How to Learn Tamil

Four Parts:Learning the Tamil AlphabetUnderstanding the BasicsExpanding Your KnowledgePracticing Your Skills

Tamil is a member of the Dravidian language family, a group of languages spoken throughout India and southeast Asia, as well as countries such as Pakistan and Nepal. Tamil is mainly spoken in southern India and is an official language in the Indian states of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, and Andaman and Nicobar Islands.[1] Tamil is also an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore, and is widely used in Malaysia. There are about 65 million Tamil speakers worldwide.[2] Tamil has been spoken for over 2,500 years and has a long, rich literary tradition of poetry and philosophy. Learning Tamil can open up a whole world of possibility!

Part 1
Learning the Tamil Alphabet

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    Become familiar with the Tamil script. The Tamil script has 12 vowels, 18 consonants, and one character known as an āytam that is neither a consonant nor a vowel. However, because the Tamil script is syllabic rather than alphabetic -- meaning symbols represent phonetic units including consonants and vowels -- it comprises a total of 247 phonetic combinations. Many of these are written by adding diacritical marks to the basic 31 letters to indicate changes.[3]
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    Study the Tamil vowels. The Tamil script has 12 vowels, which are written as independent letters when they appear at the beginning of a syllable. They alter their form depending on whether they are paired with a consonant and whether they are short or long vowels. (Long vowels are held about twice as long as short vowels.) In some cases, diacritic marks are added to the end of the consonants to represent vowels, but in others, marks are added to other locations.[5]
    • a and ஆ aa[6]
      • Similar to many other South Asian scripts, Tamil consonants carry the inherent அ a sound, so அ a does not change when added to a consonant.[7]
      • When ஆ aa is added to a consonant, a diacritic mark representing it is added to the end of the consonant, as in கா kaa.
    • i and ஈ ii
      • When இ i is added to a consonant, a diacritic mark representing it is added to the end of the consonant, as in கி ki.
      • When ஈ ii is added to a consonant, a diacritic mark representing it is added to the top of the consonant, as in கீ kii.
    • u and ஊ uu
      • When உ u is added to a consonant, a diacritic mark representing it is added to the bottom of the consonant, as in கு ku.
      • When ஊ uu is added to a consonant, a diacritic mark representing it is added to the end of the consonant, as in கூ kuu.
    • e and ஏ ee
      • When எ e is added to a consonant, a modified form is placed in front of the consonant, as in கெ ke.
      • When ஏ ee is added to a consonant, a diacritic mark representing it is placed in front of the consonant, as in கே kee.
    • ai
      • When ஐ ai is added to a consonant, a modified form is placed in front of the consonant, as in கை kai.
    • o and ஓ oo
      • When ஒ o is added to a consonant, the diacritic marks for e and aa are placed surrounding the consonant, as in கொ ko.
      • When ஓ oo is added to a consonant, the diacritic marks for ee and aa are placed surrounding the consonant, as in கோ koo.
    • au
      • When ஔ au is added to a consonant, the diacritic mark for e is placed at the beginning of the consonant and another diacritic mark is placed at the end, as in கௌ kau.
    • There are some non-standard consonant-vowel combinations in Tamil that don’t follow these rules. A complete list of these exceptions is available here:
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    Study the Tamil consonants. Tamil has 18 basic consonants that are divided into three groups: vallinam (hard consonants), mellinam (soft consonants and nasals), and idayinam (medium consonants). Some consonants in Tamil don’t have direct equivalents in English, so it’s important to listen to them pronounced if possible.[8]
    • Vallinam consonants: க் k, ச் ch, ட் t, த் th, ப் p, ற் tr
    • Mellinam consonants: ங் ng, ஞ் ng , ண் n, ந் n, ம் m, ன் n
    • Idaiyinam consonants: ய் y, ர் r, ல் l, வ் v, ழ் l, ள் l
    • There are also several borrowed consonants from Sanskrit, which are usually referred to as “Grantha” letters after the original script used to write Tamil. These sounds are often found in modern spoken Tamil, but less so in classical written Tamil. These letters are:
      • ஜ் j
      • ஷ் sh
      • ஸ் s
      • ஹ் h
      • க்ஷ் ksh
      • ஸ்ரீ srii
    • Finally, there is a special letter, ஃ akh, called an āytam. It is usually used in modern Tamil to indicate foreign sounds, such as f and z.[9]
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    Listen to a recording of the Tamil vowels and consonants. The University of Pennsylvania has a website with audio recordings of all the Tamil vowel and consonant sounds.[10] If you can find a native Tamil speaker to help you by saying these sounds with you, that’s even better.

Part 2
Understanding the Basics

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    Find some foundational materials to start your lessons. There are several online resources that can help you as you begin to learn Tamil. You’ll also want to find a good dictionary. The Oxford English-Tamil Dictionary, published by the India branch of the Oxford University Press, is considered the standard dictionary for Tamil learners and has over 50,000 entries.[11] The University of Chicago also has an extensive free online Tamil dictionary through its Digital Dictionaries of South Asia project.[12]
    • The University of Pennsylvania has a set of 36 lessons on Tamil grammar and sentence construction.[13]
    • The University of Texas at Austin has a set of lessons on Tamil language and culture.[14]
    • The Central Institute of Indian Languages has online lessons in Tamil script, grammar, and sentence structure. Sample lessons are free, and full access to the course is $50USD or 500Rs.[15]
    • Polymath has an extensive set of lessons on the Tamil language, including a wide list of vocabulary words and lessons on pronouns, verb tenses, and common questions.[16]
    • Language Reef has a set of 14 simple Tamil lessons.[17]
    • Once you get more advanced, the University of Michigan has 11 free lessons in Intermediate Tamil, including audio files to accompany each lesson.[18]
    • The government of Tamil Nadu has a “Virtual Academy” that includes games, a library of Tamil sources, and lessons.[19] Much of the content is free, although some is also available for purchase.
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    Obtain a good book or two. The standard text is A Reference Grammar of Spoken Tamil by Harold F. Schiffman, Professor Emeritus of Dravidian Linguistics and Culture at the University of Pennsylvania.[20] If you want to speak Tamil, this is the book to purchase, as spoken Tamil is very different from written Tamil, which has remained largely the same since the 13th century.
    • Kausalya Hart’s Tamil for Beginners is currently out of print but widely available in used bookstores.[21]
    • E. Annamalai and R.E. Asher’s Colloquial Tamil: The Complete Course for Beginners focuses exclusively on spoken Tamil and includes audio for its lessons. It can go a bit fast for beginners but is widely recommended.[22]
    • The University of Pennsylvania has published a Tamil Language in Context book, which includes a DVD with videos of filmed dialogue by native Tamil speakers.[23]
    • The Tamil Nadu government has a basic e-book for free download that introduces the Tamil script and basics of grammar.[24]
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    Understand basic sentence construction. Tamil is an inflected language, meaning that words are altered by using prefixes or suffixes to show their person, number, mood, tense, and voice. Tamil sentences may not always have subjects, verbs, and objects, but if these elements are present, the most common sentence order is subject-object-verb or object-subject-verb.[25]
    • In Tamil, you can make simple sentences by putting two nouns or noun phrases together -- you don’t even need to use a verb! In this case, the first noun acts as the subject and the second is the predicate (or the part that states something about the subject and acts as a verb).
      • For example, you could say அங்கவை Angavai பல் வைத்தியர் pal vaiththiyar to say “Angavai is a dentist”. To negate this type of sentence, add the word இல்லை illai “not” to the end of the sentence.
    • Imperative sentences in Tamil are commonly used to make requests as well as give commands. There are two ways to do this: the informal or intimate way, and the formal or polite way. Your social context will help determine which form is appropriate; for example, never use the informal mode with your elders, public figures, or other individuals who are commonly given public respect.[26]
      • The informal/intimate mode just uses the root form of a verb without inflection. For example, பார் Paar means “See” (singular). Use this mode with close friends and children; it is not commonly used in polite conversation with people you don’t know well unless you want to insult them.
      • The formal/polite mode adds the plural inflection to the root form of the verb. For example, பாருங்கள் paarunkal is the plural form of paar, bt would be used in polite or formal address even if you were only talking to one person.
      • If you want to be especially polite, you can add the question word ஏன் een “why” to the polite imperative form. For example, பாருங்களேன் paarunkaleen means “Why don’t you see/look at?” or “Would you look at ___?”
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    Begin with simple words. Tamil is an ancient and complex language, so it’s unlikely you’ll be able to dive in headfirst and begin speaking in fluent sentences immediately. Learning some common vocabulary words can help you communicate with others even if you’re not completely familiar with Tamil grammar.
    • Being able to ask for new foods is one of the most enjoyable reasons to learn a new language when you travel. Common Tamil foods include சோறு choru(rice), சாம்பார் sambar (a lentil stew), ரசம் rasam (a soup made with tamarind), தயிர் tayir (yogurt or curd) and வடை vada (savory fritters). You might see சாம்பார் சாதம் caampaar caatam (curry rice) or மீன் குழம்பு miin kulampu (fish curry), a famous dish in the south regions of India. ஒபுட்டு Oputtu is a sweet, almost pizza-like dish made with coconut.Check whether the dish is காரம் kaaram “spicy” before you order! If you’d like coffee, a signature beverage in Tamil Nadu, you would ask for காபி kaapi. You can also ask for தேநீர் teeniir (tea). Your server might say மகிழ்ந்து உண்ணுங்கள் Magizhnthu unnungal, “Have a nice meal.”
    • Bargaining or haggling is a common practice in Indian culture. If you are interested in buying something, begin by offering பாதி விலை paati vilai, or “half price.”[27] Then, both you and the seller will work to arrange a satisfactory price. You will probably want to find things மலிவானது malivaanatu “cheap”, whereas the seller will try to push you toward something more விலை அதிகமானது vilai atikamaanatu “expensive”. You may also want to check whether the shop accepts கடன் அட்டை katan attai “credit card” or only பணம் panam “cash.”
    • If you’re feeling unwell, these words could help: மருத்துவர் maruttuvar “doctor”, மருத்துவ ஊர்தி maruttuvuurti “ambulance”,
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    Learn how to ask questions. In Tamil, a question can be formed by using a question word at the end of sentence. You should be aware the the stress placed on the question words can affect the meaning.[28] The common question words include என்ன enna “what”, எது edu “which (thing)”, எங்கே engkee “where”, யார் yaar "who” and எப்பொழுது/எப்போது eppozhutu/eppoodu “when.”
    • For example, you could say உங்கள் பெயர் என்ன? Unga peru enna?, which means “What is your name?” The appropriate response is என் பெயர் En peyar ___ “My name is ____.”
    • The “interrogative marker” ஆ is placed at the end of a noun or sentence to make it a yes/no question. For example, for the noun பையனா Paiyaṉaa “boy”, placing ஆ at the end will turn it into the question “Is he a boy?”[29]
    • Other common questions you might want to learn include எனக்கு உதவி செய்வீங்களா? Enakku udhavi seivienkalaa? “Can you help me?” புதிய என்ன? Putiya eṉṉa? “What’s new?”நீங்கள் எப்படி இருக்கிறீர்கள்? Niinkal eppati irukkiriirkal? “How are you?” இது என்ன? Itu enna? “What is this?”
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    Learn a few common phrases. You may want to learn some common phrases to help you start conversations in Tamil. A good place to start might be தமிழ் பேச முடியுமா? Tamiḻ peeca muṭiyumaa? “Can you speak Tamil?” and நான் தமிழ் கற்றல் Naan tamil karral “I’m learning Tamil.”[30]
    • You could also learn காலை வணக்கம் Kaalai vanakkam “Good morning!” and நல்ல இரவு Nalla iravu “Good night!”[31]
    • அது எவ்வளவு செலவாகும்? Atu evvalavu celavaakum? “How much does it cost?” would be good to know when shopping. நன்றி Nanri “Thanks!” and வரவேற்கிறேன்! Varaveerkireen “You’re welcome!” and மன்னிக்கணும் Mannikkanum “Excuse me” or “Sorry” are also always helpful.
    • நான் நோய்வாய்ப்பட்டவாறு உணருகிறேன் Naan nooyvaayppattavaaru unarukireen means “I feel sick.” You can ask where the closest pharmacy is by asking மருந்துக் கடை அருகில் எங்கு உள்ளது? Maruntuk katai arukil enku ullatu?[32]
    • If you want to drink a toast to a friend, you could say நல் ஆரோக்கியம் பெருக Nal aarokkiyam peruga, which loosely means “I hope your good health accumulates!”
    • If things get too complicated, you might want to learn புரியவில்லை Puriyavilai (m) or புரியல Purila (f), “I don’t understand”. மெதுவாக பேசுங்கள் Medhuvaaga pesungal (m) or மெதுவா பேசுங்க Medhuvaa pesunga (f) means, “Please speak more slowly.” You can also ask அதை ____ தமிழில் எப்படி சொல்லுவீர்கள்? Adhai ____ thamizhil eppadi solluveergal? “How do you say ____ in Tamil?”
    • காப்பாத்துங்க! Kaappathunga means “Help!”

Part 3
Expanding Your Knowledge

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    Check if there are classes available in your area. Many universities, especially those that include a focus on South Asian Studies, offer classes in Tamil. These may be open to the community. If you live in an area with a lot of South Asian and Indian people, chances are that there are probably community language classes available.
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    Read widely in Tamil. Read online blogs and newspapers to help you learn the most common vocabulary in Tamil. Children's books are also an excellent place to start, as they're geared toward an audience who is still learning the language and often use pictures and other education aids.
    • The Tamil Nadu government Department of Education maintains a website with several free textbooks for download; these are used in elementary school through high school in Tamil Nadu public schools.
    • TamilCube also has a large collection of stories in Tamil available for free.[33]
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    Listen to spoken Tamil. Find YouTube videos, movies in Tamil, popular music and songs, and listen to as much spoken Tamil as you can. It's even better if you can practice with a friend who speaks the language.
    • Omniglot has some samples of recorded Tamil text.[34]
    • Spoken Tamil's website also includes a lot of lessons and audio recordings.

Part 4
Practicing Your Skills

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    Find someone to chat with you. Make friends with someone who speaks Tamil and ask them to talk with you. You can ask them to teach you words and check your dictionary against them. They can even teach you grammar and culture!
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    Watch Tamil films with English subtitles. Although movies in Tamil are not as abundant as movies in Hindu (the product of the Indian film industry known as “Bollywood”), there are still plenty of movies available! Check out Netflix, YouTube, and your local video store.
    • No matter what your taste, there’s probably a Tamil film to satisfy it: Poriyaalan is an action thriller, Appuchi Gramam is a sci-fi disaster epic, Burma is a comedy-noir about car heists, and Thegidi is a romance.[35]
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    Join (or start) a language group. Ideally, you can find a local group on the internet or a local message board. If there isn’t a Tamil group in your area, set one up! A conversation group will help you meet others who are interested in studying Tamil and learning more about the culture.
    • is a common place to set up and find language groups, but you can also contact your local university or college, as they may have more resources.
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    Visit a cultural center. In larger cities, there are often Tamil cultural centers established to serve the local Tamil population. However, even in smaller towns there are often Indian cultural centers and events, so you might still be able to find someone who knows Tamil and is willing to share their knowledge with you. You’ll also learn a lot about their culture and customs.[36]
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    Travel to a country where they speak Tamil. Once you’ve mastered the basics of Tamil, explore the world! Tamil is spoken widely in India, Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia, as well as within substantial immigrant groups in Canada, Germany, South Africa, and Indonesia. நல்ல அதிர்ஷ்டம் Nalla atirstam-- Good luck!


  • Friendliness and politeness are highly valued in Indian culture. Tamil speakers will almost always greet you, even if you’re a stranger, so be prepared to smile and return the greeting![37] Men may shake hands, but it’s uncommon for women to do so.
  • Tamil culture values their guests, so hosts will often go to great lengths to make sure their guests are comfortable. It’s important to try a little of every dish served at a meal; not doing so would be considered impolite and embarrassing to your hosts.[38] Never say “I don’t need/want anymore” when being served; if you’re feeling full at a meal, say போதும் Pootum “Enough”. Following it with நன்றி Nanri “Thank you” is even better.


  • If you’re not sure whether to use the formal or informal mode in conversation, always err on the side of caution and use the formal mode. Courtesy is an extremely important part of Indian and Tamil culture, and you don’t want to accidentally offend someone!

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