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Learn Malayalam Through English: A Complete Self-Study Guide For Beginners and Up

Learn Malayalam

Learning the Malayalam language might not be easy, but it’s worthwhile: it will help you explore the beautiful state of Kerala, make Malayali friends, and enjoy some of India’s best movies and books.

If you already know how to learn Malayalam and want to cut to the chase and read our reviews and recommendations on Malayalam language resources, check out these posts:

Learn Malayalam on your own. Explore study plan tips, grammar, vocabulary, resources, and answers to Malayalam learning FAQs here. Start learning now!

Since one of the hardest things about learning Malayalam is finding good resources, we’ve listed some great books, movies, novels, and other local media for intermediate and advanced Malayalam learners and provided tips for creating your own Malayalam study schedule.

So whether you’re moving to Kochi, planning a vacation, or simply want to speak to your Kerala-born partner in their native language, read on – we’re about to share everything you need to get started.

A Quick Introduction to the Malayalam Language

Malayalam: the mountain language. Its name literally translates to “mountain region,” although its reach extends far beyond Kerala’s eastern highlands.

You’ll hear it spoken across the entirety of the state of Kerala, from the coastal plains with their sandy beaches and rice paddies to rugged mountain landscapes with deep gorges, coffee and tea plantations, and wild forests.

Plus, it has official status in the Mahé municipality of Puducherry and the Lakshadweep island group. In fact, in Malayalam, Lakshadweep means “hundred thousand islands” – although Britannica puts the figure at around three dozen.

You’ll also overhear Malayalam in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, alongside Tamil and Kannada, as well as in diaspora communities across India and the globe. Over 35 million people speak this language.

View of large waterfalls in a forest

Athirappilly Falls, Pariyaram, Kerala. Credit: Rashi Raffi

It’s officially considered a Classical language of India, thanks to its long history of literary works. Early Malayalam literature is famed for the Pattu poetry movement, as well as erotic Manipravala poems that mix Sanskrit with Malayalam/Tamil. Meanwhile, the striking Kathakali theatrical dances represent Classical literature in a tradition that dates back centuries.

As a Dravidian language, Malayalam shares many features with other classical languages such as Tamil, Kannada, and Telugu, and has slightly less in common with languages such as Hindi and Urdu. It’s not entirely typical for a Dravidian language, however: you only conjugate verbs for tense, not person, number, or gender.

Several different dialects exist, reflecting regional, class, and caste differences. The formal, written language can also be significantly different from the Malayalam used in everyday speech.

There’s a tendency to respect written Malayalam more than its spoken counterpart. However, spoken Malayalam also boasts cultural richness. It’s the language of Mollywood movies, a thriving podcast scene, and catchy pop songs.

And, of course, it’s a living language: one that people utilize on a daily basis to catch up with family, make friends, go shopping, talk politics, scribble shopping lists and reminders, flirt, debate, advise, explain, and more. It’s constantly evolving and constantly in use.

Shopping at the market in Kerala. Credit: Ranjan Prabhat

How Difficult is Malayalam?

Malayalam has a reputation for being a difficult language to learn, particularly because of its long words and at times tricky pronunciation, such as the zh in words like pazham and mazha.

Yet don’t let that put you off learning this musical language. After all, no language is easy. And when you focus on your achievements instead of the challenges, you’ll find learning Malayalam doesn’t seem quite so much of a struggle.

Successful language learning often comes down to staying motivated, not picking an “easier” language. So, break down your Malayalam learning into small goals and celebrate your successes. For example, you could aim to have a five-minute conversation, then a twenty-minute one, and then an hour-long one.

And remember, it doesn’t matter how long it takes you to learn Malayalam. All that matters is that you’re working toward your goals.

A misty view of rolling hills planted with tea in Kerala

Tea gardens in Munnar, Western Ghats, Kerala. Credit: Vivek Kumar

How to Learn Malayalam

Apart from online classes, courses, apps, podcasts, and YouTube channels, there’s an abundance of local resources that could help supplement and advance your Malayalam language learning. We’ll look at a large range of textbooks, movies, and other local resources in this article. You can also try:

  • Writing a journal
  • Keeping a voice diary by recording yourself speaking in Malayalam every day (remember, nobody has to listen to it – not even you)
  • Labeling things around your home in Malayalam
  • Following Malayalam bloggers, influencers, and hashtags on social media
  • Setting your phone, search engines, and social media accounts to Malayalam
  • Speaking to yourself in Malayalam
  • Writing shopping and to-do lists in Malayalam
  • Joining Malayalam-language forums and Facebook groups
  • Writing short stories or poetry
  • Starting a Malayalam-language blog

Don’t make the mistake of trying to do everything, though. Not only will you risk exhausting yourself and resenting your studies, but that won’t be an effective use of your time. Instead, ask yourself these three questions:

Why Are You Learning Malayalam?

Is it because you want to travel through Kerala? Move there? Watch Mollywood? Speak with your Malayali partner in their native language? Stay in touch with an old friend who’s moved back to Thiruvananthapuram? Do business with a company in Kochi?

Whatever your motivations are, they should direct your language studies. If you want to travel, you’ll need more hotel-related vocabulary than if you want to ask your partner about their day. When WhatsApping a friend, you can be more casual than with a client. And if you’re a Mollywood fan, you’ll need to work on your listening more than your speaking.

Five masked actors perform Kathakali on a stage that looks like a house

A Kathakali performance in Kochi. Credit: Mayur Nair

How Much Time Do You Have to Study Malayalam?

Some people can dedicate a couple of hours a day to studying a language. Others barely have 20 minutes spare, between work, university, family, the gym, and friends.

Speaking Malayalam is something you’ll benefit from throughout your entire life. So, it doesn’t matter if it takes you a little longer to learn it. Be realistic about how much time you can spend studying without becoming overwhelmed, demotivated, or simply exhausted.

Short, frequent study sessions are better than long weekly ones. Try to study more days than you take off, but don’t get stressed out if you’re studying less than you would like. What matters is that you’re keeping at it – not how many hours of language study you rack up.

That said, how much time you have to study will determine the best methods for you, as well as how many different activities you can take on. Speaking of which…

Kuttanad, Kerala. Credit: Thanuj Mathew

How Do You Learn Best?

Some people like to learn from a textbook. Others prefer apps, writing, or language exchanges.

Most people will likely learn best with one core activity or resource and a few supplementary ones. It’s easier to stay focused and motivated when you have that routine and structure. However, be careful not to neglect any of the key language skills: speaking, listening, writing, and reading.

The best resource for you might depend on where you are with your Malayalam studies. As a beginner learner, you could prefer a course or gamified app. When you reach the intermediate level, you might like to work with a teacher who creates their own learning materials.

So, try out a few different resources from this article to find out what works best for you. And if you find yourself getting into a rut, revisit the list – maybe it’s time to try something different or go back to a resource that was too challenging the first time around.

Kerala Backwaters. Credit: Dexter Fernandes

After all, everyone’s different. There’s no point in us telling you how we prefer to study, because chances are, that won’t work for you. Yet once you’ve worked out these three things – your goals, how much time you have, and how you like to study – you can create an effective, personalized study plan that will keep you on track and motivated.

What’s the Best Way to Learn Malayalam?

Learning Malayalam, like any language, requires a structured and consistent approach. If possible, try enrolling in Malayalam language courses, either online or at a local institution. Courses provide a structured curriculum covering grammar, vocabulary, and cultural aspects, while providing individualized guidance, correct pronunciation, and cater to your specific learning needs. 

There is also a range of online forums, social media groups, or local meet-ups you might be able to join, in which people are learning Malayalam. Engaging with a community of learners and speakers can provide valuable support and practice opportunities.

What’s the Easiest Way to Learn Malayalam?

The easiest way to learn Malayalam is to do as many of your daily tasks in the language as possible, helping you to get full immersion in the language. Some of the things you might try are:

  • Writing a journal or blog: Writing a journal enhances language learning by reinforcing vocabulary, grammar, and sentence structure. It promotes active engagement with the language, encourages self-expression, and provides a tangible record of progress over time.
  • Following Malayalam bloggers, influencers, and hashtags on social media: This will give you a lot of Malayalam in your feed and give you a chance to practice your skills while scrolling.
  • Writing shopping and to-do lists in Malayalam: To help you practice basic food and routine vocabulary
  • Writing short stories or poetry: Don’t worry about similes, metaphors, rhymes, or anything else you learned in English class. Just writing in Malayalam to keep your writing skills on point.

How Long Does it Take to Learn Malayalam?

The Foreign Service Institute calls Malayalam a Category 4 language, meaning it takes around 2200 hours of learning to gain proficiency. 

However, if you speak other Dravidic languages (South Dravidian, Tamil, Kannada) then it may not take as long as there will be a lot of commonalities between them. Malayalam also has a lot of loanwords. Most of these come from Sanskrit, but there are also loan words from European languages such as English and Portuguese which may help you to retain vocabulary and learn a little bit faster.

How to Learn Malayalam Fast

Engage in language exchange programs or find language exchange partners online. Practicing with native Malayalam speakers is a valuable way to improve your conversational skills quickly. You can also consider joining online forums, social media groups, or local meet-ups where people are learning Malayalam. Engaging with a community of learners and speakers can provide valuable support and practice opportunities.

You can also immerse yourself in the Malayalam language by indulging in Malayalam movies, and TV shows, or tuning in to Malayalam music. Exposure to genuine content helps your pronunciation, understanding of grammar patterns, and understanding of what is happening in India.

How to Speak Malayalam

There is a significant correlation between written and spoken Malayalam, although informal speech often deviates from the standardized written forms.

Two key points to remember about the Malayalam script (so you can speak straight from your textbook) are: 

  • Where a word begins with a vowel, you must use its initial vowel form. In the middle of a word, a vowel must be represented by its dependent vowel form. 
  • Consonants always have an “a” sound unless they are marked with a different dependent vowel or “cut off” with the distinctive crescent sign.

Additional Resources for Learning Malayalam

Malayalam learning apps, lessons, or courses all work really well as main language learning resources. However, you should try surrounding yourself with other resources as you learn. Malayalam books, TV, movies, news, and music are great ways to expose yourself to how Malayalam is used in different registers.

Malayalam Textbooks and Reference Books

Textbooks can give your studies structure and break down topics into manageable chunks. What’s more, they typically include a variety of exercises. However, you’ll probably want to pair the textbook with language exchanges or classes so you can get enough speaking practice.

Unfortunately, while there are several Malayalam textbooks available, there are more misses than hits.

Learn Basic Malayalam In Six Weeks: With Daily Worksheets & Answer Key divides students: most love it, but some consider it overrated, dull, or simply the best option available despite being not that great. Still, most Malayalam learners get on well with this book, and it’s affordably priced, so it would be our first pick. We’ve reviewed it in more detail, so check that out if you’re unsure. The authors have also published a follow-up textbook, Speak Malayalam In 10 Weeks.

Don’t make the mistake of purchasing Learn Malyalam in 30 Days Through English by Krishna Gopal Vikal. This author has published similar textbooks for numerous textbooks, and most of them suffer from the same issues: poor print quality, bad structure, and errors. Perhaps it’s not surprising: he also published a book, Increase Your Height, that promises to help you gain 4–10 cm of stature through 15 minutes of exercise a day.

Learn Malayalam in 30 Days by C.L. Meenakshi Amma has received similar criticisms for its hard-to-read text and limited grammatical explanations.

In our opinion, Learn to Speak Malayalam: Speak Malayalam language in a week lacks sufficient explanations. At times, it also suffers from confusing English phrasing. For example, “you are welcome” comes under the heading of greetings. If we had to guess, we would assume that it just means “Welcome!” as opposed to the standard English definition of a polite response to “thank you.”

A young woman peers at a Malayalam textbook

Drilling Malayalam grammar with textbooks.

Malayalam Fiction Books

Modern-day Malayalam literature is hard-hitting and often touches on social issues. Start with some of these novels:

The magic realist Khasakkinte Itihasam by O. V. Vijayan is a much-loved Malayalam novel about a young man’s guilt and the natural world. Don’t be tempted by the English translation, The Legends of Khasak: it departs drastically from the original.

Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s Mathilukal is another classic. It tells the story of a prisoner who falls in love with a woman he cannot see. You can also watch the movie.

The 2008 novel Aadujeevitham by Benyamin resonated so strongly with Malayalis that it has already been reprinted over 50 times. It tells the story of a man who is trapped and enslaved after moving from Kerala to Saudi Arabia in search of work, and his attempt to escape.

K. R. Meera’s award-winning Aarachar explores caste, capital punishment, and women’s rights in this story of a hangwoman. It’s a dark and powerful novel.

A man in a library reads a Malayalam book

Checking books out of the library.

Malayalam Movies and TV

Ready to challenge your listening comprehension with Malayalam-language movies and TV? You’re in for a treat: Mollywood, aka Malayalam cinema, is one of the most popular in India and for good reason.

Even so, we would recommend easing into watching Malayalam movies and series with children’s videos. You can find plenty on YouTube. Pebbles Live has a Malayalam Stories playlist. (It also has some hour-long videos on learning Malayalam through English, but we’re not convinced by the structure or effectiveness of them.) Malayalam Fairy Tales, MagicBox Malayalam, and Malayalam Kids have plenty to choose from, too.

When you’re ready for movies designed for adults, give Ustad Hotel a go. It’s the story of a young chef torn between his professional ambitions and his troubled relationship with his father.

Speaking of cooking, The Great Indian Kitchen explores gender roles within the family. It was an immediate success – and conversation starter – on its release in 2021, with viewers describing it as raw, beautiful, and real.

If you like crime dramas, try the slow-burning Drishyam. It proved so popular that it was reshot in six other languages shortly after the launch.

Want something that will make you good about the world? Adaminte Makan Abu looks at the sacrifices an elderly Muslim couple in Kerala make to perform the Hajj. Viewers praised its touching depiction of humanity, and it won numerous awards.

For something more traditionally feel-good, watch Bangalore Days. It tells the story of three twenty-something cousins who reunite after one of them gets married.

Premam won viewers over with an age-old story: that of a young man looking for love. Expect plenty of humor along the way.

A young woman nurses a coffee and watches Malayalam movies in bed

Netflix and study with Malayalam movies.

Music, News, and Other Resources for Learning Malayalam

Music won’t replace flashcards and courses, but it’s a great way to further immerse yourself in the Malayalam language and even pick up some new words and phrases. Just make sure you know exactly what they mean before you try them out, otherwise, you could accidentally sound corny, overly poetic, or offensive.

Spotify has an official Latest Malayalam playlist. There are also lots of user-made ones, such as Malayalam Sad Songs, Malayalam Hot Hits, and Malayalam Love Songs. If you don’t want to use Spotify, Radio Mango caters to Malayalis and has been running since 2007. You can listen to it online.

Do you read the news most days? Try reading it in Malayalam. This will introduce you to new vocabulary and keep you up to date on what’s happening in Kerala – along with how that affects you. Plus, you’ll always have a good conversation starter.

Of course, each news site has its own editorial slant, not to mention writing style. Try a few out to see which you get on best with. Here are a few options:

As you read the news and listen to music, you’re bound to come across words you don’t know. We’ve already mentioned the Readlang Google Chrome plugin that will translate words and add them to flashcard decks for you. You can also use Malayalam English Dictionary and Olam dictionary. And if in doubt, look up the word’s pronunciation on Forvo.

Two men sit on rocks and stare at the ocean

Kozhikode, Kerala. Credit: Arun Geetha Viswanathan

Don’t let Malayalam’s reputation for being a difficult language put you off. Once you start, you’ll find there are many great resources that will help you in your journey to becoming a fluent speaker.

And when you’re able to follow Mollywood movies, read the untranslated version of Aadujeevitham, and make your Malayali friends laugh at your jokes, you’ll realize that this beautiful language is worth the effort.

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