Teaching through romanization

Richard Philip Hayes CXEV at CA.MCGILL.MUSICA
Sun Nov 3 14:44:59 UTC 1991

Jamie said:
It has been some 15 years since I studied Sanskrit, and even then
the script was not much of an issue.
Dominik said:
We are used to grammar primers, like Macdonnell, duplicating words
in script and romanization, and it makes sense in a pedagogical
These comments are particularly interesting to me, because I am
teaching second-year Sanskrit to students who were introduced to
the language through Michael Coulson's book. For those of you who
are unfamiliar with Coulson's book, the convention he used was to
discuss most grammatical features in romanization in the main body
of the text; the exercises at the end of each lesson are in
Devanagari, but he also provides a romanized transcription for
every exercise; the vocabulary is given in both Devanagari and
romanization, and the paradigms are in romanization only. It is
therefore possible to get through his book without really having
to learn Devanagari. And what I find in second-year Sanskrit is
that most non-Indian students are still stumbling at reading the
script and are almost hopelessly awkward at writing it. In other
words, they avail themselves of the opportunity that Coulson
provides for learning Sanskrit without learning the script.
I don't use a textbook in my Sanskrit course, but I hand out a lot
of explanatory material, as well as drills and exercises, that I
have prepared myself. (Operating on the principle that Sanskrit is
a language rather than a form of mathematics, I try to give the
students drills designed to reinforce basic and frequently
encountered linguistic habits rather than sets of problems
designed to enhance the student's skills at solving puzzles.)
Every Sanskrit word that occurs in these materials---including
those that are cited as isolated words in English sentences---is
in Devanagari. For the first week or so, the students falter quite
a bit, but within a reasonably short time they are reading
Devanagari fluently. This is not, of course, to say they are
reading Sanskrit fluently; it's just to say that they get stuck at
a deeper level than that of the script.
I am also teaching elementary Tibetan this year. Right from the
first day, I do everything in Tibetan script without ever putting
any Tibetan word in roman characters. Students can master both
reading and writing the script within a couple of weeks. After a
month or so, I do reveal some of the systems of transliteration
that have been devised, and students laugh until their sides ache
at how funny Tibetan looks in roman characters.
My experience makes me wonder why one should not teach Sanskrit
only in Devanagari right from the first lesson. In other words, I
am beginning to question whether romanization really does make
sense in a pedagogical work. I have a hunch that Macdonnell,
Whitney, Monier-Williams and others used romanization not because
they wanted to make the task of learning Sanskrit easier for
beginners, but because they wanted to make the morphological
features of Sanskrit more accessible to classicists and
comparative philologists, most of whom never intended to learn
Sanskrit at all, or at least did not intend to gain more than a
superficial familiarity with its resemblances to Latin and Greek.
I do not disparage comparative philologists or modern linguists at
all, and I can easily see why works intended to reach them should
use romanization. But in pedagogical works intended to train
people to use Sanskrit, I can less easily see much value in
Comments from other teachers or students of Sanskrit (past and
present) would be welcome. Now that Devanagari is readily
available through TeX, Chiwriter, Multilingual Scholar, and Mac,
do you Sanskrit teachers still use romanization in the classroom?
(I confess that when I'm in a hurry, I am much more likely to
write romanization on the blackboard, because I can write roman
characters much more quickly than I can write Devanagari. But I am
thinking I should reform my ways.)
Richard Hayes <cxev at musica.mcgill.ca>
Faculty of Religious Studies, McGill University

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