Ever since my reception teacher told my parents that I didn’t know enough English, they stopped speaking to me in their mother tongue, Tamil. Since then, family reunions have been awkward, with my parents trying to cough up a reasonable explanation as to why I am unable to speak to them in Tamil.
You can feel those sly judgements being passed when aunty asks, “Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Cue inward eye-rolling. “Yes Aunty, I just struggle with speaking.”
Uncle then gives a speech on the atrocity that is the use of ‘Tanglish’ in modern Tamil cinema. I shrivel in the corner wanting the ground to swallow me whole, taking the blame for the death of the Tamil language.
Now don’t get me wrong. I do share a deep sense of mourning that I am unable to pass on a rich and beautiful language to my future children. I feel an immense sense of pride that Tamil is the oldest spoken language in the world, spanning over 2000 years. There is no letter in any other language that is equivalent to ழ (zha), our sirappu lagaram (unique letter). Ironically, almost half of Tamil native speakers cannot even pronounce this letter!
I feel sad that I am unable to truly appreciate the poetry of the lyrics in our music. But even when I don’t understand it, I have an inexplicable awareness of the beautiful complexity of our language. This is the magic of Tamil. It is truly a language built on love.
We live in a world that runs a million miles per hour. Centuries of culture become a mere dusty corner of a museum. This is the unfortunate fate of many languages and practices in a cold metallic world. This inevitably has our parents thinking quite frankly, “What is the future of the Tamil language?”
The answer is obvious. It is whatever we choose it to be.
As Tamil people, we have the ultimate task of balancing fast-paced progress and keeping our heritage alive. It is a tricky task, but we have a love for our language that arguably no other nation can match.
As for our language dying, I don’t think this will ever happen. However, it’s our duty to pass it on whatever knowledge we do possess to the next generation. But I believe there is something more important than just teaching our children our mother’s tongue; that is our values, our deep sense of identity and unity, and our awe of the history, richness and beauty of the Tamil language.