Pop quiz: What are the ten most spoken languages in the world?
If you had to name them—without Googling, consulting the Oracle at Wikipedia, or conferring with Siri—what would be on your list?
Chinese, definitely. English, almost certainly. You might think Arabic or Hindi. Spanish would probably be high on the list.
You’d be right on all counts.
But you’d be forgetting the language of over 228 million people: Bengali.
Bengali ranks among the top ten most spoken languages in the world. Known to its native speakers as Bangla, it’s the only national and official language of Bangladesh, where ethnic Bengali peoples comprise 98% of the population.
In India, it’s also spoken in the West Bengal state, as well as the states of Tripura and Assam. Among state-recognized regional languages in India, only Hindi has more speakers than Bengali. India’s national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana,” was originally written in Bengali.
About 85% of the people in West Bengal speak Bengali. Bengali plays an important role in Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal. Even so, only a little over half Kolkata’s population speaks Bengali. Hindi and English—India’s two official languages—dominate in that city.
There are some dialectical differences between the Bengali of India and that of Bangladesh. The Bengali of West Bengal is called “Western”; Bengali as it’s spoken in Bangladesh is the “Eastern” standard.
Aside from variations in spelling and diction, pronunciation differences clearly distinguish the two forms. Bengali speakers can revert to a more formal, neutrally-accented register of the language to be better understood by speakers from other regions.
Outside of India and Bangladesh, Bengali is spoken by immigrant populations in Europe, North America, the Middle East, and Asia. There are over 6.5 million Bangladeshis living outside of the Indian subcontinent. These immigrants, part of the Bangladeshi diaspora, live in countries as diverse as Malaysia and Germany, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
According to the U.S. Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute, Bengali is considered a Class III language…meaning that it has “significant linguistic and/or cultural differences from English.”
One major difference is word order. Bengali places its verbs either at or near the end of sentences. In English, verbs are usually somewhere in the middle—following the subject, and before the object.
In addition, verb negations go after the verb in Bengali. For example, to use Bengali-style word order in English, we’d say something like, “We this sentence understand not.” While this seems very odd at first, you can still figure out the meaning because you know all the words in the sentence. Even though the words appear jumbled up at first glance, you can still use logic and context to make sense of them.
Bengali, although different from English in many ways, also has the advantage of being a largely genderless language. Many English speakers trip over the concept of noun genders when studying languages such as French, Spanish, or German. Bengali has no concept of masculine, feminine, or neuter nouns, so you won’t have to worry about this issue. You also won’t have to learn adjective-noun gender agreement.
Unlike English, however, Bengali masculine and feminine pronouns are often the same. For example, the possessive pronoun for his and for her are the same word in Bengali. This is also true for he and she—although, interestingly, the Bengali words for him and her are different from each other.
Whatever differences Bengali may have compared to English, all human languages express certain universal concepts. Focus more on the concepts you’re trying to communicate and less on how “odd” the new language might sound to your ears.
With motivation and dedication, along with help from varied resources, you can certainly achieve a level of fluency in Bengali.
Expose yourself to the Bengali language in many contexts. Look at the letters. Regularly listen to the sounds, in speech and in music, even if you don’t understand them all yet. If you can think of Bengali not as strange or foreign, but simply as part of the normal way you express yourself, you will have overcome one of the biggest mental hurdles in language learning.
Learning Bengali requires commitment, consistency, and follow-through. However, it should also be fun.
The brain simply works better when you’re relaxed. Stress can short-circuit memory.
As long as you stay motivated, you will naturally process and remember new Bengali words and concepts more effectively when you’re enjoying the learning process.
Even if you haven’t started studying Bengali yet, you may recognize more words than you’d expect.
Bungalow, dinghy, jute, and tom-tom are notable examples of Bengali loan words. While Bengali has not imported very many words into English, several basic Bengali words are English-language imports.
Hungry? You might sit down in a cheyar at a ṭebil for a meal. On top of the ṭebil, you’ll find a glas of water and a kap of tea.
What if you don’t feel well? You could go to the haspatal to see a ḍaktar.
Once you graduate from skul in Bangladesh, you might continue your studies in Kolēj.
If you get sick of working at an ofish, you might decide to find an alternative income source by robbing a bank. Of course, if the pulish catch you, you’ll wind up in jel…wishing you had stayed in your cubicle at the ofish.
Bengali also has loan words from languages as diverse as Arabic, Portuguese, French, and Japanese. If you’re familiar with some of these other languages, you may spot several more loan words and cognates.
Just look out for false cognates, which are sometimes known as “false friends.” These are words that look and even sound the same as a word you know in English—but don’t mean the same thing at all.
Every language learner has an embarrassing story about desperately grabbing on to a false cognate in the midst of conversation, only to find out the hard way that the familiar-sounding word didn’t mean what they’d hoped. (Take it from someone who once asked for a recette (recipe) as a proof of purchase during a French conversation!)
Don’t let these incidents sap your confidence, even if they’re cringeworthy. The awkward moment that ensues will make you determined to find the correct Bengali word, and forever cement it into your memory.
Keeping a language journal can help you stay motivated and keep your Bengali studies on track. Important journal sections could include learning goals, grammar tips, a running list of the words you’ve learned, and tables of related words.
One section can be a diary you keep in Bengali, to the best of your ability. Sure, you might only be able to say simple things at first, like “Hello” or “Today is Monday.” Over time, though, you’ll have a visible record of how your knowledge of Bengali is growing.
Periodically review your older entries. This practice serves several purposes: It reminds you of words or concepts you may have forgotten, it helps you compare your goals to your progress, and it boosts your morale when you realize that you’ve learned more Bengali than you think.
Journaling about your Bengali-learning journey shouldn’t be a chore. Personalize the journal to your liking. Add images like pictures of the Bangladeshi countryside or street signs in Dhaka. Keep it colorful and make it a pleasure to use.
Especially when you first start learning Bengali, following the roadmap of structured language lessons can keep you grounded and lay a firm foundation for future learning.
There are many options for taking Bengali lessons. You might find them at a local community college or online. Several apps give you Bengali lessons on-the-go, usually in a less formal way than traditional classroom curriculum.
We’ll look into several options for Bengali courses and apps, as well as more immersive multimedia formats such as video lessons.
One way to familiarize yourself with the language is to partake of different types of media. From books to podcasts, movies to music, we’ll look at several entertaining and informative sources for Bengali language exposure.
Although several of these modalities can be considered passive learning—particularly audio and video recordings, which are not interactive by nature—you can become a more active listener or viewer by repeating phrases or taking notes as you listen and watch.
If you keep your ears open, repeated exposure to native Bengali speakers will attune you to the correct sounds of the language. Watching the expressions of speakers in videos will give you visual clues about the connotations of different words and expressions.
An essential part of learning any language is practicing conversation. By participating in Bengali conversations, you’ll strengthen your listening skills and gain confidence about expressing yourself in the language.
Admittedly, conversation can be one of the most intimidating parts about studying a language. Whether you’re a complete beginner or moving into the intermediate phase of learning, you’ll often feel unsure about your mastery of the language. You might feel like you’re leaving yourself open to ridicule by saying the wrong thing or speaking poorly.
However, if you want to become fluent in Bengali, there really is no substitute for speaking the language with others. Hours spent memorizing vocabulary, mastering grammar rules, or repeating phrases aloud to yourself can only prepare you so much.
It may feel like diving into the deep end of the pool without a life preserver when you barely know how to swim, but it’s crucial to take the plunge into conversation. Fortunately, there are resources for people to practice their newfound Bengali skills in a controlled environment. We’ll explore several options for finding conversation partners who will support your learning goals.
Using a combination of written, audio, and video resources, you can familiarize yourself with the Bengali alphabet and language. As you continue learning, you will slowly but steadily build your reading and listening comprehension.
If English is your native language, writing Bengali will take some getting used to.
Bengali is written using Bengali script, also called the Bengali alphabet (bangla bôrnômala). Bengali script descends from the Brahmic script family. In addition to representing written Bengali, the script is also used by several related languages, including Manipuri Bishnupriya (spoken in Manipur and Assam).
Although eleven of its fifty letters are technically vowels, Bengali script is an abugida. Also called an alphasyllabary, this is basically an alphabet in which vowels can be represented as diacritical or “accent” marks attached to consonants.
In essence, the consonants in this form of writing system have “built in” vowels. However, these vowels can have more than one pronunciation, and it’s sometimes unclear which vowel pronunciation should be used…if, indeed, the vowel should be pronounced at all.
Some of the consonant-vowel combinations form ligatures (or “conjunct letters”), connecting two or more letters together.
You may have seen similar scripts at your local Thai restaurant. Numerous other languages use them, including Ethiopian, Cree, and Tamil. Even certain forms of shorthand writing might be considered abugidas.
Bengali script lacks distinct capital or lowercase letters, so it can be difficult to pick out proper names. Like the Latin alphabet, though, it is written from left to right and runs horizontally across the page. At present, there is no single established transliteration for representing Bengali words phonetically in the Latin alphabet.
One of the easiest ways to start grasping Bengali letters and their pronunciations is to learn like a child. YouTube has a slew of Bengali alphabet videos made for children. This colorful alphabet video from ABC Learning School introduces each Bengali letter slowly. The letters are repeated and paired with a representative word and phrase.
The Banjonborno song from Kheyal Khushi uses a cartoon classroom to rapidly review each Bengali letter and an associated word. It goes fairly quickly, so it’s probably better for reinforcement than an initial introduction to the writing system.
If you prefer a more mature, scholarly approach, the RASILa raju Institute presents Learn Bengali Consonants Reading & Writing Through English.
Audiovisual resources like these videos will help you learn the look and sound of Bengali letters. To really internalize this knowledge, you’ll want to practice writing. There are a few useful texts on the market, such as Isaul Karim’s Learning Bengali Alphabet for English speakers: Teach yourself Bengali (Bangla) alphabet, which shows how to trace each letter step-by-step, gives examples of the sound it makes, and provides worksheets for you to trace the letters.
Scrap paper or notebooks can also be used to practice writing your Bengali letters. Another option is a drawing program on your phone or even a dry-erase board.
To practice typing in Bengali, check out this list of Bengali script word processors and typing tutors for Windows or Mac. You can also type in Bengali online without installing any software by using the Bangla Keyboard on Branah.com—or the Lexilogos Bengali Keyboard.
There are also several Bengali keyboard apps available for your mobile devices, such as Easy Bangla Keyboard and Bengali Keyboard 2020. Since most virtual keyboards don’t include the Bengali alphabet, installing one of these apps can help you with language learning exercises—as well as chatting and texting in Bengali.
If you start learning Bengali with a formal language course, the alphabet should be one of the first topics covered. It never hurts to have these additional resources for reinforcement and review, though.
ILanguages offers free Bengali lessons for beginners. (The site refers to the language exclusively as “Bangla,” so don’t search for “Bengali!”) The vocabulary focuses on some of the most common words and phrases used in the language, so that you can quickly boost your comprehension.
The words and phrases are presented in both written and audio form. The sound quality for the audio can be a bit tinny, but most of the clips are clear enough to understand. There are also a few grammar examples and lists of pronouns, adverbs, and possessives.
ILanguages has quizzes and over two hundred interactive flashcards to help you test your Bengali knowledge. Although the flashcards show both the Bengali script and the phonetic version of the word, the quizzes use only the phonetics.
The ILanguages site isn’t fancy and feels like a flashback to the Nineties, but it’s a good way to dip your toe in the water.
The Peace Corps has a free introductory Bengali course that includes an extensive section on the alphabet…even delving into the technicalities of Bengali phonetics. If you like to get deep into distinctions of trills, aspirations, nasals, and spirants, you’ll appreciate the level of detail in the Alphabet section.
About a third of the way into the curriculum are sixteen lessons covering topics such as greetings, numbers, food, and family. After the section on the alphabet and its pronunciation, the lessons are primarily conversation-based, with little or no grammar. Most of the lessons have dialogues, which are both read aloud and written phonetically and in standard Bengali—and also translated into English.
You can download the Peace Corps Bengali course, which is hosted on the Live Lingua Project site. Each of the accompanying audio files must be downloaded separately, which is a bit tedious. A browser plugin such as Down Them All! can expedite this process by letting you grab all ten audio files at once.
50 Languages has a free online Bengali course with 100 lessons. The lessons correspond to levels A1 and A2 in the Council of Europe’s Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), a major standard for assessing knowledge of a given language.
Audio recordings by a male and female native speaker give you the chance to hear each word or phrase two times in different vocal registers, which can sometimes make it easier to hear certain nuances. The written component includes an English translation, the original Bengali script, and a phonetic transliteration. You can hide or reveal parts of the phonetic version to help you rely more on the Bengali script, and the text size for the entire page is adjustable—perfect for zooming in on those Bengali characters so you can see the details better.
The 50 Languages course allows you to download all the audio as MP3s for offline use; however, the written material is not included. Another option is to use the 50 Languages app to take their Bengali course on your Android or iOS device.
Mango Languages takes its typical conversation-based approach to break down basic Bengali into bite-sized lessons. It distinguishes between formal and informal language…and is often a good source of casual language and slang.
As you work your way through the Mango Languages Bengali lessons, you’ll have the opportunity to see, hear, and speak with introductory Bengali conversations. The lessons use repetition and modular language components to teach you how to build sentences. For instance, you will first be introduced to an entire phrase, such as “What is your name?”. You will then learn each word in the phrase, and afterwards practice putting the component words together in different combinations.
Mango Languages also intersperses grammar points and cultural tidbits, so you can get more of a well-rounded understanding of what you’re learning. Like the 50 Languages course, it’s also available for iOS and Android. Since many public libraries sponsor Mango Languages subscriptions for their patrons, there’s a good chance you can enjoy these lessons for free.
Glossika is also a good way to force yourself to speak the language. It’s a bit on the pricey side and lacks instruction in grammar. However, the design of the course will help you to absorb the language in a more natural manner, much the way you might have done if you’d learned Bengali as a child.
Here are a few apps that can get you started with your Bengali-learning adventure.
A purple hippo leads you through categorized vocabulary in Alter Gyan’s Learn Bengali Quickly app, available for both iOS and Android users. Besides taking you through the basics of the Bengali alphabet, this app includes flashcards, quizzes, native speaker audio, and a recording feature so you can hear and evaluate your own Bengali-speaking attempts. You can mark favorite words and phrases or use the search feature to quickly find needed words.
Simya Solutions’ Learn Bengali Language with Master Ling app will take you from beginner to intermediate-advanced level Bengali. With 200 dialogues, grammar tips, quizzes, and an interactive chatbot, Master Ling will help you with mastering Bangla.
Memrise steps up to the plate with about thirty Bengali courses, covering topics from the Bengali alphabet to pronouns, verb conjugations, colors, and even words for fruit. Some of the courses only give you the phonetic versions of the Bengali words; others write them properly in the Bengali alphabet. Depending on your learning goals and your current study level, you may choose to hold off on the courses that only use phonetic writing.
As always with Memrise, the quality and features can vary from course to course, as will the number of words presented. For instance, the Colors course only teaches eight words—and there’s no Bengali script or audio to teach you to properly write or pronounce these words.
If you’re just starting out, Memrise’s Bangla 100: Basic Bangla/Bengali Phrases course is a particularly good choice. It showcases words and phrases written in the Bengali alphabet, with phonetic transliterations. The sound quality is a bit muffled, but generally clear. This course doesn’t require typing—and a lot of the review only uses the phonetics. Still, it’s a good way to start absorbing basic phrases and vocabulary.
Like Memrise, uTalk is a good way to learn fundamental, set phrases. And the uTalk app includes native pronunciations for the phrases you’ll study. Unfortunately, there’s not much in the way of syntax or grammar—so you’ll come away being able to parrot basic Bengali and maybe travel survival phrases, but not really learn to hold a conversation in Bengali.
To go beyond pre-programmed lessons and move on to interaction with other Bengali speakers and learners, an app such as HelloTalk can facilitate finding texting and chatting partners.
As you start to interact more with native Bengali speakers, you’ll find that you have a greater need to understand how the language is used in the real world. The HiNative app provides a forum to ask native Bengali speakers tricky questions about usage. There are both free and paid tiers. A built-in translation feature gives you some support if your Bengali level isn’t quite ready for prime time.
For live conversation training, both Speaky and Tandem can help you progress. These apps work to pair you with a language exchange partner. You might help your partner improve their English as they help you with your Bengali. Both apps have a large community of speakers, but your free options on each are limited. There are tiered membership levels at different price points that will open you up to more language-learning opportunities.
● Dive into Bengali drama, poetry, and interviews with the I speak bangla podcast.
● Rifat Islam Rupok’s Podcast brings humor to everyday life, from the perspective of a geeky guy from Bangladesh.
Once you’ve mastered the Bengali alphabet and started to build your storehouse of vocabulary, consider practicing your reading skills with Bengali books.
Start small with children’s books. Language Lizard specializes in bilingual books for young learners. With over seventy Bengali-English selections, you can choose from all sorts of adventures and legendary tales. Many are stories from around the world, such as Pied Piper (Germany), Three Billy Goats Gruff (Norway), and The Children of Lir (Ireland). The bilingual text will save you from reaching for the dictionary when you stumble over a word in Bengali; as you learn more, you can cover over the English-language portion of the page to test yourself.
Textbooks can help you make the transition from Bengali novice to mid-level learner. Here are a few choices to get you started.Colloquial Bengali: The Complete Course for Beginners focuses mainly on conversation. The book introduces you to the Bengali language, explores some of its characteristics, and then thoroughly explains the sounds of the language. Through the online audio tie-ins, indicated by a headphones icon, you can hear the spoken language.
Unlike some learning methods, Colloquial Bengali teaches you the phonetic representations of Bengali words first, then progresses to Bengali script. The book also contains dialogues and vocab lists, which revert back to using phoneticized versions in the Latin alphabet. However, the book includes a glossary that matches the phonetic versions of words to the Bengali script, as well as the English translations.
When you want to move on to intermediate and advanced textbooks, you can take advantage of some free online resources. The Bangla Books PDF site offers free textbooks from Bangladesh’s National Curriculum and Textbook Board. You can read these PDFs online in your browser or download them for offline use. They cover many topics, such as science, mathematics, religion, and global studies.
BD eBooks hosts a collection of Bengali books in many genres, including novels, horror, sci-fi, information technology, and history. Bengali translations of books from other languages, such as Plato’s Republic, C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras (Voyages et aventures du capitaine Hatteras), are also available. These no-cost ebooks can be read online or downloaded as PDFs.
The Kheyal Khusi – Bangla Rhymes channel on YouTube features almost fifty Bengali videos for kids, with many recently added. While some may find them a bit juvenile, these videos—like children’s books—can be a particularly helpful resource for language learners who are still mastering basic concepts in the target language. With lots of humor and energy, they have a fun factor that makes learning lighthearted. Even if you’re following a more serious Bengali study program, it can’t hurt to break up your routine with a little whimsy.
Bengali language tutor Rasel Ahmed Raju breaks down the basics with an extensive series of video language lessons for beginners and intermediate learners. These lessons cover common phrases and topical conversations. As you progress, you can delve deeper into grammatical topics like verb conjugation, forming interrogative sentences, and using adjectives correctly.
Education World’s Learn Bengali video provides over 90 minutes of basic words and phrases dealing with subjects like greetings, clothing, food, emergencies, numbers, and family members. A basic drawing represents each concept or category. Each word or phrase is presented first in English and then repeated twice in Bengali, with a phonetic representation near the bottom of the screen.
From the realm of fiction, you can get entertainment and learning in one package with channels such as Bengali Fairy Tales, which shows an English-language translation for the Bengali audio. For more advanced learners, the Jibonto Animation channel offers horror and ghost stories, completely in Bengali.
Beyond lessons, courses, books, and apps, you’ll find numerous other tools for learning Bengali. Mix them up to spice up your Bengali learning experience and expose yourself to the language used in different registers and contexts.
One tried-and-true method for reviewing vocabulary is using flashcards. Bengali Flashcards: 800 Important Bengali-English and English-Bengali Flash Cards can be purchased as a Kindle ebook. If you have Kindle Unlimited, you can enjoy this resource as part of your monthly plan. The flashcards are divided into groups of one hundred. Phrases and words are used in context on the flashcards, so you can better understand the nuances and connotations.
To build your own flashcard sets that you can review on your smartphone, turn to Anki. This fully customizable flashcard wizard can handle multiple character sets and even images, making it a fantastic tool for creating your own Bengali flashcards.
The Master Any Language site features word-matching games in categories such as days of the week, animals, foods, family, adjectives, and common phrases. There are also flashcards, tests, and other resources to help you learn basic Bengali.
Some words are paired with sound clips; you can also run the games in silent mode. In a few cases, the Bengali words will be written only in the Latin alphabet (transliterated), although they’re usually written in both Bengali script and the Latin phonetic version. There’s a limited amount of vocabulary for each category, but it can be helpful for beginners who want to master simple words and phrases.
If you’re looking for one-on-one Bengali learning, try a site like italki to pair off with a tutor to meet your needs. The site acts as a broker to help you find a tutor in your price range who can work with your schedule and learning goals.
Radio streaming site Live Online Radio conveniently aggregates several Bengali stations. All it takes is a simple click to start livestreaming Bengali broadcasts.
Privately owned Radio Bhumi runs 24/7. In addition to adult contemporary music, Radio Bhumi broadcasts news and sports programs. Its cricket coverage is well-appreciated by listeners. According to the station’s website, part of the station’s mission is to “introduce the roots of Bengali culture and songs properly,” and to “present standard Bengali language correctly.” This might make it a particularly good resource for learners at a beginning-to-intermediate level.
Youth-oriented Jago FM has pop hits and a line-up of programs such as early-morning Hi Dhaka, afternoon show Daily Dose, and ghostly late-night offering Bhoot Studio. Its broadcast hours are limited, however.
Dhaka FM broadcasts adult contemporary and pop with a traditional Bengali twist. Beyond music, the station offers some talk programs like Wake Up Bangladesh.
If you’re looking for Bengali more as it’s spoken and sung in India, check out the variety of Bengali stations on the OnlineRadioFM.in website. If you have trouble streaming any of the stations, you might try a different browser. (I couldn’t get streaming to work for these on the Google Chrome browser, but Mozilla Firefox and Microsoft Edge worked just fine.)
Music and talk radio are fantastic language-learning resources. Even the advertisements, which you might tune out while listening to programming in your native language, can give you insights into commonly used words and colloquial expressions…as well as glimpses into Bengali consumer culture.
If you’re not a fan of radio programs, Bengali music can also be found on sources like Last FM, categorized by artist and genre.
Indian music site Gaana lets you save favorite songs and compile personal playlists of Bengali music, although you’ll need to create an account before you can enter the site. (You can also use your Facebook or Google account credentials to log in.)
Music India Online makes it easy to search for Bengali music by genre, decade, album, artist, or mood. Go back to the 1940s for the musical nostalgia of yesteryear or listen to hits from the new millennium.
No matter what your motivation for learning Bengali or your learning goals, you’ll find that your knowledge of the language will be more well-rounded if you take advantage of multiple resources. Be patient with yourself as you learn.
Don’t overdo your studying; it’s better to do a short session every day than to cram for hours.
Just keep studying consistently. Soon, you’ll be able confidently say, “হ্যাঁ, আমি বাংলা বলতে পারি।” (“Yes, I can speak Bengali.”)