The Beginner’s Guide to the Bengali Language [With Basic Words and Phrases!]
Why should you learn the Bengali language, also known as Bangla? Let me convince you.
Bengali, which originates from India and Bangladesh, is one of the most spoken languages in the world. It is a beautiful literary powerhouse as well as a language that sparked a global language movement.
Interested and want to learn more? I’ll highlight some of the top reasons to learn Bengali and then get you started with some basics.
Table of contents
- 3 Great Reasons to Learn the Bengali Language
- 5 Perks of Learning Bengali
- Getting Started: Your First Bengali Words and Phrases
- Introducing Yourself
- Know Who’s Talking – A.K.A. Let’s Talk Pronouns and Conjugation
- Basic Bengali Survival Phrases
- Overcoming Common Bengali Challenges
- Find and Stick to Your Favorite Resources
As of 2022, Bengali has the seventh-largest number of total speakers and the fifth largest number of native speakers of any language in the world.
According to a 2011 survey, it is the second most spoken language in India. Bengali is an official language in West Bengal, Tripura, and Assam in India, and the national language of Bangladesh.
Surprisingly, it is also an honorary official language of Sierra Leone! This is because the Sierra Leone government wanted to thank the Bangladeshi peacekeepers who helped the country during the 1991-2002 civil war.
The Bengali diaspora is also massive. There are millions of people from Bangladesh and the Bengali regions of India abroad, so you can surely find Bengali speakers in just about any country.
Throughout India, Bengali has a reputation as the language of beautiful written works. It has a rich history of poetry, and many works from Sanskrit, Hindi, Arabic, and Persian languages have also been translated in Bengali.
Have you heard of Rabindranath Tagore? This Bengali writer from Kolkata, India was the first lyricist and also the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. He also was a major figure in the Bengali resistance against the British Raj. The Indian national anthem, “Jana Gana Mana,” was adapted from one of Tagore’s Bengali poems.
Tagore translated many of his own works into English, but there are noticeable differences from the original Bengali. This gives you even more reason to read them in the original!
As we can see, Bengali has not only been a literary language—it has also been politically significant. When India gained independence from Britain, the province of East Bengal (now Bangladesh) joined Pakistan. It became known as “East Pakistan,” and modern-day Pakistan was known as “West Pakistan.”
However, people in West Pakistan had a very different culture from the people in East Pakistan. They didn’t even speak the same language: people in West Pakistan spoke Urdu, not Bengali! This led to many social tensions. Even though Bengali speakers formed the majority of the population of Pakistan, the political leaders tried to replace Bengali with Urdu in East Pakistan.
On February 21, 1952, students at the University of Dhaka gathered to protest to make Bengali an official language of Pakistan. Police fired on the demonstrators, killing many of them. This sparked larger civil unrest, strengthened the Bengali people’s unity, and ultimately led to the Bangladesh Independence War. In 1999, UNESCO declared February 21 to be International Mother Language Day as a tribute.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Bengali speakers take great pride in their language, even now!
As an Indo-Aryan language, Bengali may not be as difficult to learn as you think! Here are some of the best parts about learning Bengali.
Unlike English, Bengali is a subject-object-verb language. Also unlike English, it has quite a loose word order.
Often, in Bengali, this subject-object-verb structure is more like a suggestion than a rule. Depending on what you want to emphasize, you can push your subject all the way to the end of the sentence, or sometimes even leave it out if you want!
For example, all of the sentences below can be acceptable to say, “Do you drink water?”:
- আপনি পানি খান? (Apni pani khan? / Literally, “You water drink?”)
- পানি খান আপনি? (Pani khan apni? / Literally, “Water drink you?”)
- পানি খান? (Pani khan? / Literally, “Water drink?”)
Don’t worry about needing to memorize countless irregular verbs in Bengali. There are only a few, so conjugation rules can be applied to almost every verb. Speaking of which, there are five noun categories to conjugate for, but you can get by with just four of them.
In addition, negating verbs is incredibly easy. Most of the time, just add না (na) to the end of a sentence!
তুমি স্কুলে যাও। (Tumi skule jao. / You go to school.)
তুমি স্কুলে যাও না। (Tumi skule jao na. / You don’t go to school.)
Need to ask a question? Just use rising intonation at the end of the sentence, or add কি (ki) either after the subject or at the end.
For example, to say, “Do you go to school?” you can say any of the following:
তুমি কি স্কুলে যাও? (Tumi ki skule jao?)
তুমি স্কুলে যাও কি? (Tumi skule jao ki?)
তুমি স্কুলে যাও? (Tumi skule jao?) (With rising intonation)
Bengali leaves out a lot of complicated characteristics of many other Asian and European languages. Bengali is not a tonal language, and it also doesn’t have gendered nouns like in Romance languages. It also isn’t as strict about singular vs. plural nouns as many other Indo-European languages.
Bengali has its own written script, which Assamese also uses. The Bengali alphabet is a descendant of Sanskrit and shares a lot of commonalities with Devanagari.
It is phonetic, so if you know the writing system, you can pronounce almost anything!
Like Hindi and many other Indian languages, Bengali originated from Sanskrit. Therefore, it shares a lot of words with many other South Asian languages.
Legacies of Muslim rulers and trade in the Bengal area gave Bengali a rich vocabulary of words with Arabic, Persian, and Turkish origins. If you’ve already learned some of these languages, you’ll surely see a lot of overlap!
Nearly a hundred years of British colonization brought a large amount of English words into Bengali. Don’t know a word in Bengali? Just try using the English word with a Bengali accent!
This is especially true with “modern” words, such as those relating to transportation, technology, and business. For example, to say “the phone is dead,” you can just say টেলিফোন ডেড হয়ে আছে (telefon ɖeɖ achhe). Easy, right?
Bengali has invariably been influenced by geography and religion.
If you are in India, which has mostly Hindu Bengali speakers, you would usually greet someone with the Hindu phrase নমস্কার (nɔmɔshkar). The recipient would repeat the same phrase back.
On the other hand, if you are in Bangladesh, you would usually greet someone with the Muslim phrase আসসালাম ওয়ালাইকুম (assalam walaikum). If someone greets you this way, respond with ওয়ালাইকুম আসসালাম (walaikum assalam).
Unsure of which to use? Don’t worry. Regardless of the listener’s religion, you can always ask, “How are you?”:
- কেমন আছেন? (kæmon achhen?) for people you don’t know well or you would show respect to,
- কেমন আছো? (kæmon achho?) for friends or people of a lower rank than you.
Another similar greeting is কি অবস্থা? (ki ɔbɔstha?, “What’s the situation?”). You can reply with ভালো আছি (bhalo achhi, “I’m fine”).
Done with your conversation? It’s time to say goodbye! You have a few choices here:
- পরে দেখা হবে (Pɔre dekha hɔbe) – “See you later”
- ভালো থেকো (Bhalo theko) – “Take care” (casual)
- ভালো থাকবেন (Bhalo thakben) – “Take care” (respectful)
Now that we’ve greeted our speaking partner, it’s time to share more about yourself! You can do so with the following phrases:
- আমার নাম … (Amar nam…) – “My name is…”
- আমি … থেকে এসেছি (Ami … theke eshechhi) – “I’m from…”
(Note: most countries’ names in Bengali sound much like their English equivalent.)
Therefore, I would introduce myself as:
- আমার নাম খেলসি। (Amar nam Khelsi.) – “My name is Kelsey.”
- আমি আমেরিকা থেকে এসেছি। (Ami Amerika theke eshechhi.) – “I’m from America.”
To ask the listener about themselves, use the following questions:
- আপনার নাম কী (Apnar nam ki?) – “What is your name?”
- আপনি কোথা থেকে এসেছেন (Apni kotha theke eshechhen?) – “Where are you from?”
Let’s learn to break down a bit of the above.
As mentioned earlier, there are four main categories of nouns and pronouns in Bengali, and each has its own way to conjugate verbs. The four categories are:
- First person – I আমি ami, we আমরা amra
- Second person, casual – you (singular) তুমি tumi, you (plural) তোমরা tomra
- Third person, casual – he/she/it/they (see below)
- Honorific – you, he/she/they (see below)
Third person, casual: There are several different words for the third person singular: এ, ও, সে (e, o, she). They all have plural versions: এরা, ওরা, তারা (era, ora, tara).
All words can be used with people or objects. They carry different nuances with them depending on how close the pronoun is to the speaker.
For example, you could use the same pronoun এ (e) and conjugation for “he,” “she,” (if they are close to the speaker), and “this.”
Honorific: The honorific conjugation can be used for both the second person (আপনি apni) or third person (ইনি ini, উনি uni, or তিনি tini – here again you have your choice depending on proximity to the speaker) that you want to show respect to. The verb conjugation is the same for all of them.
The plural form of আপনি (apni) is আপনারা (apnara). The plural forms of ইনি (ini), উনি (uni), and তিনি (tini) are এঁরা (ẽra), ওঁরা (õra), and তাঁরা (tãra) respectively, each pronounced more nasally than their casual counterparts above.
Note: Gender and singular vs. plural do not affect conjugation.
Now that we have established pronouns, I’ll show you how to conjugate verbs. This is very easy!
To conjugate in the present tense, simply add the following to the end of the verb stem:
- First person: i
- Second person, casual: o
- Third person, casual: e
- Honorific: en
Therefore, to say that someone or something “am/are/is,” change the verb আছ (achh, “to be”) as follows:
- First person: আছি (achhi)
- Second person, casual: আছো (achho)
- Third person, casual: আছে (achhe)
- Honorific: আছেন (achhen)
Fun fact: There is an added fifth category to conjugate for: তুই (tui). This is an even more casual version of তুমি tumi. It is only used when talking to extremely close friends, younger siblings, small children, and animals.
Be careful: it can be extremely rude if you use it wrongly!
The four cases already introduced will suffice, so you don’t need to worry about this one as a beginner.
Taking a trip to a Bengali-speaking area soon? Here are a few more key phrases to help you navigate your way. For questions, remember to use rising intonation at the end.
- আপনি ইংরেজি বলতে পারেন? (Apni Ingreji bolte paren?) – “Do you speak English?”
- টয়লেট কোথায়? (Ʈoyleʈ kothae?) – “Where is the bathroom?” (Note: For asking the location of anything else, just say the word and add কোথায়? kothae?.)
- দাম কত? (Dam kɔto?) – “How much is it?”
- এটা কী? (Eʈa ki?) – “What is this?”
- কয়টা বাজে? (Kɔyʈa baje?) – “What time is it?”
- আমি একটু বাংলা বলতে পারি। (Ami ækʈu Bangla bolte pari.) – “I speak a little Bengali.”
- আমি বাংলা বলতে পারি না। (Ami Bangla bolte pari na.) – “I don’t speak Bengali.”
- আমি বাংলা পড়তে পারি না। (Ami Bangla poɽte pari na.) – “I can’t read Bengali.”
- আবার বলেন? (Abar bolen?) – “Could you repeat that?”
- … মানে কী? (… mane ki?) – “What does … mean?”
- ওটা দিন (Oʈa din) / ওটা দেন। (Oʈa den) – “Give me that.” (Note: The verb conjugation depends on the dialect.)
As with any language, learning Bengali comes with its own set of hurdles. Here is what to watch out for as well as my suggestions as to how to overcome them.
Bengali has a lot of sounds that don’t exist in English, so you’ll do well to tune your ear and practice a lot.
Many students need a lot of practice to differentiate between Bengali’s multiple T’s, D’s, and R’s. Several consonants are dental, meaning you pronounce them with your tongue touching behind your front teeth. Others are retroflex, meaning you bend your tongue back to touch the roof of your mouth.
There are also aspirated consonants, which you pronounce with a puff of air, and unaspirated consonants, which you don’t push out air to pronounce. For practice, you can place a piece of paper in front of your mouth. If the paper moves when you pronounce a consonant, you are likely pronouncing it with aspiration.
For example, there are four different types of T’s in Bengali.
- ত (t, dental and unaspirated)
- থ (th, dental and aspirated)
- ট (ʈ, retroflex and unaspirated)
- ঠ (ʈh, retroflex and aspirated)
Therefore, the word টাকা (ʈaka, “money”) is different from the word থাকা (thaka, “to stay”).
The four types of D’s in Bengali are:
- দ (d, dental and unaspirated)
- ধ (dh, dental and aspirated)
- ড (ɖ, retroflex and unaspirated)
- ঢ (ɖh, retroflex and aspirated)
Finally, there are two types of R’s:
- র (r, dental)
- ড় (ɽ, retroflex)
Listen to native speakers and always be aware of where your tongue is. Do you need a puff of air?
Don’t worry – this seems like a lot, but you’ll get the hang of it.
On top of the sounds that English speakers can easily mix up, the romanization of Bengali is not very standardized. Therefore, sometimes Bengali written with the English alphabet can look extra confusing.
For example, the word জ্বর (jɔr / “fever”) may be romanized as jor, jvara, jôr, dʒɔr, or something else.
In addition, some romanized materials will not differentiate between the different T, D, or R sounds above.
Learning the Bengali alphabet will help you overcome these hurdles.
Bengali has two forms: চলিতভাষা (cholitbhasha) and সাধুভাষা (shadhubhasha). The former is modern, colloquial Bengali, while the latter is mostly used historically in writing.
Some resources will still introduce historic forms of Bengali first, so watch out for this. If you are using a tutor, remind them that you want to learn Bengali as it’s actually spoken.
In addition, keep in mind that there are many regional dialects of Bengali. While generally Bengali is split into “Indian” and “Bangladeshi,” there are still many regional accents within these two! These result in slightly different vocabulary, verb conjugations, and pronunciation.
Nevertheless, they are usually mutually intelligible, so a native speaker from India will still be able to understand you, even if you learned Bangladeshi Bengali, and vice versa.
Despite having so many speakers, there are relatively few resources for learning Bengali. For example, to date, there are no Bengali courses on Duolingo or Innovative Language’s 101.com podcast series.
However, there are still plenty of resources out there! The Mango Languages app has a fantastic introductory course on Bengali, and Mondly also has a Bengali course. Part of the Linguaboost Bengali course can also be found for free as a podcast.
If you prefer learning from a book, there are several to choose from. Popular textbooks include Teach Yourself: Complete Bengali as well as Colloquial Bengali. Lonely Planet’s Hindi, Urdu, & Bengali Phrasebook has very practical language for a variety of situations.
Find an app, coursebook, or tutor that you like, and keep up with it.
Interested in Bengali yet? Now that you have a basic grasp of the language and culture around it, you should be ready to start for real!
Stick around, because I look forward to sharing more Bengali language tips with you.
Good luck on your language learning journey!