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Learn Tamil

Whether you’re moving to Chennai, studying Tamil history, or simply want to talk to friends and family, learning Tamil is a rewarding venture. You’ll find that it helps you meet people, bond over shared experiences, and gain insights into one of the oldest cultures in the world.

If you already know how to learn Tamil and want to start reading our reviews and recommendations for learning Tamil, check out these posts:

Fortunately, there are plenty of ways to study Tamil – no matter if you’re in India, Sri Lanka, or Toronto.

Begin your Tamil language learning and explore beginner-friendly resources and tips to learn Tamil. Is Tamil hard to learn? Find out here.

To help you get started with your Tamil studies, we’ve recommended lots of books, news, music, and more. There are resources for complete beginners all the way through to advanced Tamil speakers as well as some language tips. We’ve also looked at how difficult Tamil really is and how to practice using it in your everyday life.

Learn Tamil: What You Should Know About the Tamil Language

Tamil is only one out of the 22 official languages of India, but don’t overlook the historical and cultural importance of this Dravidian language.

It was the first language to be legally acknowledged as a Classical language of India, with texts dating back over 2,000 years. That makes it significantly older than English.

It’s also considered a major literary language. The Tolkappiyam, for example, contains over 1,600 sutras, and its earlier sections were likely written in the first to second century BCE (although there’s some debate about that).

Other South Dravidian languages also share roots with Tamil. For example, Malayalam originally emerged as a Tamil dialect before developing significant differences. Irula has striking similarities. Kannada and Tamil alike can be traced back to Proto-Tamil-Kannada.

Yet there’s far more to Tamil than just its long history and classical poetry. It’s also the language of Kollywood movies, poignant short stories and war poetry, and around 75 million people across the world.

Where is Tamil Spoken?

Tamil is the official language of the Indian state Tamil Nadu, home to Chennai, and widely spoken in nearby states and cities such as Bangalore.

It’s also the national language of Sri Lanka, alongside Sinhala, and Singapore. You’ll hear it used frequently in Malaysia, where there are Tamil schools, as well as in South Africa and Tamil diaspora communities around the world.

Over a million Tamils live in the Gulf region, mainly the UAE and Saudi Arabia. The US is also a popular destination for emigrating Tamils. And an estimated 150,000 live in the UK, and roughly the same number live in Canada.

How to Learn Tamil: Hacking the Tamil Language

Although we’d like to, we can’t give you a guaranteed-to-work, step-by-step guide to learning Tamil. We don’t know why you want to learn the language, how many opportunities you’ll have to practice speaking it, or what your learning style is. But what we can do is give you some tips for learning Tamil effectively – and what’s more, enjoying the process.

First, work out exactly what you want to achieve in learning Tamil. There’s no point spending hours on formal, business-appropriate Tamil if you only want to speak with friends and family.

Think about what type of Tamil you want to focus on, too: written, spoken, Sri Lankan… If you’re planning on visiting the Jaffna Peninsula, you’ll be best off looking for teachers, vloggers, and books from there rather than from Bangalore.

Now, it’s time to think about how you’re going to learn and practice Tamil. We’ll explore a huge number of resources in this article, from courses and apps to podcasts and YouTube lessons. You’ll find some of these more effective than others, so try a few out to see what works best for you.

Learning a language is easier and often more interesting when you get to use it outside of the classroom, too. Here are some ideas:

  • Write in a journal
  • Join Tamil-language Facebook groups and forums
  • Follow influencers, vloggers, and Tamil hashtags
  • Watch Tamil movies and TV shows
  • Listen to a Tamil radio show
  • Start a blog

Some of these might bore you, and that’s okay. Not everyone likes writing in a diary or has the attention span for a movie. While practicing all four Tamil language skills (reading, writing, listening, and speaking) is a good idea, you’ll be more motivated if you pick things that you enjoy. So, if novels aren’t your kind of thing, start reading forum posts and how-to guides for your hobbies instead.

Be honest with yourself. How much time do you actually have to study (without getting language-learning burnout)? Achieving any level of competency in a language requires time, so it’s better to set yourself a reasonable study schedule. Try to study more days than you don’t, but don’t beat yourself up if your study sessions are shorter than you’d like.

And most importantly of all, acknowledge your successes. Learning a language is something to be proud of, whether you’ve just learned how to count to 100 or you’ve successfully made a group of Tamils laugh over your puns or political jokes.

Is Tamil Hard to Learn?

The Foreign Service Institute (FSI) will tell you that Tamil is a “hard” language, otherwise known as Category III. They believe it takes English speakers around 44 weeks of intensive study, adding up to a total of 1,100 classroom hours, to achieve “professional working proficiency” (which has been roughly equated to both the B2 and C1 CEFR levels).

But let’s be honest: if you fixate on how difficult Tamil is, then you’re likely going to struggle. Yet if you focus on your achievements instead, and celebrate every accomplishment, your language-learning journey will feel a lot easier.

Besides, the FSI labels Tamil as hard because of its “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.” But different doesn’t have to mean difficult.

Here are some of the differences:

  • Tamil sentences usually finish with the verb, while there’s flexibility around where the subject and object go. So, if you wanted to say that “she eats lunch,” you’d put “eats” – சாப்பிடுகிறார் – last.
  • Tamil is agglutinative, which means (among other things) that you’re going to use more affixes, and in particular, plenty of suffixes. In fact, Tamil has lots of postpositions, in contrast with the prepositions that English speakers are familiar with. While some people find this challenging, more analytical learners might like how easy it is to understand the relationship between different words.
  • Colloquial, spoken Tamil is vastly different from formal, written Tamil. There are also plenty of regional variations. So, if you want to learn both formal and colloquial Tamil at the same time, you’ll have a lot to study – but if you focus on one or the other, you’ll find yourself making quicker progress with it.
  • Tamil has its own script, so you’ll need to learn that before you can start reading or writing.

On the other hand, some things will seem familiar about Tamil (and we’re not just talking about the words for anaconda, cash, and curry, all of which could potentially have entered English through Tamil).

For example, the Tamil script is written as it sounds. Unlike some Asian languages, you won’t have to memorize thousands of symbols or find yourself knowing what something means but unsure about how to pronounce it.

What’s more, the difficult aspects of Tamil are often overstated. You might get warned that there are 247 letters. This is true, but it’s based on the combination of 12 vowels, 18 consonants, and one unique character (the āytha eḻuttu, ஃ). Once you’ve learned the patterns around how these letters are formed, you’ll likely find that memorizing the script isn’t as challenging as it sounds.

And of course, if you already speak a Dravidian language, such as Kannada, Malayalam, or Telugu, you’ll find Tamil fairly familiar.

What’s the Best Way to Learn Tamil? 

You could consider enrolling in a Tamil language course. A structured language course provides a systematic and organized approach to learning, offering a comprehensive curriculum that covers grammar, vocabulary, and essential language skills. It provides learners with a clear progression, ensuring a solid foundation in the language.

Structured courses often include guided exercises, assessments, and opportunities for interactive practice, fostering a well-rounded understanding and practical application of the language. This organized framework helps learners build confidence, track their progress, and stay motivated throughout their language learning journey.

When you feel confident with the Tamil alphabet, you can read Tamil texts. Start with simple books, articles, or online content in Tamil. Reading will help you understand sentence structures, grammar, and expand your vocabulary, while helping you to recognise letter formations.

What’s the Easiest Way to Learn Tamil?

Watch Tamil movies, TV shows, or listen to Tamil music and radio. This exposure to authentic content helps improve your listening skills, pronunciation, and understanding of colloquial expressions.

Utilize language learning apps such as Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, or Babbel, which may offer Tamil courses. These apps often provide interactive lessons and exercises.

If possible, spend time in regions where Tamil is spoken. This firsthand experience allows for cultural immersion and real-life language practice.

How Long Does it Take to Learn Tamil? 

If you are a native speaker of English, it will take around 1100 hours of study to gain fluency in Tamil. But remember that 1100 hours of focused study is different from 1100 hours of listening to Tamil music. So maximise those 1100 hours by using a variety of different learning materials.

How to Learn Tamil Fast?

Practice Regularly

Consistency is crucial. Dedicate regular time each day to practicing Tamil, whether through speaking, writing, or listening. Regular practice will reinforce what you’ve learned.

Flashcards and Mnemonics

Use flashcards to memorize Tamil vocabulary and employ mnemonic devices to remember words and phrases. These memory aids can enhance the learning process.

Join Tamil Language Communities

Engage with online forums, social media groups, or local communities where people are learning or speaking Tamil. Immersing yourself in a supportive community provides additional resources and opportunities for practice.

How to Speak Tamil 

Learning basic phrases is a good way to kickstart your Tamil learning journey. Start with everyday phrases and basic vocabulary. This will make it easier to engage in simple conversations and gradually build your language skills.

Connecting with native Tamil speakers for language exchange is also a good way to learn to speak the language. Practicing with a language partner helps improve your conversational skills and gain insights into cultural nuances. It has the added benefit of making you better at your native language, as you explain concepts to your partner.

Additional Resources for Learning Tamil

Incorporating local resources such as books, TV, movies, news or music into your study plan could help you understand what the Tamil language is like and how it’s used by natives.

Tamil Textbooks and Reference Books

Textbooks can add structure to your studies and often have more writing-based exercises than most apps. But make sure you know whether a textbook teaches you spoken or written Tamil before you purchase it (or put the language into practice).

Colloquial Tamil is praised by learners for its representation of spoken Tamil. When it comes to listening, however, it throws you in at the deep end. The conversations are spoken at a natural speed, which can be challenging for new learners.

In fact, complete beginners could be better off with the accessible Spoken Tamil for Complete Beginners. It takes a grammar-oriented approach despite focusing on spoken Tamil.

Once you’ve got a foundation in spoken Tamil, you might find A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil useful. It breaks down Tamil grammar in grueling detail, making it useful if you want to review syntax or double-check conditional structures.

You can also find Learning Tamil By Yourself online for free, thanks to the author’s generous decision to publish it without a license. It appears to be more suitable for studying written Tamil.

Tamil Fiction Books and Poetry

Reading Tamil literature will help you practice your formal, written Tamil and pick up new vocabulary, as well as further immersing you in Tamil culture. Besides, there are plenty of great books, short stories, and poems to choose from.

Beginner learners might want to approach this with care, though. Since most books are written in formal Tamil, you could find yourself learning words that aren’t as useful for everyday conversation. There’s no wrong or right time to start reading Tamil fiction and poetry, but you could find it less confusing if you’ve already got a firm grasp of colloquial Tamil.

Alternatively, look for books that are specifically labeled as being written in spoken Tamil, such as the Thumb Thumb picture books or Sujatha’s fun and occasionally sarcastic science-fiction novels.

There’s plenty of classic Tamil literature, and especially poetry, for you to read. The Five Great Epics are perhaps Tamil’s most famous poems. Regardless of the poems you opt for, you might like to pair them with the podcast Sangam Lit to help you get a better insight into the author’s intentions.

Alternatively, for something a little less challenging, try this translation of the second-century Sanskrit fables in the Panchatantra.

If you’re looking for something more modern, try Ambai (which is the pen name of C.S. Lakshmi). She’s known for her irony and wit, and her short story collection Kaatil Oru Maan/காட்டில் ஒரு மான் (In A Forest, A Deer) has been praised for its compassionate and moving stories.

Balakumaran, who died in 2018, was a prolific writer, producing over 300 novels and short stories across his lifetime. Many of his works were historical, and he was often praised for his depiction of women and everyday people.

Jeyamohan is a popular and award-winning contemporary Tamil author. His works range from retellings of classic Indian epics (Venmurasu/வெண்முரசு) to explorations of the impact of the rubber trade in South India (Rubber). Controversially, he complained that male writers were overlooked in favor of female writers, whom he claimed were receiving media attention just for being female.

Alternatively, if you’re an audiobook fan, you might prefer to listen to some of these podcasts: Tamil Audio Books by Sri Srinivasa, Tamil Audio Books by Kadhai Osai with Deepika Arun, and Short Stories in Tamil.

Tamil TV and Movies

Where would Indian cinema be without Kollywood, aka Tamil cinema? Kollywood is India’s second-biggest movie industry, and learning Tamil gives you the perfect excuse to indulge in it. After all, movies are one of the best ways to hear spoken Tamil outside of spending time with other Tamils. Here are a few recommendations to get you started:

The widely acclaimed comedy-drama Kaaka Muttai explores class barriers, childhood, and family relations.

Romantic drama Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa is a bittersweet take on the classic Romeo-and-Juliet story. A Hindu Tamil and Malayali Christian fall in love, but their parents disapprove of the match. The couple are left to decide whether love is always worth it – even if it means sacrificing dreams as well as causing family friction.

The action thriller Yennai Arindhaal, from the same director as Vinnaithaandi Varuvaayaa, is widely praised for its compelling characterization of the hero and villain (although some people feel the first half dragged a little).

If you prefer TV series to movies, you might like the drama Queen. While officially entirely fictitious, it’s widely considered to tell the story of the late actress and Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa. In fact, the streaming service publishing it even paid for sponsored articles pushing the theory.

For something with more everyday language and a little less drama, try Pandian Stores, a show about four brothers, their wives, and their grocery store.

Looking for a different movie or show? Netflix doesn’t have a huge Kollywood range (although, like always with Netflix, what’s available will depend on which country you’re in). However, if you’ve already got a subscription, it’s worth checking what’s available. Pair it with Language Learning With Netflix, a Chrome extension that we think makes Netflix much more accessible.

News, Music, and Other Resources for Learning Tamil

Listening to music can be a fun way to increase your Tamil vocabulary and pick up new phrases. Don’t forget to make sure a phrase isn’t poetic license or formal Tamil before you use it in conversation, though! To discover Tamil bands you like, try listening to this Spotify playlist with over 1,100 Tamil songs from this century, or check out the Tamil music section of the Times of India.

Alternatively, to practice your Tamil while also staying up to date on current affairs, you can read the news. Since every news site will have its own editorial slant, it’s worth reading a few until you find one you like. Here are some suggestions:

As you read the news, you’ll likely find yourself reaching for the dictionary. If you’re at a computer, try searching in TamilDict or this online dictionary from the University of Cologne in Germany.

So, what are you waiting for? Try out Tamil Language in Context and Mango Languages, book an italki lesson, or order Colloquial Tamil.

Once you start learning Tamil, you’ll be surprised by how many opportunities you have to use it. Whether it’s reading the news, listening to science podcasts, or messaging people on Tandem, there’s plenty you can do in Tamil.

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