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How to Learn Kannada: From First Words to Fluency

Learning Kannada is a rewarding, fascinating, and occasionally frustrating experience. Yet sometimes the most challenging thing can be finding good learning resources and – especially if you’re not in Karnataka – practice opportunities.

Never fear: we’re here to give you recommendations on the best courses, apps, classes, textbooks and more for learning this poetic language, as well as several study tips. We’ll also explore how difficult Kannada is and the best way to learn the Kannada script.

A Quick Introduction to the Kannada Language

Kannada is the language of Sandalwood cinema, some of India’s oldest literature, and roughly 50 million people across the globe.

The earliest existing example of written Kannada, the Halmidi Inscription, dates back around 2,500 years. (Living in or visiting Karnataka? You can see it for yourself in the striking Government Museum in Bengaluru.)

The prolific quantity of Old Kannada literature has led to Kannada being officially labeled a Classical language of India. And as a Dravidian language, it has a lot in common with other major literary languages such as Tamil, Telugu, and Malayalam (but a bit less in common with Hindi and Urdu).

Today, it’s spoken mainly in the South Indian state of Karnataka, home to major cities such as Bengaluru and Mysuru (previously known as Bangalore and Mysore); heritage sites such as Hampi and Pattadakal; and incredible natural sights such as Agumbe and the Kudremukh mountain range. You will also hear it spoken in neighboring states, however, and among diaspora communities.

Depending on where exactly you are in Karnataka, you might overhear a different variant of this language. There are significant southern, northern, and coastal differences, not to mention social and class-based ones.

Kannada also has something called diglossia: a feature in which there are multiple variants of a language in the same community. This means that formal, written Kannada is different from spoken Kannada – although, depending on who you ask, this difference can either be “not strongly marked” or “considerable.” Realistically speaking, how big the difference seems will depend on the dialect you’ve learned.

And like many Indian languages, Kannada has its own – beautiful, flowing – script and several loan words from Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, and English.

How Difficult Is Kannada?

The US Foreign Services Institute (FSI) is many people’s port of call when deciding how difficult a language really is for English speakers. While the FSI’s website doesn’t explicitly mention Kannada, many people consider it to be in line with their Category III languages, meaning it would sit alongside Tamil, Telugu, Urdu, and Hindi.

So, what does that mean for you? Well, the FSI reckon that if you were to intensively study a Category III language for 25 hours a week, you’d reach professional working proficiency after 44 weeks, or roughly 10 months.

Of course, “professional working proficiency” is a pretty vague description. It’s been compared to both the B2 and C1 CEFR levels, so if you’re considering an intensive course, take a look at the description of the levels.

Now, ten months to get to B2/C1 really isn’t bad, but most of us won’t be able to study for 25 hours a week (plus homework!). So, realistically speaking, how difficult is Kannada and how long will it take you to learn it?

The (frustrating) answer is: it depends.

Let’s say you already speak a similar language – perhaps Malayalam, Telugu, or Tamil – and get to use Kannada every day. You’ll find yourself picking it up a bit quicker.

On the other hand, let’s say that you only speak English and rarely get to speak Kannada outside of your classroom or dedicated studies. You’ll find yourself forced to be more of a tortoise than a hare. You’ll likely need to review your notes more frequently, do extra exercises and drills, and actively seek practice opportunities.

Still, if you’re considering Kannada, don’t get discouraged by the idea that it might be difficult. Learning a language is fascinating, fun, and incredibly rewarding. While it’s a cliché, treat it as a marathon rather than a sprint, and focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t.

Instead of obsessing over fluency, give yourself smaller goals: aim to have a 5-, 20-, or 45-minute conversation; read a short story, newspaper article, or a book; keep a diary; listen to a podcast; or sing along to a song.

When you break it down into achievable goals, learning Kannada doesn’t seem quite so challenging.

How to Learn Kannada: Some Quick Tips

There’s no foolproof way to learn a language, but we can offer you some tips:

1. Identify your goals

What do you actually want to do with the Kannada language? If your aim is to speak with the Kannadiga side of your family, then you’ll need to hone in on your speaking and listening skills. It will also make sense to learn some of the vocabulary specific to the topics your family likes to talk about.

So, if discussions over politics typically break out, start reviewing phrases for talking about politicians and taxes. Or if your family likes to talk about the movies instead, drill up on genre-specific vocabulary.

Perhaps you’d actually like to use Kannada for work emails. Practice your reading and writing, and make a list of the business-specific phrases you’ll need to know.

Or maybe you’re planning to go on vacation in Karnataka. (Count us jealous: Hampi is awe-inspiring and the food is mouthwateringly good.) You probably won’t need as great a mastery of political or business phrases, but you’ll want to learn a lot of basic travel, hotel, and directions-based vocabulary.

2. Create a study plan

Now you know what you want to study, decide how and when you’re going to do it. But be realistic! If you’re a busy person, you’re unlikely to have two hours a day, seven days a week to study.

Go at a manageable rhythm. You don’t want to dread your study sessions. And if you’re struggling to fit them in, try to study for less time but more frequently. It will be more effective than a long, intense session of cramming once a week.

If you get busy, re-evaluate your schedule. And if you fall off the wagon and skip a week? Relax, it happens. Just start again. Perhaps try doing a quick refresher of the most recent material to ease your way back into it.

3. Decide how you’re going to study

We’re going to explore a huge number of courses, textbooks, apps, podcasts, YouTube channels, online classes, and more in this article. We’ll tell you our honest opinion of them, and for many of them, you can click through and read a more detailed review along with a rating.

But not every resource is well suited to every learner. You might prefer visually attractive worksheets and grammar-based explanations. Or you find you learn best by speaking and or listening. So, take this into account when choosing between resources, and don’t be afraid to try a few out to see what works best.

As well as the resources we’re about to cover, you can also:

  • Journal
  • Follow Kannada-language vloggers, influencers, and hashtags
  • Find Kannada-language Facebook groups or forums related to your hobbies
  • Write book/movie reviews, a blog, or short stories in Kannada
  • Attend comedy shows or poetry readings (you’ll find virtual ones online)
  • Write a letter to the editor of a Kannada-language newspaper or site
  • Change the settings on your search engine so that it shows you Kannada-language results first
  • Create flash cards
  • Label things around the house in Kannada

No matter what methods you choose, try to do a bit of speaking, listening, reading, and writing. And look for a certain degree of balance between grammar, vocabulary, and culture.

4. Track your progress

It can be hard to see your progress on a day-to-day basis, and this can make learning a language demotivating. Some days, you’ll feel like your listening ability has deteriorated. Other days, you’ll struggle to remember “basic” vocabulary that you learned and drilled five months ago, only to never use again. (After all, how often do you say the words “mouse,” “accountant,” and “ice” in everyday life?)

First, don’t feel bad about this: it is a normal part of learning a language and doesn’t actually mean your Kannada knowledge has decreased. In fact, if you track your progress, you will still see an overall improvement.

So, instead of beating yourself up because you didn’t understand someone, reread something you read or wrote a few months ago, rewatch a TV show, or relisten to a podcast. You’ll be pleasantly surprised by just how far you’ve come.

5. Reward yourself by doing fun things in Kannada

We’re not talking about reading a level-appropriate book to practice your reading. Sure, it’s a great way to study – but we want you to actually reward yourself, not just add to your homework list.

Try watching a movie because the trailer looks amazing. Don’t worry about whether you have subtitles on, pause to look up what a word means, or do any “good” language-learning tricks: this is fun, not studying.

Read a comic even though nearly all the communication is visual, not verbal. Trawl through forums dedicated to your hobbies. Add terrible puns to your shopping list because they’ll make your housemates giggle. Buy these Kannada fridge magnets and use them to create witty (or silly) messages. Bake a delicious dessert, not to challenge your cooking vocabulary but because you really want to eat bread halwa.

Remember, you learn a language so you can enjoy using it. Why not start right now, rather than putting it off?

Resources for Learning Kannada

Courses, classes, apps, podcasts, movies, textbooks, fiction books: you might be surprised to discover just how many options there are for studying Kannada.

Learning the Kannada Script

Even if your main goal is to speak Kannada, you’ll need to learn the script in order to decipher bus timetables, read menus and prices, and understand street signs. Fortunately, it shouldn’t take you too long.

The Kannada Alphabet app from Bhasha.io will help you read and pronounce the Kannada script. In each mini-lesson, you’re introduced to four or five different characters and asked to select the right sound. We found it surprisingly effective at helping you recognize different characters, but it won’t teach you to write.

You could try combining it with the Kannada101 app, in which you trace the characters on your screen to receive a score out of 100.

Sometimes it can help to watch someone else draw the characters. Give this YouTube video from Sugama Kannada a go. When you’re ready to learn how to connect vowels and consonants, move onto parts 2, 3, and 4.

Alternatively, for something that goes a bit slower and more in depth, watch this YouTube playlist from Kannada TV.

Online Kannada Classes and Language Exchanges

No matter how much grammar or vocabulary you learn, you won’t improve your spoken fluency until you actually start speaking the language. Here are a few options.

Kannada Classes

A teacher can guide you through grammar rules, give you personalized feedback, and help make sure you’re speaking as well as studying Kannada.

Before you go hunting the web for online teachers, it’s worth asking at your nearest temple. Some of them offer free or affordable classes, and you’ll also benefit from getting to know other Kannada learners.

No luck at your local temple? italki is one of the oldest online language-learning marketplaces. You can take private one-to-one video classes with a tutor of your choice – although, unfortunately, italki only has a handful of Kannada teachers at this moment in time.

While it doesn’t have a lot of choice, we think italki is a good option for most students, especially because of its free community features. If you download the app, you can take part in the forums and get community feedback on your writing and speaking.

Looking for more options? TeacherOn.com, which started off as TutorIndia, has hundreds of Kannada teachers for you to choose from. You can only contact the first three for free, however: after that, you have to pay. Alternatively, you can post that you’re looking for Kannada tutors and wait for them to contact you – that’s free.

Just Learn also has a couple of Kannada tutors for you to choose from. With this platform, you have to sign up for a subscription for either 4, 8, or 16 classes per month.

IndLangs promises to get you comfortable speaking Kannada after just ten 90-minute Skype lessons. They also have a reading and writing course.

Community Feedback

Sometimes, you just need a fellow learner or native speaker to offer a helping hand. Perhaps you’ve come across an idiom that isn’t in the dictionary, or you’d like someone to tell you if a sentence you’ve written is grammatically correct.

While online classes can be a great space for this, community feedback can also give you a quick answer. Just remember to give as much support to the community as you receive. Stick around and answer a few questions, if you can.

Download the HiNative app to ask and answer questions on the go. Unfortunately, there aren’t many posts about Kannada (and community members sometimes mistake it for Canada), but we think it’s still worth trying. After all, you never know if a Kannadiga is lurking.

Alternatively, try the WordReference forums or even the Kannada sub on Reddit.

You can use the newly launched LangCorrect to share your journal entries, get feedback, and help out a fellow learner. In our experience, it’s a great resource for improving your writing, but you might struggle to get enough feedback unless you’re learning a common language. Still, if you’re writing something in Kannada anyway, there’s no harm in posting it there as well.

Language Exchanges

There’s nothing like speaking Kannada with native speakers for improving your fluency, response time, and confidence. Fortunately, you don’t have to go to Karnataka to do this.

There are several language exchange apps, such as Speaky, HelloTalk, and Tandem, that will help you meet Kannada speakers and have conversations. Some of them have extra features, such as one-touch translations and corrections. There are a few differences between the apps, so it’s worth checking out our reviews (Speaky, HelloTalk, Tandem) or our HelloTalk and Tandem comparison to help you choose between them.

Interested in an in-person language exchange? Try MeetUp. While it only has a few Kannada-specific groups, there are plenty of language exchanges where you might meet a Kannada speaker. Alternatively, you can create your own group or try Facebook groups.

Although you can make great friends at language exchanges, be cautious at first. Remember that everyone’s a stranger. Meet up in public and don’t be afraid to set boundaries or refuse to give out your contact details. After all, you can always see them at the next MeetUp.

Kannada Language Courses: Online, App-Based, & Audio

Signing up for a course will give your learning structure and make it easier to measure your progress. You might find it keeps you motivated. And while you won’t find Kannada courses on Rosetta Stone, Duolingo, Busuu, or Babbel, we’ve found plenty of alternatives that are worth trying out.

Kannada Kalike will take you from learning the alphabet through to cases, conditionals, and written and spoken differences. For people who already know the alphabet, there are also some more challenging videos. It is grammar-oriented and at times dull, but all the same, provides a clear and thorough introduction to Kannada. We recommend pairing it with flash cards, as well as studying extra vocabulary.

When you’re ready to move on from Kannada Kalike, you could take a look at KannadaGottilla and their gender- and level-segregated WhatsApp groups. You’ll receive daily tutelage, submit homework, and be able to ask your mentor any questions. Plus, it gives you instant access to a Kannada-learning community of 25–30 people.

The freemium app Learn Kannada will teach you basic Kannada through short video lessons. It uses gamification and spaced repetition to help you remember the material for longer. You can also sign up for online classes through it.

Looking for something closer to Duolingo? Ling might be your best option. We think this gamified app is a great option for beginner-level students, plus it’s more engaging than some of the other courses. It’s light on grammatical explanations, however, so try pairing it with something like Kannada Kalike.

Alternatively, Bluebird is a Pimsleur-esque freemium app with a heavy focus on listening and speaking. While we think it can be disorganized, it will get you used to listening to native speakers.

Memrise doesn’t have an official Kannada review, but it does boast a handful of community-made ones. We think Memrise is a fun and effective app, but bear in mind that the course quality will vary. Try a few out to find the right one for you.

Udemy currently offers three Kannada courses. Since Udemy is just a marketplace, the quality and depth of the courses will vary. Take a good look at the syllabus and reviews before purchasing and remember that Udemy (at the time of publishing this article) offers 30-day refunds.

Language Courses to Avoid

A bad course won’t just waste your time and money: it will also leave you demotivated, frustrated, and speaking potentially incorrect Kannada. So, even though there aren’t many Kannada courses to choose from, we’d stay away from these ones.

Although you’ll find some useful grammar explanations and scanned PDFs hosted by the University of Pennsylvania, we would approach the section labeled preliminary lessons with caution. It’s devoid of explanations and the Kananda script hasn’t rendered correctly. While it’s free and you can pick up some information from it, we believe there are much better options out there.

Vidyamruth has a Spoken Kannada course and a reading and writing video courses. The videos introduce some basic vocabulary before either showing how they are used in a dialogue or using them to describe a video. The syllabus looks good, but we weren’t overly impressed by the sample class. We think you could find yourself overwhelmed, especially since there don’t seem to be any practice opportunities.

Instant Immersion bills itself as a Rosetta Stone alternative. However, we felt it was less structured, and it didn’t seem as effective.

As for Cudoo, it has the dubious honor of receiving the joint-worst ranking on our site. We believe you would learn more simply by creating flash cards out of word lists.

Kannada Vocabulary Builders, Word Lists, and Flash Cards

Expanding your vocabulary will help you talk about more topics, speak with greater detail and precision, and avoid having to pull out a dictionary mid-conversation.

No matter your Kannada level, Anki is a great tool. You can create your own flash card sets or use someone else’s. The app adapts to how difficult you find certain words, and you can also add images and audio files to the flash cards.

You might also like Brainscape. It’s similar to Anki, but has a more modern and polished appearance.

Alternatively, you could try using apps and websites that will introduce you to new vocabulary, as well as helping you drill them.

uTalk will get you memorizing phrases for everything from colors, professions, and ordering food through to natural disasters and maintaining military peace. We like that you can record yourself speaking Kannada.

Otherwise, give Learn Kannada Quickly a go. Our favorite thing about this app is that it will let you learn Kannada from a range of common languages across India, Europe, and East Asia – perfect for if you’re moving to Bengaluru from Chennai, for example, and would prefer to learn in Tamil rather than English. However, it has fewer phrases and practice drills than uTalk.

Simply Learn Kannada is another app from Simya Solutions, the same company that launched Ling, the course we recommended in the last section. While Simply Learn Kannada is a promising flash card app, we would choose Ling over it. After all, you’ll also practice your speaking with Ling and pick up some basic grammar.

Kannada Baruthe is a widely recommended word and phrase list app covering everything from family members to going shopping. We think the word lists are valuable, but there’s no way to drill the new vocabulary. You’ll need to pair it with a flash card app like Anki instead.

Learn Kannada in 10 Days might bill itself as a course, but don’t you believe it. It’s more of a word list app. We weren’t convinced by the quizzes designed to test your memory of the new phrases, but it could be a good way to expand your vocabulary. As an added bonus, the “entertainment” section of the app links out to Kannada-language videos and songs from across the web (although some are behind a paywall).

50Languages has a large number of Kannada word lists, although we felt you’d get the most value out of it if you were to then put it into a flash card app.

Unlike Kannada Baruthe and 50Languages, Beginner Kannada has some basic options for drilling the new vocabulary. It also uses spaced repetition, something that’s normally quite helpful for memorizing words. However, we weren’t entirely convinced by its effectiveness and felt it was at times unintuitive.

You might also come across word lists on iLanguages and MyLanguages. Neither of these left us overly impressed, and MyLanguages has a track history of incorrect information. We would steer clear of these sites.

Kannada Textbooks

Using a textbook can add structure to your studies, especially if you haven’t signed up for a course or classes. Bear in mind that while textbooks can give you a good foundation in grammar and vocabulary, you might need to look elsewhere to practice listening. Plus, your spoken Kannada will definitely benefit from a language exchange.

Conversational Kannada: A Micro-Wave Approach grew out of the author’s experience of training volunteers in the American Peace Corps. It’s praised as one of the best resources available, especially for beginners, although some students find the structure frustrating.

Learn Kannada in 30 Days through English by Ranga Rao is a hit-or-miss book. Generally, learners love the content but find the print slightly too small, especially when it’s explaining the script.

Whatever you do, don’t confuse Ranga Rao’s book with Learn Kannada in 30 Days Through English by Krishna Gopal Vikal. Its frequent errors and tiny print leave most learners frustrated.

If you’re just hoping to get by in Kannada, you might like Non Kannadiga To Naanu Kannadiga (assuming you can get your hands on a copy). It focuses on spoken Kannada, doesn’t use the Kannada script, and keeps grammar explanations to a bare minimum.

Learning Kannada Via YouTube

If you feel like you’re too focused on textbook Kannada, or are simply more of an aural learner, YouTube can be a great option.

Kannada TV is a must-subscribe channel. It has playlists on learning Kannada through English and Hindi, as well as ones dedicated to homonyms, vocabulary, dialogues, common phrases, and more.

Agurchand Babu Subramanian has a Learn Kannada playlist that gets progressively more difficult. It does a good job at explaining when to use certain phrases and how to stay polite.

Learn Kannada Online has videos on specific situations, such as visiting the doctor or going to the bank. It can be a great way to brush up beforehand on the phrases you might hear. Plus, there are lots of vocabulary-based videos on everything from flowers to emotions.

Anish Tutorials has playlists on learning Kannada through Tamil and English. We found the English ones unstructured, although they could be useful if you already have a Kannada base and are just looking to pick up an extra word or two. Plus, they’re only a couple of minutes long.

Kannada Fiction Books and Poetry

As a Classical Language of India, Kannada has a rich literary history that stretches from the ninth-century Kavirajamarga through to modern day. But while there are numerous classic poems that are worth reading, you’ll probably find it easiest to begin with something more modern.

Beginner and lower-intermediate Kannada learners might prefer to read children’s short stories. Tulika Books also sells books for beginner readers.

Ready for something designed for adults? Masti Venkatesha Iyengar was a prolific short story writer and often referred to as “Kannada’s Treasure.” Alternatively, try K.P. Poornachandra Tejaswi, an award-winning poet, short story, and non-fiction writer.

If you can find Mohanaswamy by Vasudhendra in Kannada (or even in English, Tamil, or Marathi), it’s worth the read. This poignant short story collection centers on the experiences of Mohanaswamy, a gay man who is blackmailed, struggles with online dating, and has to accept that his lover has decided to marry a woman.

Grubahbahnga by S.L. Bhyrappa explores witchcraft, religion, and local superstitions in Karnataka. If you like it, read Vamshavruksha and Parva next.

Sandalwood Cinema: TV and Movies in Kannada

Turn your downtime into study time by watching Kannada-language TV shows and movies. Not only is it fun but you’ll find yourself picking up more colloquial phrases and getting used to a wider variety of accents. Plus, you’ll always have a good topic of conversation to fall back on.

Even if quiz shows aren’t your thing, it’s worth searching for episodes of Thatt Antha Heli on YouTube. This series tests participants on idioms, proverbs, riddles, synonyms, and more, making it ideal for language learners.

Ready to get lost in a movie? You’ve got plenty to choose from. Sandalwood, aka Kannada’s cinema industry, is thriving.

The dramatic comedy Thithi looks at how three generations of men respond to the death of the 101-year old man who was their father, grandfather, or great-grandfather. It won awards and has been praised for its touching humanity as well as its satire.

Romantic comedy Kirik Party tells the story of a group of engineering students. Be warned: it was hit or miss with viewers.

Crime drama Ulidavaru Kandanthe weaves together the stories of five different characters. While it had a lukewarm reception with critics, it was a box-office hit and viewers had high praise for it.

In Chowka, five prisoners are jailed for crimes they didn’t commit. Viewers found it gripping, despite the three-hour running time.

When a middle-aged man with Alzheimer’s goes missing in Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, his son sets out to find him. Add murder, land scams, and crooked cops to the mix, and this touching movie veers toward the dramatic.

The award-winning Dweepa explores the issue of forced displacement and why we remain attached to places and people. While one of the older movies on this list, it still feels relevant today.

For something a little more surreal, try Lucia, a crowdfunded movie that has been compared to Inception. It’s drawn glowing reviews from critics, but don’t feel bad if you struggle to follow the plot – it’s quite complex.

Watching Sandalwood shows on Netflix? Try using the Language Learning With Netflix plugin, which we think can help you understand the subtitles and revise new vocabulary.

Kannada-Language Podcasts

Looking for ways to improve your listening, pick up new vocabulary, or just fill your commute time? Podcasts are a great way to not only practice Kananda but also listen to something you find interesting.

Every week, The Thalé-Haraté Kannada Podcast takes a deep dive into topics ranging from current affairs to childhood games, and from the natural world to science fiction.

Only have a few minutes to spare? Try Nallikayi, the community-led podcast in which contributors read stories and articles out loud, or listen to children’s bedtime stories with Baalgatha Kannada.

Saacho Sarri is a Christian podcast dedicated to understanding the Bible. It’s updated five days a week and most episodes are around 30 minutes long.

The sporadically updated Hong Maradadi Podcast touches on art, culture, and science.

Cricket fanatic? Cricket Kannadiga is an obvious choice for you.

If these are too challenging, start off with Nithya Kannada instead. Each short-and-sweet episode features a few phrases said in both Kannada and English.

News, Music, and Other Resources for Learning Kannada

While listening to music isn’t exactly studying, it further immerses you in Kannada, introduces you to extra vocabulary, and gets you thinking more in the language (especially if you like to sing along).

Make sure you find music you like, rather than just adding songs to your playlists because they’re in Kannada. Try listening to multi-genre playlists like Spotify’s official ones: Latest Kannada and Kannada Indie. Alternatively, use that search bar – there are dozens, if not hundreds, to choose from.

Before you go using the new phrases with your friends, make sure you’ve looked them up in the dictionary and understand the context of them. Just because something’s said in a rap song doesn’t always make it suitable for everyday use. You might like the open-source Kannada-to-English dictionary Alar. Or, try English–Kannada.com.

These dictionaries will also come in handy for reading the news – something that won’t just get you practicing your reading but will also keep you up to date on what’s happening in Karnataka and the world. (Plus, how else will you understand all those Kannada-language memes on social media?)

Since every news site has its own editorial slant, not to mention more or less complex language, try a few out to find one you get on with. Here are a few options:

Even though you won’t find Kannada courses on Rosetta Stone and it’s absent from Duolingo, there’s a surprisingly large number of ways to study this beautiful language.

So, try out a Kannada course, book classes with a teacher, and start reading the imaginative novels of some of Karnataka’s greatest authors. It won’t be long until you’re speaking Kannada with confidence.

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