Suppose that two friends named Laksh and Aditi decide to learn Sanskrit so that they can read Sanskrit literature. Each of them has different ideas of how to do so.

Laksh loves grammar and studies Sanskrit through a textbook written in English. He does hundreds of translation exercises and diligently memorizes the various Sanskrit word endings. When he sees a word, he can usually break it down into its many grammatical categories and see how the word is derived.

Aditi is more interested in stories. She reads dozens of level-appropriate Sanskrit books and occasionally asks questions about grammar if she's confused about what a sentence means. Little of what Aditi does can be called studying; in fact, her time with Sanskrit feels playful and fun. But she is constantly exposed to natural Sanskrit through content she enjoys and understands.

Laksh has a deep understanding of Sanskrit's inner logic, and if you give him time and a dictionary, he can probably slowly work through a text like the Bhagavad Gita by translating individual words. But even so, he has trouble reading even very simple Sanskrit. There are too many words he has to look up, and the dictionary gives him too much information at once.

Aditi, meanwhile, can tell you whether certain expressions "feel" correct, even if she can't tell you why. Although many words in the Gita are unfamiliar to her, she understands more than Laksh and can spend more of her time on understanding the text rather than working through its grammar. And if she does decide to study grammar, Aditi can connect the abstract rules she sees to the concrete examples she has encountered already.

Over time, Laksh becomes a master of grammar, but he still struggles to read a text like the Panchatantra. If he continues his studies, he will think to himself that Sanskrit is a demanding and challenging language, and that if you want to learn it, you have to study hard and know your paradigms and rules.

Over time, Aditi can fluently read almost anything she wants to, and she loves sitting down after work and reading Sanskrit poetry. If she continues her studies, she will think to herself that Sanskrit is a lot of fun, and that if she can learn Sanskrit, anyone can.

Two ways of knowing

Laksh and Aditi are fictional, but the lessons they have to teach us are not. They illustrate the important dichotomy between learning Sanskrit and acquiring it.

Learning is the world of form and structure: sound systems, grammar rules, interesting facts, and everything you might find in a traditional grammar or textbook. It is the world of formal study, memorization, and drills. We might say that Sanskrit itself is the subject of our interest.

Acquisition is the world of meaning and context, of knowing what a piece of Sanskrit means. Given the right conditions, it develops unconsciously and with minimal effort. We might say that Sanskrit is the medium for our subject of interest.

Learning and acquisition are not completely separate, and there is room for the interested student to do both. But these two orientations serve radically different purposes and use radically different methods, so it is critical to be clear on what we are after.

It is possible to study Sanskrit for years and know every grammar rule but struggle to understand simple sentences. But it is possible to use Sanskrit as fluently as your native language without studying a single grammar rule.

The case for communicative Sanskrit

By communicative Sanskrit, we mean a method of teaching Sanskrit that focuses almost entirely on providing interesting, meaningful, and understandable Sanskrit content.

This method seems ordinary until we consider what it avoids:

  • Drills, such as changing a verb's tense and applying or undoing sound rules;

  • Translation exercises, regardless of whether they are to or from Sanskrit, and regardless of whether the translation items are words, sentences, or paragraphs;

  • Explicit memorization of rules, paradigms, and forms, including noun and verb endings, sound change rules, learning principal parts, and vowel changes; and

  • Formal grammar instruction, unless it clarifies meaning.

Our case for approaching Sanskrit communicatively rests on a simple argument:

  1. Generally, we study Sanskrit so that we can understand Sanskrit compositions.

  2. Fast, fluent understanding is worth pursuing, and it is possible only if we acquire Sanskrit to a high level.

  3. It is possible to acquire Sanskrit. Sanskrit is a unique language, but it can be acquired in the same ways that every language is acquired.

  4. Acquisition is something everyone can do. It is not limited to children or those living in an immersive environment; busy adults can do it too.

  5. Acquisition develops only when we are exposed to compelling and comprehensible content in our language of interest.

  6. Acquisition does not develop through formal study or explicit practice. It is not teachable in the conventional sense.

  7. Therefore, if we want to acquire Sanskrit, we must be exposed to a sufficient volume of compelling and comprehensible Sanskrit content.

Common objections

In the rest of this series, we will defend this argument and show how our library makes it easier than ever to learn Sanskrit through communicative methods. But we would also like to quickly raise and address some common objections.

(Point 1) A learner might want to understand just one text, so it is wasteful to spend time acquiring.

Almost every Sanskrit text becomes richer and more interesting when we read the texts related to it. Reading the Bhagavad Gita is a very different experience when we can easily understand the Mahabharata, the Upanishads, and traditional commentaries.

(Point 2) It is better to work our way through a text slowly and deliberately.

Acquisition does not force us to read quickly. We can always slow down, just as we can when reading an English author like Shakespeare. But there is a difference between choosing to slow down temporarily and being forced to proceed slowly all the time.

(Point 3) Sanskrit is simply too difficult to acquire.

Organizations like the Polis Institute, the Paideia Institute, and Samskrita Bharati have had great success teaching supposedly difficult classical languages through communicative methods. Their continued success is strong evidence that communicative methods work for languages like Sanskrit.

(Point 4) Studying grammar is more efficient and saves time.

This notion feels intuitively right but does not have research evidence to support it. Communicative language teaching that provides compelling and comprehensible input, meanwhile, has strong support in the research literature.

(Point 5) We cannot create compelling and comprehensible content for Sanskrit learners. It will always be inauthentic.

Content can be compelling and comprehensible even if it doesn't come from historical texts. If content is communicative and meaningful, the supposed divide between "authentic" and "inauthentic" content is a non-issue.

(Point 6) There are successful readers who use traditional grammar-based methods.

Formal study can lead to acquisition through indirect exposure to understandable expressions in isolation. But this approach is not compelling to most learners, and the input volume is much lower than it otherwise could be.

(Point 7) There is not enough compelling and comprehensible content for Sanskrit learners.

This is a solvable problem, and it is why we have created our library.