How “Ingilish” are You?


It was a very disturbing picture. A famine-stricken child from the Horn of Africa begging for food. “This is sad,” I told myself. Then I promptly dipped my idiyappam into my sothi. Awesome breakfast. Damn! I have a really short attention span.

I am here to write about the importance of learning to read, write and speak the Tamil language. “I don’t have to speak Tamil to be Tamil”. “My parents come from a Tamil-speaking region so that makes me Tamil.” “I’m Canadian bro.” These are some of the things I hear from our young people when questioned why they won’t speak Tamil to a fellow Tamil person.

A lot of times I feel like saying “Sure Canadian bro, there’s some maple syrup stuck on your lips. You know the one that came from the mutton roll you had earlier this morning?”

I won’t deny that it’s tough to preserve a language as a member of the second generation overseas. I grew up in Singapore. It wasn’t easy speaking Tamil openly in public without being mocked by my Chinese friends calling me “Annai”.

In Singapore I led a double life. On Friday nights I would be out with my Chinese and Malay friends in a suit. On Saturday afternoons I would don aviator shades with my Tamil friends, call them “machan” , speak in Tamil and whistle in Tamil theatres shouting “thala takkar doi” to some Ajith movie. As a young Tamil who grew up outside the ancestral homelands of Tamil Nadu and Eelam, that is how I’d defined myself. I called it adapting to the times while retaining my Tamil identity as well.

Yet what is happening to most us in the second generation of the Tamil diaspora? Some of us claim that we don’t need to speak Tamil to be Tamil. We say that we are Canadian. Or German. Or Norwegian. Or Australian. Now imagine the irony of speaking English, French or German at the expense of Tamil, yet asking a poor farmer’s child to take up arms to defend the Tamil language in the land we fled.

Remember that the child died for the Tamil cause. Remember that he died so that your family could claim refugee status and enjoy peace and prosperity in the West. We should all realize that the poor farmer’s child would loved to have experienced the good life just like you. He would loved to have gone to the movies just like you. He would loved to have pursued higher education and a high-paying career just like you. He would loved to have had a girlfriend just like you. He would love to have been married and had children just like you. Yet he gave up his life for a greater cause. Now imagine if here were to hear you say “Hey I’m Canadian bro. I don’t need to speak Tamil.” How would he feel? How much would this undermine our struggle?

Those of us in the diaspora are the lucky ones. We got out. And yes, we Tamils form a thriving community wherever we go. We boast numerous Tamil businesses, radio stations, TV channels, websites, newspapers and magazines. And while there is so much energy in the diaspora to avenge the wrongdoings of the past, why don’t we see the same drive or zeal when it comes to preserving the Tamil language among our youth? Why are our young people so reluctant to learn or speak Tamil?

For any civilization to lose its identity, the first thing that must be lost is its language. When Africans were brought as slaves to America, their slave masters forbid them from speaking their tribal languages. Likewise, Aboriginals experienced the same treatment in residential schools in Canada. Generations later, African-Americans and Aboriginal Canadians continue to experience disenfranchisement, with few ties to their ancestral identity, culture or traditions. Should we wait until we meet a similar fate?

Now back to the famine-stricken African kid I brought up earlier. What if he was to be replaced by a starving Tamil child? When I don’t speak Tamil or emphasize my language to my children – and when that African child is replaced by a Tamil child – my children and grandchildren will respond in the same manner as I had earlier to the African kid. “This is sad.” Except instead of idiyappam and sothi, he will return to spreading mayonnaise on his sandwich.

Tamil is our language. It is our identity. It is our connection to who we are and where we come from. When we lose it, we lose everything.

* * * * *

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect TamilCulture’s editorial policy.

For an alternative perspective, check out: “How Tamil are You?”

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12 thoughts on “How “Ingilish” are You?

  1. This article is humourous, but I personally don’t think you lose your identity as a Tamil person if you don’t speak the language. This is not me saying that one should not take the time to learn their root language and culture associated with it. However thats just it, sometimes kids don’t know because their parents may or may not have spoken it often or there was not enough exposure and when their children grow up they will not know a speck of it at all unless there’s exposure via media, literature and art. The fact is many kids are harrassed and shunned by the Sri Lankan or Indian born Tamils to the point that many just deny to speak it and learn of the culture. Before harshly putting that one is not a Tamil just because they don’t speak it, these people have the duty, in the name of the Tamil language to foster it lovingly or otherwise see it fail to manifest in their young ones. The disparity between these generations foster that alienation. I think the ancestral-born Tamils should understand first the culture of their young ones before they strike them down for “not being able to speak it.” Because children and teenagers and even some adults harbour that fear and deal with it by ignoring their parents lives as much as possible. Ultimately the parents have to reach out because they are the ones that want to cultivate a seed and to cultivate it one must know and caress the soil to be able to grow the seed successfully, in which their children are the fertile soil. I believe that in all the beauty of learning one’s heritage and culture, they must not get caught up in the vicious mentality of chauvinism and ignorance something many Tamils have taken up in their hearts and pound onto the Tamils that they think are not “real” Tamils. Its important to learn about ones ethnic roots but to shove it down and shame those who are “incompetent” and “are ruining the Tamil-image,” well then consider teaching them a Herculean task.

  2. If shouting profanities, sexually harrassing women and young girls, fostering that “rajinikanth super star” image of apathy, vigilantism, physical assault on unsuspecting civilians even if you suspect they might be up to no good is what you’re mad at all those Tamils for not keeping alive, then that right there is your problem. In my previous comment when I mentioned using media, I retract that idea. Tamil media is seriously the most damaging aspect of many Tamils today. Believe me I know that many Tamils that have grown up in western countries with democratic ideals and fostering law-abiding citizenship within curriculums of elementary education laugh at the fact that many of the country-born Tamils idolize such brute behaviour, and make it within themselves to try to wean their children off that stuff to be “real” Tamils. This is a true story. The other day at a Hindu wedding, I came across this baby, literally a baby of two years who was signalling at women and girls in sexually suggesting ways and out right punching kicking anyone who was “in his way” and mouthing “poda!” and other rude addresses was praised and congratulated by his kin folk and I even overheard his father commenting to another man how his son is becoming a “true man.” That made me sick to my stomach, knowing one day that kid will grow up to be a murderer, rapist, robber, or some other criminal all because his parents believed that their son was truly embracing their Tamil ideals and becoming “a man.” Being a Tamil is NOTHING like what you see in those movies, music videos. The total disfiguration and romanticisation of what being a Tamil is what is causing all these Tamils to hate our culture. What happened to a loving environment? No Tamil seems to teach true virtues preached in certain Hindu scriptures or the thirukurrals and seem only to be teaching their kids to go to temple to spot their future husband/bride one day or to wear that $100 sari that they bought for no reason for temple. The temple is a holy place and God, rich or poor, no matter who you are will guide you and bless you. Hinduism has become an item just like our Tamil mothers and sisters just because some horny guys equate what they see in the media to what is really in front of them – a person with dignity, pride and goals. Canadians, Norwegians, Australians and others of Tamil decent may be acting “un- Tamil” because of the purported media and image you foster as a result of chauvinism and meglomania. The teachers of Tamil and its greatness are not fit themselves as they truly have no idea of what its like to be Tamil.

  3. I disagree with the point you made that one can be Tamil if he/she doesn’t speak it. I speak fluent Tamil and English. I will make my son or daughter speak tamil. Will the person who doesn’t speak Tamil now teach it to his/her son? Overtime the state of the diaspora will be like Indonesian Tamils and Fiji Tamils if they continue to ignore the language. They are called Hindus now and they have no link with Srilanka or Tamilnadu. They cant even organize themselves like Malaysian Tamils or Singapore Tamils despite being their closest neighbour. Language and identity goes for generations. I am just trying to say if you dont speak Tamil, at-least send your kids to Tamil schools. Let Tamil live.

    Regarding newbies making fun of the kids born here, Are you forgetting the fact that Canadian born use the term “FOB” and “sorru”to despise them? Its a Tit for Tat and we need the cooperation on both sides. When I initially came to Singapore at 7 I cant speak good english. A lot of my school mates made fun of my accent. Did that stop me from continuing to read or speak English? When someone bullies you, prove them you can do it better. That pretty much applies to everything in life, including speaking your language.

    I agree that what Tamil Cinema is not showing culture. True. Historical movies like Bharati,Periyar and Aravanan don’t get appreciated and most of them don’t have a modest budget or sponsors to support them. Masala movies dominate Tamil Cinema. The heroes become rolemodels for the children. Isn’t that the case for Hollywood too? American Pie? Twilight? Do I need to talk about the co-relation between Gun Violence and Media in U.S? Media is another entity but it has powerful influence on culture. I agree. You are complaining that people who speak in Tamil are driving a tow truck in the name of culture. However people who want to drive a Gallardo are not even willing to take the driver’s license. I.e Tamil language.

  4. I speak/understand Tamil but I can’t write/read it. I was home schooled so my parents taught me everything until I went to university. No matter how many times they tried they couldn’t get me to study the language because I was not passionate about languages. Same thing happened when they tried to get me to learn French. I was just more eager to learn Science and Engineering. It’s important for children to enjoy learning anything. I will try my son out on different languages, Tamil being one of them but If he doesn’t enjoy it, I am not going to force him to learn it. Education should be a pleasurable experience. Trying to guilt trip children into learning (and I refer to your poor farmer’s kid taking up arms tactic) is a rather risky way to ensure the language survives.

  5. Well I dont approve with guilt tripping either. The guilt trip was to reflect on people who proudly say they dont know Tamil. I am from Tamilnadu. What guilt trip can I use on my son/daughter? The only thing I will do is, I won’t respond to him or listen to him if he spoke English at home. He will be forced to learn it. Not a pleasurable journey, I accept that. Would a person give up on his religion in the same way?

  6. I agree that education should be a pleasurable experience and as a scientist I also preferred science over learning languages like French, German etc.

    However, if you’re Tamil and if you can speak Tamil its your duty to pass that onto your kids. In the same way our parents taught us, we should speak to our kids in Tamil as well. Especially at home.

    In my opinion, the last thing we should do is give children a choice over learning their mother tongue. Its their mother tongue not some high school lesson. It shouldn’t part of a lesson, it should part of their daily home life.

  7. I noticed my previous comment was one-sided, and to be more
    specific media in any language in any country can be bad teachers. The
    counter-attacks on both sides is true, but I can see it being harder for
    ancestral Tamils to be open-minded on many issues that conflict youths with
    dual identities and not their parents’ predominantly ancestral identities. I
    don’t consider you as being someone of an ancestral culture, because you came
    to another country with a different culture with slight reminiscence of your parents’
    background just like most Tamil Canadians here at the impressionable age of 7.
    However variations include: still being able to keep in touch with your
    parent’s mother tongue. What sets you apart is you were able to be exposed to
    Asian culture as a predominant culture, whereas in Canada, the mainstream
    culture is that of America, a place where characteristic “white”
    culture is cultivated. One thing is for sure is that even the Tamils that speak
    English and Tamil fluently here, will speak English as their predominant
    language because that is the main language of the country. That leads back to
    my conviction that language alone cannot define a people anymore. The same goes
    for religion, but that’s been agreed on for a long time now since Tamils practice
    many different religions other than the predominant Hinduism. “Tamil”
    is a culture, language, genetic makeup, and ethnicity. Though we may not be
    able to retain all of those aspects of Tamil, it does not mean that you aren’t
    one if you don’t uphold one of them or even all of them. What if an ethnically
    Chinese person was let’s say adopted by a Tamil family and her native language
    therefore becomes Tamil, because she was adopted as a months old baby.
    Physically she doesn’t look like a conventional Tamil person, but she speaks
    the language as if it were her mother tongue. Genetically she is not of the
    Dravidian groups of people, but according to your logic she is more Tamil than
    a genetically born Tamil who doesn’t speak the language. She may identify as being
    Tamil but she may not be fully accepted into a Tamil society because of her
    appearance, which will plague her life. I’m saying that language can’t alone
    define a people, there are many aspects. I say that the genetic Chinese girl
    and the genetic Tamil are both Tamil in their own right, though the Chinese
    girl may face more stigma because of her appearance than the perhaps a girl who
    looks the part but doesn’t speak the lines. Being Tamil is more than just
    speaking the language known traditionally with that particular identity. It
    would be great to foster the many aspects including language in those that
    don’t know, but it’s the stigma and it needs to be cleared. The ancestral
    Tamils in my opinion will have a harder time because nobody wants to be told
    how to live, especially in a new culture alien to their ways they have
    practiced for so long. That’s why a loving nature is needed on both sides. For the ancestral Tamils and the first generation Tamils of any country need support, but the ancestrals are the ones with the single culture and they need more support.

  8. What are trying to protect our culture and our Gringo tongues from? Finally we are all going into a big black hole – yes the one in the center of our galaxy. Btw, please post your responses in few words. Less is more these days – including the skirts.

  9. @Kumar Vinoth Religion shouldn’t be forced either. Seeking God should be a pleasurable journey.

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