Fluency Frustration Part 1 – Sanskrit

by Yaska Sahara

This is a post about language learning and some of the related frustrations, especially with learning ancient languages. If you’ve read my other language learning posts, you will know that I am not the type to focus on one language intensively until I’m extremely fluent. That makes my head ache and my body limp with boredom. No matter how interesting the language is, I need variety and like learning more than one language at a time.

My current situation is as follows: I’m studying Sanskrit at university. I have three hours a week of classes. That is not a lot. So, in order to actually know the stuff covered in class, a few hours a day is a given necessity, not an option. Other than that, I try to practice other languages by consuming media in them or speaking them with people I know. Actually, I don’t really make a conscious effort to go and find media in other languages, it just so happens I like things in other languages.

Let me now elaborate on some of the challenges faced.

Sanskrit is interesting. It is amazingly detailed and complex and I can clearly see its influence on other languages. It is equally amazing to think about its use throughout history; farmers, children, rajas, ranis and scholars who spoke Sanskrit day to day, wrote great Indian epics and complex scientific and mathematical treatise in it. It helps me understand my ancestry, history and a bit about language evolution. It is also a logical and beautiful language.

But by god is it a drag at times… Eight noun cases with singular, dual and plural forms, all of which change depending on how the noun ends and its gender (of which there are three). Middle and Active voice, like what the hell is middle voice? Then there is Sandhi. Sandhi is a grammar kind of thing in which words are merged together and certain vowels and consonants are changed if they are paired with particular vowels and consonants. Its rules are endless and it creeps up on you when you think you’ve translated a sentence just right.

(Side note: I wrote this paragraph in Leiden University Asian Library when I had a Sanskrit midterm in two days. It was Saturday so I guess the fact that I got out of bed to study at the library at the weekend was enough for my lazy arse.)

Sanskrit is an ancient language so there isn’t much speaking involved and no appealing media that doesn’t make it feel like I’m studying. One of my fellow South and Southeast Asian Studies students is studying Classical Tibetan and we seem to have similar frustrations. We have determined that ‘Ancient language pain’ is a real thing. Let me explain; after the first week, Sanskrit and Tibetan students were expected to learn the entire script and go straight into verb conjugations and translating sentences. Also, our books are so old they say things like ‘yonder’ and ‘wither’. Those old books are apparently the best around, or maybe the only ones. I was lucky enough to already know devanagari from Hindi, but others were not. Without cross mediums such a TV, cinema and modern popular music, it is hard to get seamless exposure to the language.

In contrast, students doing modern languages were given a little more time to master the script and get to spend a portion of lessons watching videos, practicing pronunciation etc. That is not to say learning a modern language is easy. They have a lot of studying to do. But they have more resources. They can also consume their language of choice without feeling like they are studying. There are some good Sanskrit learning resources, such as the cool Spoken Sanskrit series on a Youtube of the channel of the same name. But it is not a comedy I can switch off and watch passively.

I understand why we are plunged into it. Once you have a strong base (ie, once noun cases and sandhi are mostly out of the way), it will be much easier to understand things and start reading interesting texts, subhashita etc.

At the beginning, I asked my teacher if we could do some speaking, even if the goal is to be able to translate, I want to try and speak some and have more varied classes. I was sad when he didn’t seem to be interested. I was wrong. After midterms, we have been doing a little bit of spoken Sanskrit, which makes it more interesting.

I am still in the process of really mastering the basics of Sanskrit and its never been difficult for the other languages I speak, read and write. Hence the frustration. It is slowly and surely getting better. If you are learning an ancient language and know both the joy and pain, you have my solidarity.

Part 2 will be about fluency frustration relating to modern languages.

Some resources for those interested in Sanskrit:

Open Pathshala – Instagram

Sanskrit Reloaded – Instagram




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Patanjali March 30, 2020 - 7:05 pm

True there isn’t much Sanskrit media but there are six films made in Sanskrit. Why don’t you try those? Adi Shankaracharya, the first film in Sanskrit is worth a watch. A film was made as recently as 2017. I would also suggest listening to classical devotional music which is mostly Sanskrit. Listening to it while reading always helps in understanding. I disagree with your statement that there isn’t much speaking involved. I converse in Sanskrit with my mother at home often in an effort to improve.

Yaska Sahara March 31, 2020 - 8:22 am

Hi! I will try the films. I use recitations to help me remember texts for a class 🙂 I wrote this post quite some time ago and my feelings and experience have changed. I’m aware that many people can and do converse in Sanskrit.

I chose my program South and Southeast Asian studies as it is extremely interesting overall and I love the university and area. Sanskrit teachers are very passionate. But I fear where I learn, the immersive, more engaging Sanskrit teaching is not yet a reality, possibly due to colonial background.

So while I enjoy having Sanskrit knowledge, learning is still a lot of work rather than fun. I do hope to try Sanskrit with a different approach in India again in a few years.

Thanks for your comment!

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