The Changing State of my Mother Tongue

When I was a kid I wasn’t up on a Saturday morning watching cartoons while eating fruit loops. Instead, like many Tamil children, I was usually half asleep trying to learn the language that I first learned to speak.

When I was a kid, I wasn’t up on a Saturday morning watching cartoons while eating fruit loops. Instead, like many Tamil children, I was usually half asleep trying to learn the language that I first learned to speak.

I say usually because I hated going to these classes, and I would do everything in my power to try and act like I was sick or in a coma. On very rare occasions, the threats to call my dad or pour water on me wouldn’t work and I would escape a day of learning and watch reruns of Spongebob instead.

I didn’t hate going to Tamil school because I missed out on cartoons. I think I hated going because it was a hard language to learn. I could always speak it well, but learning how to read and write was a different story. I remember feeling ashamed and embarrassed reading in class because it would take me an hour to get through a sentence. It didn’t make it easier that my mom was a Tamil teacher.

Tamil has always been an important part of my household. My mom still teaches every Saturday and Sunday. I hear Tamil serials and songs everyday in the background while I’m watching Netflix upstairs. But still I wonder - will my kids learn the language even to a basic degree?

Dr. John McWhorter, who teaches American studies at Columbia University, predicts that by 2100, 90% of the world’s languages will fade out in some capacity. Don’t be alarmed though as McWhorter also notes that 600 languages will still remain.

However, in diasporas such as where I live in Toronto, cultural hybridity has changed the language. As Sri Lankan Tamils settle and establish roots in foreign countries, they also integrate into their new society. In a country like Canada where multiculturalism and diversity is widely accepted, it is easier for immigrants to display their culture and language. At the same time, however, this integration will also change the state of the diaspora. Sometimes there is pushback, where members of the diaspora stay within themselves. But when examining children and language, there is significant change.

Suresh Canagarajah, professor of Applied Lingustics at Penn State University, conducted a study interviewing Tamils in various cities (mainly Toronto, London and the United States). Through these focus groups, Canagarajah found that many Tamil families have had trouble passing the Tamil language down to their children for various reasons (Canagarajah, 2008, p.149).

In London, only 42.5% of children are proficient in both languages. In Toronto, 82.1% of children mix Tamil and English to communication with their parents. In addition, Canagarajah notes how language is also a problem in elders who have failed to adopt English, leading to a further disconnect between their grandchildren (Canagarajah, p.163).

It’s easy to blame the school systems, parents, grandparents or the children themselves for the lack of comprehension and fluency of children speaking Tamil. But there are so many factors that educators and parents have to work around just to establish a basic understanding of the language. 4 hours every weekend speaking a language is still not enough.

Even in a classroom setting, chances are students are communicating with each other with English. Tamil homework too is most likely a last priority to school work given during the week. Children also have so many other commitments, ranging from sangeetham class to basketball practice.

What I use at home to speak with my parents and grandparents is a new hybrid language of English and Tamil that is called “Tanglish”. And although I get some pushback from my elders who see the addition of English words as a lack of understanding of Tamil, for me it is the opposite. It helps me fill in the blanks to words that I haven’t learned or added to my Tamil vocabulary.

At the same time, elders who don’t know English well pick up on the language by speaking to their kids through this hybridity. We have all seen and heard conversations where a teenager is speaking to their parent in English while the parent responds in Tamil. It is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time, and it reflects the changing tide that Tamils in the community will soon have to come to grips with if they haven’t already.

Works Cited:

Canagarajah, A. S. (2008). Language shift and the family: Questions from the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora. Journal Of Sociolinguistics12(2), 143-176. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9841.2008.00361.x

Related articles: Why It’s Important to Learn Tamil Why Don’t Tamils Speak Tamil? What is Arwi (Arabic Tamil)?

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