get back to the United States in three weeks!


This is actually Hindi, not Tamil, but you can see a difference in the writing

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s