Sanskrit and comprehensible input

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[The following is a guest post by Amara Hasa]

We are longtime fans of Language Log and wanted to share a project we've been working on that we believe might be right up your alley. We believe as much because it combines two subjects you've written about in the past: teaching languages through comprehensible input and compelling stories ("How to learn Mandarin"), and spoken and communicative Sanskrit ("Spoken Sanskrit").

Our project is a free online library of Sanskrit stories for learners. What makes these stories special is that they follow the current best practices from second language acquisition research.

Specifically, we aim to provide the learner with as much compelling and comprehensible input as we can, since this is a vital and necessary factor in developing communicative proficiency. Here are some specific techniques we apply to keep the input rate high:

– We use a highly restricted ("sheltered") vocabulary to avoid overwhelming the learner with new lexical items. Even if someone doesn't recognize any inflectional endings, they can understand the gist of a story if they understand what the headwords mean. This is enough to establish a basic level of comprehension and comfort; specific inflectional endings are acquired naturally with more time and more input.

– We use unrestricted ("unsheltered") grammar so that all utterances follow normal Sanskrit grammatical patterns, without any attempt to teach a specific rule. This may seem shocking, but it is a natural consequence of the fact that acquisition is a non-linear process that each learner will undergo at their own pace. There are also several tricks we can apply to reduce the complexity for learners, such as using shorter sentences.

– We provide illustrations and word-for-word translations to establish meaning and avoid the pitfalls of some immersion-only approaches. Our simpler stories also have per-sentence translations so that beginners can be confident that they understand what a sentence means.

– We prioritize learner choice and understand that language acquisition is highly dependent on factors like interest and motivation. The more that a learner can choose content that is personally compelling, the more fun they'll have, and the more they'll want to read in the future.

Under the constraints above, we simply try to provide the most engaging content that we can. Our content mainly takes the form of stories, which closely aligns us with TPRS methods. But it is also true that many people learn Sanskrit to read a specific text of interest, so we are also working on graded adaptations of major works, such as the Ramayana, the Bhagavad Gita, and the Panchatantra.

Our project today still has obvious flaws. The lack of story audio is sorely felt. Our tools for explaining word meanings and structure are quite crude. And our library is still too small to fully meet the needs of novice learners. But we believe that with time, we can truly make Sanskrit a language that anyone can learn and enjoy.

Here's the link.

We also want to mention that much of our work builds on the findings of the living Latin community, and that we would not have been able to create this project without their support and guidance.

The Subscribe button just links to a Google form to sign up for our mailing list, which is a Google group. For an example of what we send out, here's our January update.

We take the mission of "Sanskrit for everyone" seriously and would never want to add a barrier, monetary or otherwise, to someone's access to the language.

 

Selected reading

 



8 Comments »

  1. Stephen L said,

    January 3, 2021 @ 11:23 pm

    Great initiative! Sanskrit has generally much wider appeal than many other ancient languages, but the resources for it are a very mixed bag in my limited experience.

    Happy to see you have audio planned as well. :)

  2. Robot Therapist said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 10:05 am

    I selected a story – and Chrome helpfully offered to translate the page – from Lithuanian!

  3. SusanC said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 2:32 pm

    Well, that site was fun!

    As someone who is (entirely coincidentally) trying to learn Sanskrit:

    – Isn't Sanskrit v pronounced differently (sounds more like u) if it comes after a consonant? (The site's description of pronunciation doesn't mention this).

    – I am puzzled why "sarva eva" doesnt undergo sandhi in sentences like this:
    yudhāmanyuś ca vikrānta uttamaujāś ca vīryavān ।
    saubhadro draupadeyāś ca sarva eva mahā-rathā

  4. Amara Hasa said,

    January 4, 2021 @ 8:24 pm

    Hello Susan,

    Forgive our pronunciation guide, as our goal with it is simply to get people reading as soon as possible. In that context, we believe that "good enough" pronunciation is fine and can be clarified over time once the learner builds up some representation of the language.

    The Sanskrit "va" is properly a labiodental [ʋ] and is between an English "v" and an English "w." Hence we see romanizations like Saraswati and swastika. As far as we know, the Sanskrit "va" always has this character, including intervocalically.

    For "sarva eva," the idea is that sandhi has already been applied; before sandhi, the utterance is "sarve eva," and generally speaking, "e" becomes "a" in front of most vowels, hence the transformation "sarve eva –> sarva eva." As for why sandhi is not applied again to produce "*sarvaiva," someone with a deeper knowledge of historical linguistics or morphophonological changes in general might be able to give a proper answer.

  5. Patty said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 12:02 am

    Thank you for this effort. It will be great to use this site with beginner students.

    Where might we submit questions? I don't see a contact form on your website. In reading the first story on Saṃjaya, fourth chapter on Nalinī, fourth image/panel, nalinī becomes nalini (with a short "i") in four sentences.

  6. Amara Hasa said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 10:22 am

    Hi Patty,

    Wow, what a sharp eye! Thanks, we'll fix the typo there.

    We're still setting up some website basics like an email address and contact page, but for now, you can use this Google form:

    https://forms.gle/5ujdv8EyPey5bfhj7

  7. Amara Hasa said,

    January 5, 2021 @ 11:59 am

    (First submission didn't seem to go through, so trying again)

    Hi Patty,

    Thank you for the corrections! We've just added a contact link at the bottom of our main page, so feel free to use that for now.

  8. Peter Grubtal said,

    January 7, 2021 @ 3:43 am

    Robot Therapist

    Intriguing : Lithuanian has the reputation of being of extant languages the one which is closest to PIE. And Sanskrit of course was very important in the reconstruction of PIE.

    Did Chrome decide that Lithuanian was the closest match?

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