Pāli Study Tips

“I want to study Pāli! But how to go about it? What should I keep in mind? Is learning Pāli different from learning something else, another language? Are there any pitfalls I should avoid?”
This article provides tips for studying Pāli, answering the above questions and guiding the keen learner on this wonderful path that is learning Pāli.

1. General Study Tips for Pāli

First, we will list a few general tips that should be kept in mind when studying Pāli.

1.1. Continuity

Pāli requires some dedication from its students. One should try to study regularly, at best daily, at least 2-3 times a week. Even 5 minutes a day can make a big difference over time. Continuous study and practice are key to steady progress towards Pāli mastery.

Naturally, one has many obligations and sometimes life gets in one’s way – if you find yourself unable to learn Pāli for a week, several weeks or even months, don’t despair and don’t beat yourself up over it. Getting back on track, even after a longer period of suspension, is not too difficult. You will remember a lot of things once you read them again and will be able to pick up where you left off in no time.

To make this a little easier, you could look at bits of Pāli, just a few words or a sentence, once a week during those periods where you are unable to find any formal study time.

1.2. Repetition

Learn, practice, repeat. Repetition is one of the most important aspects of learning a language and Pāli is no different. Reading a chapter in a textbook or grammar once will not suffice, even if you feel like you understand it. Try to practice what you have learned using the exercises most textbooks contain to check yourself – most likely, you will make a few mistakes and realize that you did not understand all of it already. Read the chapter or view the lecture again, make a pause, check whether you understood it.

If you are enrolled in the OCBS online courses and have completed Level 1, enrol into Level 2 and continue your studies. After a week or two in Level 2, go back to Level 1 and re-take a few exercises. Once enrolled, your access to the different courses does not expire so make use of this and repeat previously taken lessons or entire courses, especially when you had some difficulties understanding particular topics.

2. Pronunciation

2.1. Many Pāli Pronunciations

Learning how to pronounce Pāli requires you to decide first which pronunciation you want to follow, learn and practice. There is not one correct way to pronounce Pāli, but instead there are many ways Pāli is pronounced today. The most striking differences can be found between Theravāda countries: A Thai monastic chanting a Pāli sutta can be almost intelligible to the ears of a Burmese monastic who, on the other hand, would find it hard to discuss Pāli with her/his Sinhalese counterpart.

If you wanted to learn how most European and US academics pronounce Pāli, you could enrol in the Pāli Level 1 Preview course. It is entirely free and features Lesson 04 of Pāli Level 1, where Dr Alexander Wynne explains the Pāli alphabet and pronounces all the sounds. The Preview includes a useful factsheet summarizing the most important points about the lesson as well as an alphabet table.

2.2. Read Aloud

A common practice to get better in pronouncing is to always read aloud all the Pāli you encounter. Whether it’s a book you’re reading or some website, just read the Pāli aloud and make a conscious effort to pronounce everything correctly. You could even record yourself and listen to it, comparing with for example the recordings from the Level 1 Preview. However, there are two potential disadvantages this technique has:

  1. You will only practice what is in front of you. If the text you are reading doesn’t have a certain sound, you won’t get a chance to practice it. On the other hand, it is often more fun to read entire words or sentences than merely the sounds as listed in an alphabetical table.
  2. If you never practiced your pronunciation with someone who already pronounces the way you want to, it could be that you are making a mistake without realizing it. Reading aloud would then reinforce those mistakes and make a habit out of them – correcting this later on may be considerably harder than at the beginning.
A student sitting on a library floor, reading a book
© Shutterstock

3. Grammar

There are a lot of different inflections in Pāli (though a mere fraction of those that exist in Sanskrit); learning them by heart is very time-consuming and can become tedious. Much better to have them at hand, clearly set out in tables, and to refer to those tables again and again. In this way one will become familiar with the commoner inflections without applying any special effort. Inflections are sets of facts; one just has to learn them.

4. Syntax

Syntax is quite another matter, and overlaps with style. If one confronts a short sentence containing the words “kill”, “goat” and “tiger”, one guesses it is about a tiger killing a goat, and checking the inflections will probably confirm this. But few sentences in the texts are that simple. Besides – as I shall illustrate during the course – serious misunderstandings both ancient and modern have resulted from poor knowledge of syntax.

4.1. Pāli Style

There are four features of Pāli style which students particularly need to get used to:

  1. Fondness for the passive. Where in English we tend to say “The monk taught the dhamma”, Pāli tends to say “The dhamma was taught by the monk”.
  2. The absolutive, an extremely common kind of active past participle.
  3. The causative, a kind of secondary verb: “he causes x to make y”, as distinct from the simple: “he makes y”. This reflects a society full of masters and servants!
  4. The use of nominal compounds, called samāsa in Pāli and often referred to in English simply as “compounds”.

The first three of these are easy to master. The fourth is not. It is of the utmost importance for the correct understanding of a Pāli text. Only a small minority of Pāli sentences contain no compound, and most contain several. In a course on how to understand Pāli texts, this has to be the biggest single topic. Accordingly, the OCBS Pāli Online Courses dive deep into all aspects of Pāli syntax.

5. Vocabulary

Vocabulary is similar to Grammar: it is just a matter of meeting the words again and again until they stick. Of course, systematic memorisation is even more effective, if one has the time, energy and patience. The best way to learn vocabulary is to study sentences; context is the only way for the meanings to stick over a long time.

5.1. Vocabulary Tools

Flash cards (Pāli on one side, the translation on the other) are useful and quite fun. There is even software available to create your own digital flash cards and practice with them. The “old-fasioned” way of actually writing the words out, however, is just as effective. Writing words out by hand may even be more beneficial and help you to remember the words better.

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