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.
Since one of the hardest things about learning Malayalam is finding good resources, we’ve taken a look at the best courses, apps, textbooks, and more. Plus, we’ve listed some great movies, podcasts, and novels 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.
Table of Contents
- A Quick Introduction to the Malayalam Language
- How Difficult is Malayalam?
- How to Learn Malayalam
- Resources for Learning Malayalam
- Learn the Malayalam Script
- Online Malayalam Classes and Language Exchanges
- Malayalam Language Courses: Online, App-Based & Audio
- Malayalam Vocabulary Builders and Word Games
- Malayalam Textbooks and Reference Books
- Music, News, and Other Resources for Learning Malayalam
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 through 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.
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
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.
Tea gardens in Munnar, Western Ghats, Kerala. Credit: Vivek Kumar
We’ll look at a large range of online classes, courses, apps, textbooks, podcasts, YouTube channels, movies, and more 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:
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.
A Kathakali performance in Kochi. Credit: Mayur Nair
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
Some people like to learn from a textbook. Others prefer apps, or 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.
Courses, apps, textbooks, online classes, podcasts, videos: there are plenty of options out there for learning Malayalam, whether you’re in Kerala, Dubai, or New York.
Even if you’re not planning to read novels or write emails in Malayalam, you’ll still need to learn the script. After all, how else are you going to understand a bus timetable, read a map, or work out how much your shopping costs?
While some courses teach you the Malayalam script, others will expect you to already know it. And besides, you’ll likely benefit from some extra exercises to help you memorize all the different symbols. Luckily, there are a few workbooks and apps that will help you out.
Malayalam Alphabet: Practice Workbook by Lissy J. Kunnathu and John D. Kunnathu breaks down stroke order and direction. We like how the exercises ask you to write the alphabet smaller as the weeks go by.
However, you’ll need to pair this workbook with another resource to learn the pronunciation: there are written descriptions, but this won’t compensate for not having heard them. Also, you’ll never get to practice writing the symbols independently, so you could overestimate the quality of your handwriting.
With Malayalam Alphabet Tracing Book, you can trace the symbol the first five times, but then you’re expected to do it independently. It doesn’t explain stroke order or direction, but it does help you understand positioning and alignment. While designed for children, we think adults could also benefit from using it alongside the Kunnathus’ book.
Malayalam Letter Tracing: Learn to write Malayalam Aksharamala Alphabets by Mamma Margaret is a child-friendly book with fun illustrations, but it actually provides less support in writing the scripts than the other options.
Malayalam Aksharamala is designed for children, but we think it’s also a pretty good option for adults. It clearly shows stroke direction, although number and order are a bit more ambiguous. It will also test you on your ability to distinguish the symbols, although the games are pretty basic and childish.
We wouldn’t waste our time with Malayalam Alphabets Audio or Malayalam Smart Slate from BigKnol, unless you’re using them alongside a workbook. We don’t think either of them will teach you how to write or recognize the script.
A driver stops for a break in Kanchiyar, Kerala. Credit: AJITH S
No matter how much you study from a textbook or use an app, the best way to practice spoken Malayalam is with other people. And that’s where online classes and language exchanges come into play.
italki is the most well-known online classes marketplace, which allows it to be pretty competitive: it has several Malayalam tutors for you to choose from, and prices are relatively low. At the time of publishing, however, all teachers are “Community Tutors,” which means they’re not actually qualified teachers. Still, you can’t call them inexperienced: some have thousands of classes under their belt.
While we’re not overly impressed with italki’s payment processing options, we’re a big fan of the app. It gives you access to community features including a forum and community corrections on your Malayalam. Unfortunately, you might find there’s a shortage of people able to give you feedback.
AmazingTalker also has a small selection of Malayalam teachers. The platform claims it has a “rigorous selection process,” and it’s true that teachers tend to be highly reviewed, but they also accept teachers without qualifications.
Kochi, Kerala. Credit: Vickson D
TeacherOn has by far and away the greatest variety of Malayalam teachers. However, many of the teachers are unreviewed, meaning it can be hard to choose between them or get an insight into other students’ experiences. You may have to pay to contact teachers.
Justlearn offers subscription-based Malayalam classes, allowing you to sign up for two, four, or six classes a month. Bear in mind that the lessons are only 25-minutes long and the prices are the same across all languages. This means it works out pricier on average than other platforms. We haven’t yet had a chance to try out Justlearn and see if that adds up to higher-quality teaching, but around half the subscription fee goes to the platform rather than the teachers.
If you’re looking for online classes specifically designed for children, you might like the Bangalore-based Akshharam. They offer both group and private online classes and post the learning materials to your house beforehand. However, they don’t state if they will send them internationally.
Using online classes to ask questions.
Looking for someone to correct your Malayalam or answer a quick question? You need community feedback. In addition to the italki Community feedback features we mentioned under Online Classes, a small number of apps and websites also facilitate this.
Just remember to give as much to the community as you take out. Stick around, and answer a question or two, if you can.
LangCorrect is a newer platform that lets you share texts you’ve written for review. You might struggle to find other Malayalam speakers, but hopefully, as the number of users grows it will get easier.
The Malayalam sub on Reddit isn’t designed for language learners, but people are generally happy to answer questions there.
Ready to throw yourself into the deep end and start socializing in Malayalam? It’s time for a language exchange.
You could try a language exchange app, like Tandem (reviewed here), HelloTalk (reviewed here), or Speaky (reviewed here). You’ll benefit from being connected with language learners from around the world, so it doesn’t matter if you live in rural Idaho or the Isles of Scilly: you can still chat with a Malayalam speaker. There are significant differences between these apps, however, so check out the reviews and our comparison of HelloTalk and Tandem to help you choose between them.
Alternatively, try an in-person language exchange. You might be able to find a Malayalam exchange on MeetUp, or you could start your own group. If that doesn’t appeal, head to a general language exchange to see if a Malayalam speaker turns up, or browse Facebook groups near you.
Just remember: if you’re meeting up with strangers, be sensibly cautious. Meet up in a public place, leave if you feel uncomfortable, and don’t feel pressured to give out your contact details.
Arriving early for a language exchange at Varia Café, Thiruvananthapuram. Credit: Anubhav Shekhar
You won’t find Malayalam on Rosetta Stone, Busuu, or Babbel, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t online courses.
For beginner and lower-intermediate students, the Mango Languages course and app will quickly get you making your own sentences in Malayalam. We like its heavy focus on speaking, listening, and pronunciation. You can record yourself and lay the audio over that of a native speaker, making it easier to spot where your pronunciation isn’t quite right. However, you’ll need to use an alternative resource to practice reading and writing.
Looking for something like Duolingo? Try Ling. This gamified app is fun and varied, and also offers speaking and writing exercises. We like its native-speaker audio, which is generally far better than Duolingo’s computerized text-to-speech audio.
Alternatively, you might like Memrise, another Duolingo-esque app. While there isn’t an official Malayalam course on Memrise, there are several community-made ones. Most of them are designed for beginners. We think using Memrise is an effective way to memorize words and phrases, although we recommend using it as a supplementary resource alongside Mango Languages or Ling. It’s unlikely to get you confidently making your own sentences.
Formal Malayalam conversations on Ling.
Instant Immersion bills itself as a budget Rosetta Stone. It comes with workbooks, MP3 files, and computer software. We’re normally not a fan of Instant Immersion’s products, as we feel that they can be pricey and that there are better options available for most languages. They’re also a tad dated. However, if you would prefer a course that you can buy outright rather than a subscription, the Instant Immersion Malayalam courses may be worth looking at. The website promises a 90-day money-back refund if you’re not satisfied.
You’ll also find at least one Malayalam course on the course marketplace Udemy (although they may be incorrectly categorized as Malay language courses). Since Udemy just hosts the courses, all of which are made by individual teachers, the course quality and content can vary. Check out the preview videos, syllabus, and reviews before adding a course to your cart. It’s also probably worth waiting for a sale before buying.
If you’re looking for something for children, you could try Malayalam Mission’s online course, which is designed to teach kids aged 9–16 listening, reading, and writing. It adopts the theme of a child who lives outside of India visiting her grandparents in Kerala. The course and website are entirely in Malayalam, which can make navigating it tricky. To register, click the green button on this webpage and fill out the detailed form.
You can also download the Malayalam Mission app (Google Play, App Store) without registering to access the textbooks, as well as some supplementary resources. Studying via the app, however, might require the help of a parent or teacher – especially if you or your child is a complete beginner. It doesn’t use any English and expects you to be able to read the Malayalam script.
Some courses aren’t worth your time. They teach you incorrect Malayalam or leave you demotivated and frustrated thanks to their poor structure. Here are some that we would use with caution.
We think the freemium app Bluebird Languages is generally a fairly decent supplementary option for learning a language. It’s also the closest we could find to a Pimsleur alternative for Malayalam. However, we’ve noticed major grammatical errors for languages that tend to be under-resourced and under-funded, as well as odd word choices. If you’re tempted by this app, we would suggest asking a Malayalam teacher to take a look at it first.
As for Cudoo, we would steer clear of this online course. When we tried it out, we found it completely ineffective at teaching a language. It offers no explanations, has barely any content, and yet somehow still overwhelms you by asking complete beginners to memorize 14-word phrases with very little relevance. If we’re honest, it feels like someone took a phrase list, made a basic PowerPoint presentation, and stuck a price tag on it.
Combining textbooks and online courses for a productive study session.
All courses and textbooks include some vocabulary, yet they rarely teach you enough. Studying extra words and phrases can help you express yourself on more topics and with greater depth. It can also be the difference between participating in a conversation or listening in silence, thinking about the anecdote you’d like to share… if only you knew how to say “porch.”
The pay-to-use app uTalk will teach you words and phrases for everything from asking for directions and going shopping through to maintaining military peace and natural disasters. It has a variety of games to help you drill the new material, including ones where you record yourself speaking. If you’re a perfectionist, however, this might not be the tool for you: it can be surprisingly hard to get 100% on all the games.
Learn Malayalam Quickly is a free alternative to uTalk, although it teaches you a more limited range of phrases and has a smaller variety of practice drills. Our favorite thing about this app is that you can learn Malayalam phrases through numerous Indian, European, and East Asian languages, including Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati, Punjabi, Marathi, Kannada, Bengali, and Telugu.
The website Language Reef has some basic word lists and simple games to help you drill them. However, it doesn’t have audio files.
Learn Malayalam Grammar has several word lists organized by grammatical function. This website also provides brief grammar explanations and some exercises, although we think it works best as a vocabulary builder rather than a course or grammar guide. All the grammatical topics are pretty basic.
Drilling Malayalam words on uTalk, which teaches Malayalam phrases through several different languages.
Tamil speakers might like Learn Malayalam through Tamil. This app sets out to teach you 175 Malayalam words and 150 Malayalam sentences, all with Tamil translations. It doesn’t use the Malayalam script.
The website Languages Home has a short Malayalam word list, complete with native audio files.
According to the authors, the Learn Malayalam Audio Book contains 500 Malayalam phrases. We haven’t had a chance to try it and would be hesitant to do so, given how many alternatives there are. The MP3 files are pretty pricey, and the website is dated.
Guruvayoor Market, Kerala. Credit: Ganesh Partheeban
Whether you want to find better ways to memorize the vocabulary in the apps and word lists above, or you simply want to create personalized word lists, sometimes there’s no better option than making your own flash cards.
You might prefer pen-and-paper ones, especially if you find writing things out helps you remember them. Alternately, app-based flash cards are easier to carry around with you, and sometimes you can add audio files, images, and photos to them.
With Anki, you can create your own flash card decks or use someone else’s, if they’ve shared it with the community. For example, this deck will help you drill the Malayalam script and pronunciation. We’re a fan of how Anki adapts to how difficult you find the flash cards. If a word or phrase is more challenging, you’ll see it more frequently. As you start to find it easy, it will come up less often.
With Readlang, you won’t even have to make the flash cards. This Google Chrome extension will translate words for you as you read and save the most common ones to flash card decks that you can drill later. The free version of Readlang is decent, but we also consider the premium one to be a good investment.
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.”
Drilling Malayalam grammar with textbooks.
If you’re a more audiovisual learner, YouTube videos can be a great way to supplement your Malayalam courses and classes. Even though the teaching quality tends to be lower, the material is free.
Fluent in Malayalam has playlists for grammar, slang, vocabulary, and more. Some of their videos will teach you Malayalam through Hindi, but most teach Malayalam through English. The audio quality could be better, however.
Learn Malayalam with EliKutty is regularly updated and has lots of helpful content. Her One Minute Malayalam series is a short-and-sweet option for picking up different ways to say “no” or “because,” how to make conditional sentences, and more. The content can seem unstructured, so it’s not ideal for complete beginners.
NoNa TV has basic children’s Malayalam lessons. Although they’re designed for children, we found their videos quite dull. A lot of them use Malayalam to teach, so complete beginners might struggle.
Ready to challenge yourself with videos designed for fluent speakers? We’ve got some suggestions of kids’ shows hosted on YouTube in the Malayalam Movies and TV section.
Sailing into the sunset at Munroe Island, Kerala. Credit: Marieke Weller
Want to practice your listening with a topic that you find interesting? You need a Malayalam-language podcast. Not only is it good listening practice, but you’ll glean insights into Malayali culture and pick up new vocabulary.
Use the Storiyoh app to discover new podcasters, or check out some of these ones:
The Malayali Malayalam podcast features interviews with Malayalis around the world. At just 5–20 minutes per episode, it’s easy to find the time for one.
kaecawdo takes a deep dive into current affairs, technology, and culture. Recent episodes are 45–60 minutes long, but if you haven’t got much time, check out the earlier ones – they’re much shorter.
Dream Malayalam Podcast also focuses on current affairs and cultures. Episodes range from 30–75 minutes long.
Interested in the crossroads of science, feminism, and the environment? Try Salosa Varthamanangal. More than half the episodes are shorter than 10 minutes.
Malayalam Podcast on Psychology and Mental Health might tackle heavy topics, but the short episode lengths make this a fairly accessible podcast.
Listening to Malayalam podcasts while on the go. Credit:
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.
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.
Checking books out of the library.
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 childrens’ 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.
Alternatively, 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.
Netflix and study with Malayalam movies.
Music won’t replace flash cards 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 for 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 flash card 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.
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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