Your One-Stop Guide to Learning 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.

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

To help you get started with your Tamil studies, we’ve recommended dozens of Tamil classes, courses, apps, podcasts, YouTube lessons, textbooks, and more. There are resources for complete beginners all the way through to advanced Tamil speakers. We’ve also looked at how difficult Tamil really is and how to practice using it in your everyday life.

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 a 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 Difficult Is Tamil?

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.

How to Learn Tamil

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.

Resources for Learning Tamil

Even though Tamil might not be as popular a language to learn as Spanish or Mandarin, there are still lots of resources. From classes and courses to podcasts, movies, and YouTube channels, let’s look at some of the options out there.

How to Learn the Tamil Script and Pronunciation

You won’t get far without knowing how to read, write, and pronounce Tamil words. At some point, you’ll need to understand bus timetables or write a Facebook message.

This 18-module Tamil script course hosted by the University of Texas breaks down the alphabet clearly and comprehensively. Each module also has a downloadable set of exercises, while the hard-to-find handwriting worksheets will help you with your writing. Despite that, this course is best used with a teacher or to support another script-learning method. There are no audio recordings to support the pronunciation guides.

In fact, you might find it pairs well with Noolagam. This website, designed for kids, is light on explanation but contains audio clips of the Tamil characters along with additional worksheets and some flashcards. It will also teach you numbers and basic vocabulary.

TamilCube is another option for learning the Tamil script and numbers. Each character is accompanied by one or two English words that contain the same sound, making the pronunciation more accessible.

You could find yourself wishing for greater explanation than TamilCube gives you, however. For example, யீ is compared to yield and employee – but not only are these different phonemes, but they also sound different depending on your accent. Similarly, the graphics designed to help you write characters aren’t always the best depiction of the strokes.

Looking for something you can use on your phone? Try the freemium app Tamil101, in which you use your fingers to trace the letters on your screen and then receive a score out of 100.

Online Tamil Classes and Language Exchanges

Language Classes

A teacher can break down tricky concepts in a more accessible way, as well as giving you personalized feedback, checking your homework, and making sure your studies are structured.

If you’ve got a local Tamil temple, it’s worth checking there first. Some of them offer free language classes. However, if you don’t live near a temple or your local one doesn’t offer any classes, you’ve still got a few options.

italki was one of the first websites connecting language students with online tutors, and it remains one of the biggest today. You’ll find several Tamil teachers there, all with their own teaching methods and prices. We also like italki’s community features, although you can only access them on the app. These include a forum, posts, and exercises – a way to upload your writing or a voice recording and get free feedback.

Preply, one of italki’s competitors, also has a good selection of Tamil teachers. However, we felt that their teachers should be better compensated, and you have to purchase at least five lessons with a specific teacher (after the trial lesson). It’s not our favorite platform for finding tutors.

iLearnTamil has a structured Tamil syllabus and, just like with the other platforms, you can book classes to suit your schedule. While italki and Preply require students to be at least 18, iLearnTamil offers classes for all ages.

Verbal Planet has a handful of Tamil teachers. It takes a fairly structured approach, with each teacher giving you detailed feedback on your speaking, listening, reading, and writing after the class.

Verbling also has a small section of Tamil teachers. We like the classroom platform and the payment processing options.

Unlike the other sites, Learner Circle doesn’t offer private classes. However, it does have group Tamil classes for children.

Community Feedback

Sometimes, you think you’ve understood something, but you want to double-check. Or perhaps there’s something that your dictionary just can’t explain. That’s where the community-feedback apps come into play.

HiNative lets you post and answer questions. Although we found that some questions weren’t entirely relevant, we think it’s a useful language-learning resource.

LangCorrect lets you upload your writing, receive community corrections, and correct other people’s work. We love the concept, but it’s still quite new so sometimes you might struggle to get corrections. Hopefully, the number of Tamil users will keep growing.

Language Exchanges

Want to improve your spoken or written fluency, make friends, or simply put your Tamil into practice? Try a language exchange.

Some of the most popular language exchange apps include HelloTalk, Speaky, and Tandem. We’ve reviewed them all (HelloTalk, Speaky, Tandem) and also compared HelloTalk and Tandem to help you choose between them.

Depending on where you live, you might also find an in-person language exchange. MeetUp boasts over a dozen Tamil groups around the world, not to mention general language exchange groups where you might meet Tamil speakers. You can also set up your own groups. Or, if you can’t find anything on MeetUp, you might have better luck with Facebook groups.

Just remember to be sensibly cautious with in-person meetups: meet in public spaces, don’t feel pressured to give out your contact details, and remember that no matter how friendly the group members are, they’re still strangers.

Online and App-Based Tamil Language Courses

Although you won’t find Tamil on Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Babbel, or Busuu, you’ve still got a good selection of courses to choose from.

Tamil Language in Context is a free 12-unit course that’s suitable even for absolute beginners. It’s designed to provide two years of study, during which you’ll practice your listening, reading, writing, and grammar. To make this possible, each unit is broken down into lessons, exercises, and readings. The lessons contain a Tamil-language video conversation, the script and its translation, grammar notes, further exercises, and cultural notes (although some of the later units are missing material).

Once you’ve learned the Tamil script, you might like the Mango Languages courses. They’re designed to get you building your own Tamil sentences straight away and have a heavy focus on speaking and listening. This is particularly helpful if you understand Tamil fairly well but struggle to speak in conversation. We think they’re best for beginner and lower-intermediate speakers, but you’ll probably want to use it alongside something that will also help you work on your reading and writing (such as Tamil Language in Context).

If you’d like to drill your grammar, Tamil Virtual Academy has a free 81-lesson video course. With many of the videos lasting for 20–30 minutes, there’s plenty to get stuck into. Your teacher, Prof. T.B. Siddalingaiah, takes you through everything from the Tamil alphabet through to transitive and intransitive verbs, the imperative, and verb participles. It seems particularly good for beginner and lower intermediate students.

Web Assisted Learning and Teaching of Tamil (WALTT), from the University of Pennsylvania, is actually the predecessor to Tamil Language in Context. What’s nice about it is that you can download a lot of the materials in PDF form – perfect for if you’re more of a pen-and-paper learner. They also have some handy guides to topics such as email Tamil and Tamil grammar.

If you’re looking for a Duolingo-style app, Ling could be worth trying out. This gamified app is low on grammatical explanations, but we found it a fun and effective way to learn beginner-level material. It also has some limited speaking exercises, which make it stand out from most phone apps.

Memrise doesn’t have an official Tamil course but there are several community-made ones on everything from conjunctions to flower names. You’ll also find ones designed to accompany other courses, such as this one for Tamil Language in Context. You can find out more about how Memrise works in our detailed review here, but bear in mind that community-made courses can vary dramatically in terms of the content and quality.

Bluebird Languages reminded us of Pimsleur, although it doesn’t seem as organized. You’ll learn Tamil by repeating key phrases and words, which seem to have been recorded by a native speaker.

You’ll also find a lot of Tamil courses on Udemy. Each course is created by a different teacher, so the style and quality will vary. Pay attention to the reviews before purchasing any courses. Since Udemy is notorious for its frequent sales, it may also be worth waiting a few weeks to see if a course will be discounted before you purchase it at the full price.

Language Courses to Avoid

Not all courses are worth your time or money. Here are some that we recommend avoiding.

Instant Immersion sells itself as a Rosetta Stone competitor, but it seems unstructured and we feel that it would be ineffective.

When we tried out 17 Minute Languages, we came across numerous mistranslations. What’s more, sometimes the introduced vocabulary lacked context to the point of being misleading.

In our experience, not only is Transparent Language a dull and monotonous course, but it fails to teach you how to build or understand sentences – something essential for everyday conversation.

As for Cudoo, it ties for the infamous position of being the lowest-ranked resource on our site. We only gave it 0.6/5, because frankly, it felt like someone took a short word list, turned it into a PowerPoint presentation, and put a $24.99 price tag on it. Not only is the course disappointingly sparse but it’s almost impossible to understand some of the phrases due to the lack of context with which they were introduced. We don’t believe you’ll be able to speak or understand any conversational Tamil after completing the course.

We also came across a few recommendations for Tamil Digest’s courses. However, we struggled to sign up to them, with the activation email telling us that our user profile didn’t exist and the subscribe button not working. Plus, despite the course seeming to be a paid-for one, the site isn’t HTTPS secure. While we can’t comment on the quality of the course material, we would stay clear.

Tamil Vocabulary Builders and Word Games

Expanding your vocabulary will help you express yourself more precisely, talk about a wider range of topics, and avoid that frustrating moment when you can’t answer a question because you didn’t understand நரி (“fox,” by the way).

If you’re just going for a quick trip, you might like uTalk. This phrasebook app will get you memorizing key words and phrases on topics from shopping and ordering in a restaurant to disaster relief volunteering and maintaining military peace. While the phrases aren’t always exactly how a native speaker would say them, in our experience, you’ll be able to make yourself understood.

Learn Tamil Quickly (only available on Android) is similar to uTalk, although it has a more limited selection of phrases and the practice drills are less varied. In its favor, however, is the ability to learn Tamil phrases from a range of common languages across India, Europe, and East Asia, including Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Gujarati, Marathi, and Telugu.

Simply Learn Tamil is from the same company that launched Ling, the app-based course we recommended in the last section. If you have to choose between the two, we would go for Ling. Both apps are paid-for, but Ling will also get you practicing your speaking.

Movie geeks might like Sublearning. It presents you with several lines from iconic movies and then gets you to translate them. We’re not convinced that it’s the most effective way to drill phrases, but it can be fun.

If you’re looking for something suitable for a young child, you might be tempted by Learn Tamil Easily. It has bright, simplistic images, often of children. We’d use a bit of parental guidance, however. Once you get past the alphabet and basic words, the app teaches you quotes from the Tamil Sangams, such as “Don’t jump into a watery grave”, “Don’t dabble in sleaze”, and “Hate any desire for lust.” As for adult learners, we think there are better apps available.

Learn & Speak Indian Languages is a basic phrasebook app. Unfortunately, it uses Roman characters for all the phrases and is fairly superficial.

You’ll also find online word lists from MyLanguages, 50 Languages, and, although none of them leave us overly impressed. In particular, we would be very cautious about using MyLanguages.

Of course, sometimes the best option is just to create your own flashcards with the words from your classes and courses, as well as any you come across in books or everyday conversation. Thankfully, there are also apps for that. Anki allows you to create decks or download some of the shared community-made ones. We like the way it adapts to how difficult you find certain words.

Alternatively, try Brainscape. It’s similar to Anki, but has a more modern, colorful interface.

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 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 gruelling 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 licence. It appears to be more suitable for studying written Tamil.

Learn Tamil on YouTube

More of a visual-audio learner? YouTube could be a great study method for you. And you’ve got a few options to choose from.

This short video featuring Jonathan Ripley, Preceptor in Tamil at Harvard University, and YouTuber Soniya gives a quick beginner-level Tamil class. It’s one of the most interactive Tamil videos we’ve found on YouTube and has a heavy focus on pronunciation.

Learn and Speak Tamil – Like a Native has over 100 uploads and, at the time of publishing this article, adds a new video roughly every week.

The Tamil Channel has videos on grammar, vocabulary, writing, and more. It also has several videos on LGBT+ vocabulary and themes – something that can be hard to find even when studying languages with many resources.

If you want something structured like a course, you could try the Learn Tamil through English series from desidame4eva. Despite many of the videos having been uploaded in 2009, the audio quality is mostly good.

Alternatively, bvenkysubbu also has a new series named Learn Tamil Through English. At the point of publishing this article, the series hasn’t moved past the letters and numbers and isn’t updated overly frequently.

You can pick up some basic vocabulary by watching TamilToddlers’ videos.

Ready to test yourself by watching something designed for fluent speakers? Check out Pebbles Tamil, which has Tamil-language videos designed for both children and adults.

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. You could also check out Manga Method, where you’ll find manga and comic books translated into Tamil from other languages. Double click on text to read a translation, or click once to hear an audio recording.

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.

Podcasts in Tamil

Whether you want to improve your listening or are simply looking for something to keep you entertained during long bus journeys, podcasts can be a great way to practice your Tamil.

MaranaVilas is a 10-man podcast with episodes on themes as diverse as parenting children with special needs, Black Lives Matter, and popular TV shows. It often gets political.

Entrepreneurs might like Tamilpreneur, while science geeks should try out Rusty Science. Tamil Valaralu narrates Indian history in a dramatic and entertaining style. The Rathinam College Community Radio podcast touches on a wide range of topics.

Australians, or anyone with an interest in Australia, should try SBS Tamil. The frequently updated podcast covers news and stories relevant to Tamils in Australia.

Looking to improve your Tamil cooking, or simply brush up on food-related language ahead of a family dinner? The short and (sometimes) sweet Tamil Recipes might be a good choice. Be warned, though, that the speaker’s voice has been modified. Alternatively, try the new Get Cheesy with GG – Tamil Food Talk.

Finally, while these podcasts are in English, they still cater to the Tamil community: Dash The Curry covers queer and feminist topics. Banana Boys is a comedy podcast produced by three Canadian Tamils. TamilCulture hosts several different podcasts.

Looking for audiobooks or Tamil lessons? Scroll back up to the other sections of this article – specifically, the Tamil Fiction Books and Poetry section and the Online and App-Based Tamil Language Courses one.

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 licence 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.