ঘেমন কর্ম তেমন ফল, aka Learn Bengali in a month (or not)

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2008/03/03 10:01 -05:00, original URI: http://blogs.msdn.com/b/michkap/archive/2008/03/03/7988789.aspx

Please read the disclaimer; content not approved by Microsoft!

As a follow-up to the popular Learn Tamil in 30 Days (or something like that), there is this other book I picked up of about the same size entitled Learn Bengali in a Month that takes a slightly different approach then its Tamil cousin....

I think it was the explanatory text on the back cover of the book that hooked me in the bookstore (as I ignored the "never judge as book by its cover" principle!):

Bengal gave literary giants like Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee. Tagore's Geetanjali which won Nobel Prize for him, is acclaimed as the best expression of the writer's mystical philosophy. Inspiring song of Bankim Chandra is our national song and the subtle analysis of human mind in Sarat Chandra's novels touches the highest hallmark of literary creation. Would any one like to remain ignorant of such literary works?

We study these literary works through translation but forget Tagore's immortal comment "Learning through translation is like wooing a lady through an attorney". We can capture the beauty, the subtlety and the majesty of the Bengali literature only through Bengali language. Readwell's "Learn Bengali" will open the windows on this beautiful literary landscape surely in one month.

I was hooked by the time I hit that attorney quote, and I already was reading Tagore in English, ever since someone pointed me at Santiniketan Song a while back:

She is our own, the darling of our hearts, Santiniketan.
    Our dreams are rocked in her arms.
Her face is a fresh wonder of love every time we see her,
    for she is our own, the darling of our hearts.
In the shadows of her trees we meet,
    in the freedom of her open sky.
Her mornings come and her evenings
    bringing down heaven's kisses,
  making us feel anew that she is our own, the darling
    of our hearts.

The stillness of her shades is stirred by the woodland
amlaki groves are aquiver with the rapture of
She dwells in us and around us, however far we may
She weaves our hearts in a song. making us one in music,
      tuning our strings of love with her own fingers;
    and we ever remember that she is our own,
                    the darling of our hearts.

I realized at the time I knew as little about what these words were about as I did about Jimi Hendrix's Little Wing the first time I heard it, and maybe that is the point. 

In both cases, the words are independent of the underlying meaning of the authors in so many ways that they weave their own meaning for the people who hear them. And learning the meaning later did not change my appreciation....

Anyway, after I read the back of that book all I could think was that if the words I had read in the past were like talking to an attorney, I had to meet the client somehow.

So I bought the book. :-)

Admittedly I have had more trouble here than with that Tamil book, though I found the examples for conjuncts fascinating as it suggested example words like মিথ্যা বাক্য ("untrue word") and দরিদ্র ছাত্র ("poor student") and স্রীহীন পল্লী ("unprosperous village") and র়গ্ন দেহ ("ill health") and ক্লান্ত শরীর ("tired body"). It just makes me wonder whether there is a bit in the subtext here -- a subtle attempt to make conjuncts seem harder by using such negative examples? :-)

And then there are the self-described harder conjuncts like নিস্ফল ক্রোধ ("impotent anger") and fun practice sentences like পরের দ্রব্য ল্ইও না ("Do not take things which are not your own") and ঘেমন কর্ম তেমন ফল ("As you sow, so you reap") -- the latter being the title of the post, hopefully spelled correctly though if not perhaps someone will point it out to me....

But one of the most striking things I found was that (even moreso than the Tamil book) large parts of what I do know from Bengali were so completely at odds with the transliteration used in the book that without some rudimentary mapping between the two, I am lost much of the time. I could nag Bengali friends and colleagues of mine like Goldie about it, but her knowledge of Bengali Unicode is not so great, so I don't think it would prove to be very helpful -- she would likely be more like the book in that her knowledge is based on the same principles anyone would have learned Bengali growing up.

In essence, it is the distance between these two different bits of knowledge which must be bridged for this book to be successful, for me.

More disturbing in all this is the implied notion that the way that the language is taught would need to be modified for the sake of Unicode. Yuck!

Though thankfully I don't think that is what is being proven here; instead, the problem goes back to technology limitations, e.g. the crappy input methods on Windows that are Unicode based and thus INSCRIPT based and which do not match the book's transliteration scheme and thus require an additional mental mapping to make books like this one useful to me (unless I am willing to forget everything I know and then learn Bengali Unicode after learning Bengali. In which case I would go through the same troubles as a native speaker....

The fact that the UI style of a font like Vrinda is not a great match for the font used in the book is a side issue that in most cases does not hinder too much, but if I were a native speaker I could imagine being annoyed by it about from time to time....

Which is not to say I won't be able to use the book at all; it is just that the subtitle of the book ("Easy Method of Learning Bengali through English without a Teacher") has been hindered by what I do know, as knowledge of the script via Unicode has proven quite able to hinder knowledge of the language....

Though on the brighter side, I do recognize the sort order, at least!

In the end though, I won't be learning Bengali in a month, at least not from this book. Unicode ruined the approach for me.... :-(


This blog brought to you by(U+0994, aka BENGALI LETTER AU)

# Scott on 3 Mar 2008 4:18 PM:

I have been following your blogs about Tamil for quite sometime.  Based on what you've written regarding Tamil, it seems like the existing Unicode implementation of Tamil is capable of accurately representing extant Tamil text, but some Tamil speakers don't like the the current Unicode representation of Tamil because it doesn't reflect their own understanding of their language.  And based on this posting, it sounds like Bengali speakers might have similar complaints.

Based on my naïve understanding of South Asian languages, the Unicode representation shouldn't matter.  As long as the higher level, user facing facilities like input, searching, collation, and rendering do reflect a user's mental model of his or her language, the underlying representation of the text should matter very little.  Just as a German speaker doesn't really care much if a ü is represented as a single character or as u + ¨, why should a Tamil speaker care whether the underlying representation is a syllabary or an abugida?

Is there any possibility that Microsoft will produce South Asian input methods that align more closely to user expectations?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 3 Mar 2008 4:52 PM:

It would be my hope that they would, though it is of course not up to me (if it were it would have been done seven years ago!).

The Bengali complaints are slightly different due to the nature of conjuncts and how they are handled in Unicode adding an extra dimension if non-intuitivosity

# Chandan DasGupta on 28 Mar 2008 6:10 AM:

Hi Michael, This comment is not really related to technology, but also not entirely off-topic. I am a Bengali myself, and once in a while face a frustrating situation where I want to give my friends a taste of the subtlety which characterises many aspects of traditional Bengali life, from food to literature. A google search related to that lead me to your blog and I thought I could help out (not that it is central to what you are trying to get across in this post) regarding your interesting observation about the examples in the text. Most such books attempting to teach the Bengali language owe there examples and pedagogical approach to the bible of kindergarten going Bengali children for the last 150 years or so - "Barna Parichay" (Introduction to the alphabet). This was written by the great Indian (and Bengali) social reformer Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar in the mid 19th century. Being a social reformer he naturally had an eye for the negatives around him and also gave a lot of importance to very basic ethical principles. That should explain why all the examples are the way they are. The two seminal works in Bengali linguistic pedagogy are probably this and the "Sahaj Path" (Easy Reading) by none other than Rabindranath Tagore himself. Get hold of a Bengali who has learned the language in a school in Bengal and have him/her teach you with reference to these books. Being a more modern (younger) and less classical language than most other major Indian languages, Bengali is far too nuanced to be learned (and actually appreciated) without understanding the environs in which it grew to its present form.

# Daisy Paradis on 3 Apr 2009 7:15 PM:

Whatever you do, do NOT get hold of a Bengali who has studied "Sahaj Path" or Barna Parichay either. Let me put it bluntly. These books are written for three, four and five-year-olds. BENGALI five-year-olds! They know a lot more vocabulary than we do, and the vocabulary they learn is of a different type. Nor do I, in fact,  WANT to start with such vocabulary as "crow" "mango" "tiger" "goat" etc. The poems and stories in "Shohoj Path" have very little to do with the modern world. If you have a few extra years to spend learning vocabulary that you will almost never use....be my guest. This point seems to be lost on many Bengalis. (I do mean bluntly)  We videshis should stick to "Teach-Yourself Bengali" by Radice, which sets the standard, though it moves very fast, and Edward Dimock's admirable book (and CD, if you can get it). These books also have an intelligent approach to the learning of vocabulary in the choice of what words to learn when. There are also the charming Tuntuni stories by Satyajit Ray's grandfather--with a few chapters under your belt.

If you want to see some MODERN bengali studies, go to the Univ. of Michigan Bengali site. Those people know something about teaching language.

God knows the unicode bangla is truly ugly-looking. I threw up my hands and went and bought Bengali font from Linguists Software. This means I am married to Mac OS 9--alas. But on the plus side, I have very nice-looking bangla typography--not to mention most juktakkors--which have only taken me a year or so to learn to type. I can also sort, with a little jury-rigging. I can only send bangla out as pictures, however. I can recopy unicode bangla into my fonts--then it just has to be corrected.

You didn't really want to learn Bangla from the internet, did you? Stick to books.

# Santosh Kumar on 6 Jun 2009 11:33 PM:

i mostaly like bangali langves

Gary on 3 Oct 2010 10:55 AM:


interesting post...I have to laugh at any book that makes such claims, if it were even possible! The problem with 'learning any language' is defining 'learn', 'language' etc. I just started to learn a bit about Bengali mainly through the films of Satyajit Ray and the works of Tagore and one thing I've often heard said is the 'untranslatabilty' of Bengali which is another way of saying that the nuances tend to remain among bengali speakers although 'universal' ideas can be translated by a competant person, the beauty of the sound of the language often gets lost- I have yet to see a French or Spanish translation of an English song that is even singable! (and vice versa). The other problem is drawing a line around which parts of the language we want to learn. The horrible truth is that we must learn a 100 words before we can choose 10 to use in a sentence. I would imagine that the bengali font could be sidestepped (or at least til you get a grip of the spoken language) with a good translating program (if it exists) Here is one but I am sure there is better.


It seems that many Bengalis are using regular English letters (phonetci bengali)to communicate on the Internet these days? I don't know if tagore's writings are available in this form but it may be an interesting way to go. Good luck

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