How To Learn Sanskrit As A Beginner And Remember Every Detail

How to Learn Sanskrit feature image of inscribed stone tabletWhen I started learning Sanskrit as a beginner, I almost gave up.

I felt overwhelmed by what felt like a tremendous amount of details just to pronounce the letters of the Sanskrit alphabet.

But then I remembered I’d been through the roller coaster of emotions before with other languages.

Once I was feeling centered again, I got busy using the fundamentals of language learning.

Yes, Sanskrit poses some unique challenges.

By the same token, its the individual characteristics of Sanskrit grammar and its phonology that helps make it more memorable.

You just need to focus on the fundamentals and use some of the exclusive memory techniques for language learners you’re about to discover on this page.


Let’s dive in!

How to Learn Sanskrit As A Beginner (For Native English Speakers)

In today’s tutorial, I’m going to speak from my perspective as a native English speaker.

If that’s not you, the general steps still apply. But when it comes to some of the memory techniques I’ll describe, you may need to approach them through the lens of your mother tongue.

Don’t worry. That won’t be difficult to do. I’ve been teaching language learners for 12 years now from all over the world. As you can see from their success stories, your exact mother tongue is not an issue.

But approaching the fundamentals in a dedicated way definitely matters. That’s why I’m providing this specific list of action steps.

One: Set Your Self Up For Success

Far too often, Sanskrit learners make the classic mistake many students make:

They collect too many resources. I’ve been there myself as a language learner, and ultimately took the advice of my friend, and renowned polyglot, Olly Richards.

We were in Berlin at the yearly Polyglot Gathering in 2015 when he told me to stop collecting language resources and just focus on one of the following resources:

  • One textbook
  • One audio course or video course
  • One language tutor

This is profound advice because the goal is to complete each of these resources thoroughly before moving on.

When it came time for me to learn Sanskrit, I chose the Teach Yourself Complete Sanskrit, James Whelan’s outstanding Introducing Sanskrit, and a lesson with a language tutor to help orient my journey.

In my case, I cheated a little bit because I also chose some long form mantras to memorize on the side.The first Sanskrit mantra I memorized from Evolving Beyond Thought by Gary Weber

Nonetheless, the point is to start with a limit and be thorough with the resources you choose. There’s rarely any need to add more material until you’ve mastered your initial set of resources.

Two: Memorize the Alphabet (By Sight and Sound)

Once you’ve chosen your learning materials and settled on them, it’s time to make sure you can work with the Sanskrit writing system. The sooner you’ve got it under your belt, the sooner you can make rapid progress.

You might want to start by commiting the name for the alphabet in Sanskrit to memory first. It’s Lipi. The mnemonic image I used for this word involved someone sticking out their lower lip to reveal the letters for Lipi tattooed inside: लिपि.

Three: Study How the Vowels Work

Sanskrit involves five basic vowels. Some of them are doubled, however, which means that you hold the “ah” sound for about twice as long as a short vowel.

For example:

  • a = a short vowel (अ)
  • ā = a long vowel (आ)

Learning how to read how long the vowels are is essential. You’ll also want to master semi-vowels and compound vowels.

Four: After-Sounds And Release Sounds

One aspect of Sanskrit that makes it sound so unique is that some letters require different pronunciation.

Two of the main aspects you’ll want to learn as soon as possible are:

  • Anusvāra (after-sound)
  • Visarga (release)

YouTube has several tutorials to help you understand these principles, not limited to this one:

Five: Understand Sandhi

I first encountered sandhi while learning Chinese.

In brief, Sandhi rules describe how words combine, causing their translation to change.

English doesn’t have a whole lot of Sandhi to give you a comparison, but “impossible” and “illuminate” will help you understand it. In English, “impossible” used to be “inpossible” but the pronunciation changed to “impossible” to make it easier to pronounce the consonants “n” and “p” together.

Likewise, illuminate used to be “enlumyen.” Over time, to make it easier to pronounce, English speakers altered the word.

The difference in Sanskrit is that Sandhi describes “joining” rules. Often when the end of one word makes it hard to combine with the beginning of the next word, the pronunciation will change in order to make the two words fit together smoothly in pronunciation.

For this reason, you will pronounce Sanskrit differently than it reads from the page. As English speakers, we’re use to this however.

Six: Study Sanskrit Grammar

Make no mistake: grammar can feel intense.

But the trick is to break things down and take things one step at a time. The scientific term for doing just that is called chunking.

Without picking one aspect of grammar to focus on at a time, overwhelm is guaranteed. Be willing to proceed in small steps.

If you’re also memorizing long form Sanskrit like I do, you’ll always feel like you’re progressing. Even if some of the harder concepts are moving at a slower pace.

Seven: Use Memory Techniques

I’ve mentioned mnemonics above for learning the name of the Sanskrit alphabet. You can use that same association process over and over again.

Even better:

You can gather all of your associations in an organized manner using a technique called the Memory Palace.

A Memory Palace, sometimes called the method of loci, involves creating an imaginary version of a familiar location. For one of my longest Sanskrit memorization projects, I used a neighborhood in Kelvin Grove, part of Brisbane:

how to memorize a passage memory palace example

Basically, each line of Sanskrit was mentally “placed” along a journey through this neighborhood. Each association for each word involved a kind of miniature story designed to be memorable.

The rest is just practice, and this tutorial will be useful for you as you commit both Sanskrit vocabulary and Sanskrit phrases to memory:

At the end of the day, the Memory Palace technique isn’t just for placing the associations for your Sanskrit words and phrases. It’s meant to be used for spaced repetition. That way, you can get the Sanskrit you’re learning into long term memory as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Eight: Practice Pronunciation Often

One of my favorite memories when I first started to learn Sanskrit through English was giving a live stream to demonstrate my first fully memorized Sanskrit mantra.

By doing this, I was able to get some helpful feedback from people – especially the one tutor with whom I focused on my learning.

I was also able to inspire other people.

Praise for a Sanskrit recitation demonstration by Anthony Metivier

Of course, inspiration only goes so far.

The next steps are up to you. It’s really difficult to rely on motivation when learning a language, but you can learn different kinds of motivation that have helped other polyglots.

I would also suggest that you use The Freedom Journal for language learning to track your progress. It will also serve as a reminder of your goals. On that note, here’s another powerful tip.

Nine: Write the Sanskrit You’ve Memorized From Memory

Self-testing is important. One of the best ways to do it is to memorize some Sanskrit and then write out what you’ve memorized from memory.

When you’ve used memory techniques optimally, you’ll get practice in what scientists call active recall. Basically, by asking your mind to recall the information, you’re building new memories in a way that will help them last longer.

Ten: Maintain Beginner’s Mind

One thing I’ve noticed, no matter how sophisticated I get with a language, is that there’s always more to learn.

As a result, it really helps to keep an open mind and always approach even the basics with fresh eyes.

If you include memorizing Sanskrit mantras, the content of these will help you maintain beginner’s mind. Many of them are focused on not taking your thoughts too seriously, after all.

If you’d like more help with that, including more tips on using memory techniques, please sign up for my free course right here:Free Memory Improvement Course

In it, you’ll receive four video tutorials and worksheets that will help you develop the same kind of Memory Palaces I’ve used to learn Sanskrit with ease, joy and greater speed.

Now that you have all the main steps needed to learn Sanskrit as a beginner, the ball is in your court.

Enjoy the journey and all the places being able to read and understand Sanskrit will take you!

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