Wednesday, July 28, 2010

What Ails Tamil?

Some time back, I overheard a conversation between two of my colleagues, one Peruvian, the other Indian (Tamil). The Peruvian colleague was lamenting that no-one speaks Quechua anymore. "Yes, yes," my Indian colleague said. "No-one speaks Tamil anymore either".

While there are widely varying estimates, it is likely that there are only 5 to 7 million Quechua speakers in the world, and there is a clear danger that the language will not survive. I found my colleague's comparison with Tamil amusing because, in contrast, there are 75 million Tamil speakers in the world. The Tamil film industry is the second largest film industry in India, and continuously provides enough content for a plethora of TV channels that broadcast Tamil music videos.

So, what did my Indian colleague mean?

My guess is that he meant that it's very rare that two ordinary people will have a conversation in Tamil today without using at least one English word. This is especially true in Chennai, but happens throughout the state. But why is this a problem? I feel it is important to probe this because the air is abuzz here with initiatives to promote Tamil, that are all predicated on the assumption that the language faces some kind of crisis today. Yet, I've seen very little discussion of what this crisis is, or what the specific dangers that Tamil faces are.

One danger that Tamil is perceived to face today is to its purity. People who believe this also often say that in its purer form, Tamil is a beautiful, poetic language. In contrast, the mix of Tamil and English that is spoken on the streets today has reduced the language to a sort of least common denominator. The language has become functional and in a sense rough, or coarse, and is less capable of conveying the nuances of depth and expression that it did in its purer form.

Another perceived danger to Tamil is to its very survival. People worry that if English continues to seep into Tamil, sooner or later everyone will speak English, and no-one will speak Tamil.

To play devil's advocate, I want to pose the question, "So what if no-one speaks Tamil?" Let's leave aside for a moment the claim that Tamil is somehow more beautiful, or more poetic, and therefore more worthy of preservation, than other languages. Almost every language in this world contains the unique knowledge of one or more communities, for example of biodiversity, or of cultural practices like how to prepare food or how to care for the sick. One of my favorite poems talks about the 60 names for snow that the Eskimos (Inuit?) have. It's clear that their close proximity to snow gives them a knowledge, captured in language, that is unmatched by any other group. The alarming rate at which languages are dying today means that there is so much knowledge that is going to be lost to us forever. This is one of the most understated tragedies of our time. So let me be clear - I think it is vital that Tamil continue to be spoken.

However, in our concern for the purity and survival of the language, I fear that we forget to be concerned about Tamil speakers. We forget that while many Tamil speakers may use some English words, the world of English is still inaccessible to those for whom Tamil is really the only language that they speak. The "world of English" in India includes government and legal documents and proceedings which, while often incredibly important to the poor, are largely in English. This issue of accessibility for Tamil speakers often seems subordinated to preoccupations with the purity and survival of Tamil.

Before I offer my own opinions about these three problems - of purity, survival, and accessibility - I want to tell you why I am both the right and wrong person to write this post. I'll start with the wrong.

Firstly, I'm the wrong person to write this post because having not grown up in Tamil Nadu (or India, for that matter), my knowledge of the education system that I'm about to write about is limited. If I make mistakes, please correct me.

Secondly, my own Tamil has been made fun of on numerous occasions. This could mean that my Tamil is not good enough for me to write a post on Tamil, or it could mean that I am biased against efforts to purify Tamil. Therefore, I'll take this opportunity to provide what I think is full disclosure on my Tamil language skills.

I tried catching some of the proceedings of the World Classical Tamil Conference, which was held in the city of Coimbatore earlier this year, and which has provided much of the impetus for recent initiatives to promote Tamil. I didn't understand a word. I can't hope to begin to understand Tamil poetry, so I have to take it on trust when people say that Tamil is an extremely poetic language.

When I speak Tamil I make lots of mistakes. However, the studies that I've mentioned in earlier posts - on traditional crops, hotels, etc. - were all conducted in Tamil, and I can understand and make myself understood. In fact, my comprehension skills are much better than my spoken Tamil. For example, I attend board meetings of the Covenant Centre for Development regularly, which are conducted almost completely in Tamil, and I can understand pretty much everything that's said.

Tamil was in fact the first language I spoke, but I lost a lot of it when I started going to school. However I think this is one of the experiences that makes me right to write this post, because I know that it is possible to lose a language, and that much depends on the delicate balance between the language you speak at home and the language you speak in school or in the workplace.

In addition to Tamil and English, I speak Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Hindi, and have lived and travelled in several countries where English is not the primary language. While I think that my perspective is therefore one that is not dominated by English, I do have an intimate relationship with the English language. In English I'm a writer and poet, and so although I don't know much about why specifically Tamil is poetic, I understand the importances of nuances and vocabulary in being able to express yourself fully in any language.

Words are to writers and poets what colors are to painters. Painters can go through phases of blue, grey, or any other color, or can decide to restrict themselves to a few colors. However, these colors only assume significance when a painter has chosen them from a much wider palette.

Similarly, in the short story "Jesus Is Indian," Agnes Sam writes about a girl growing up in an Indian Christian diasporic community where her schoolteacher, a nun, is constantly trying to erase the traces of her Indian heritage. The story works because Sam is able to contrast the patterns of speech of the protagonist and her mother, with that of the schoolteacher. On the other hand, the story would not have worked if Sam was unable to write in both the language of her protagonist and the schoolteacher.

Although I dream of a society that is trying to turn all its members into writers and poets, the truth is that we are likely to make up only a small percentage of any population. Yet the ability to move between different patterns of speech, and to choose the right words for the right situation, is an important life skill for everyone. In school we had an exercise where we had to create a book made up of pieces of writing in different styles - poetry, descriptive, discursive etc. Any society that can teach students the difference between the language you SMS your friends in and the language you write a business letter in, has done its job and should stop worrying about too much English in its Tamil.

To push my point even further, I think it is purity that is in fact more dangerous than the loss of purity. When we think of a country that has made a concerted effort to preserve and promote a language, it's difficult not to think of France, especially in India where Alliance Francais is a presence in every city. Yet I would argue that the danger of tying a national identity so closely to a language is that it's a slippery slope to believing that all citizens should share certain other racial and cultural characteristics, such as looking or dressing a certain way. This paves the way for discrimination against those who speak French with a funny accent, or whose skin is a darker color. Or, in its most recent manifestation, against those who wear veils.

If the survival of Tamil, in whatever hybrid form, and not its purity, is our concern, then I'd actually like to propose Sweden as the unlikely country that could provide us with some food for thought. What Swedish and Tamil, and many of the world's other languages, share, is that none of them can compete with English as the language of economic opportunity. And this fact isn't likely to change, not in this century at least.

My first encounters with Sweden led me to believe that English is not widely spoken. I couldn't book a plane ticket without help, because the SAS (Scandinavian Air System) website was all in Swedish. I couldn't buy cream on my own at the pharmacy, because the packaging was all in Swedish. Signs were all in Swedish, as were the conversations around me.

But I soon found that many Swedes speak English fluently. It is often the language of the workplace. And this despite the fact that school education at least, and perhaps university education as well, are all in Swedish.

In Tamil Nadu, the medium of instruction in government schools is Tamil, as it is Swedish in Sweden. However, we can assume that English, if it is taught in government schools, is taught poorly, and that is why private English-medium schools are in such high demand. In addition, I believe that university education is almost all in English.

If we want people to speak Tamil at home and on the street, but English in the workplace, then I'm going to suggest a couple of things that might seem paradoxical. The first is that we need to both offer more university courses in Tamil, and at the same time strengthen English language teaching, especially in government schools. The only way to keep students willingly in Tamil medium schools and universities is to ensure that they receive high quality English language training as well.

And for those who are still worried about too much English in everyday Tamil conversation, this probably happens because speaking English is seen to be a status symbol. And that, in turn, is both because English is the language of economic opportunity, and because for now, only those who can afford private schools can afford a good English language education. So paradoxically again, if the availability of good English training increases, it might become less cool to drop English words into Tamil conversation.

Yet for many Tamil speakers who have either dropped out or completed their education, the accessibility of government and legal documents and proceedings will still be an issue. To continue our comparisons with Europe, I have heard that the EU spends vast amounts of resources on translating everything that they say and write into all the languages of the European Union. The diversity of languages spoken in the EU and India are probably comparable, but the similarities stop there.

The costs and delays that translating every meeting and document into all the official Indian languages would incur in the already slow government and legal machinery makes it infeasible. In addition, if a poor person in India is trying to accesss government or legal information, it is not enough for the documents to be in his / her language. Even though the Right To Information (RTI) exists, understanding the process for filing an RTI request, knowing what to ask for and how to ask for it, and how to interpret the information once you get it, are Herculean tasks.

Members of the Indian legislature now have access to backgrounders on and summaries of the Bills they will be voting on, as well as knowledgeable staff to answer their questions, through PRS Legislative Research. Perhaps what we need are similar services available for the common man or woman, to help him / her with filing RTI requests, getting documents translated, and interpreting their contents.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Dangers Of Poor Research

In the last year, Ashoka and Intellecap’s Beyond Profit have both conducted surveys of social entrepreneurs. Ashoka describes itself as the global association of the world’s leading social entrepreneurs, whom it elects as Fellows. The Ashoka survey was conducted to understand how their Fellows have changed systems. This phrasing already suggests a bias that Ashoka Fellows have changed systems, one that is carried through in the way the survey was designed and conducted.

Beyond Profit is the social enterprise magazine of Intellecap, a social investment advisory firm. Their survey was conducted to better understand social enterprises, and the people who lead them, in India. While India is described as having a high degree of social entrepreneurship, it lags behind in research in this field. Therefore, initiatives to conduct research on social entrepreneurship in India are much needed. However, this initiative by Beyond Profit, along with the survey by Ashoka, are marred by weak research methods.

The first limitation to both the Beyond Profit and Ashoka surveys is that neither of them go beyond percentages in reporting on the results. For example, the Beyond Profit survey reports on the percentage of respondents who are men (and women), who fall within a certain age group, and whose work falls within a certain sector. The Ashoka survey says of their Fellows that, “these people are incredibly focused on achieving their goals with 93% pursuing their original objective after 10 years. 80% of them are seen as leaders in their field and 90+% of their ideas are replicated by other groups” (4/6). The Ashoka survey also calculates the percentage of Fellows who have changed the system in one of five ways.

The problem is that we have no way of knowing if these results are due to chance. If the authors had conducted a chi square or t-test on their results, it would give us the probability that these results are due to chance. For example, a probability of 0.001 would mean that the results are highly significant in statistical terms, that is, the results are very probably true.

In addition, these tests only work if you have a random sample, and there is good reason to believe that in neither the Ashoka nor Beyond Profits surveys was this the case. Out of all the Ashoka Fellows elected in 1998,1999, 2003 and 2004, the total number of Fellows with current contact information from those years is 315. 172 of those Fellows returned surveys, and this was used to calculate a response rate of 55%. However, we don’t know how many Fellows current contact information is not available for. This is especially important because it is quite likely that the Fellows for whom current contact information is not available may be those whose social enterprises have closed down or are inactive.

The Beyond Profit survey was conducted using an online platform, and was distributed to Intellecap’s database of social entrepreneurs in India, as well as to the networks of Ashoka, Dasra and Unltd India. The sample size for this survey is 118, as that is the number of people who responded. However, as readers we do not know the universe from which this sample was selected. How many people was the survey distributed to? Do Intellecap’s database, as well as the networks of Ashoka, Dasra and Unltd India, cover all social entrepreneurs in India? Alternatively, was the survey only distributed to a sample of social entrepreneurs to begin with?

As it was up to these social entrepreneurs to respond to the survey, it is quite likely that all those who did are similar to one another in some way. For example, they might be all in a younger age group, and therefore more comfortable with using the Internet to respond to surveys. Therefore this sample is unlikely to be random, and most probably suffers from what is known as self-selection bias.

There is one section in the Beyond Profit survey in which it is acknowledged that those omitted from the survey are likely to have influenced its results. The report states that, “One element to keep in mind is what the data doesn’t tell us. Because we didn’t survey people who almost became entrepreneurs, but didn’t follow through because of negative reactions from family, it is difficult to judge just how prevalent family pressure is” (5/7). However, those omitted from the survey are likely to have influenced all of its results, and this is not acknowledged throughout most of the report.

As long as social enterprises in India do not have their own dedicated legal form(s), it may be difficult to know how many social entrepreneurs there actually are. In a context in which a comprehensive database of social entrepreneurs in India is not available, it makes sense for Intellecap to use their own database and other networks to contact potential respondents. In fact, this is a legitimate research method and is known as snowball sampling. Snowball sampling is suitable for qualitative research, where the main purpose is to gain a rich and complex understanding of a specific social context or phenomenon. The problem is that the Intellecap survey seems to use this method for quantitative research, where the emphasis is on eliciting data that can be generalized to other geographical areas or populations.

For example, the Intellecap survey says that “…there are actually more men than women in social enterprise today” (2/4). Similar statements, which generalize from the sample to the universe of Indian social entrepreneurs, are made throughout the report, including with regard to age, experience, motivation, revenue generation and sector. However, without a random sample, and without testing for the statistical significance of the findings, it is misleading to make these generalizations.

Another limitation that both the Ashoka and Beyond Profit surveys suffer from is the lack of triangulation. In the social sciences, triangulation refers to using more than two methods in a study to double (or triple) check the results. The Ashoka survey, in which Fellows were self-reporting on their achievements, could have certainly benefited from triangulation. In the Beyond Profit survey, triangulation could have been particularly useful in cross-checking certain pieces of information, such as on revenue generation.

A final area in which the Beyond Profit survey errs is in the statement:
…Not surprisingly, people from a for-profit background are more likely to choose a
for-profit structure for their own social enterprise. 63% of respondents who came
from a for-profit business background chose to work in a for-profit structure, while
only 17% of people with non-profit experience switched to a for-profit structure (3/5).
The claim that, “people from a for-profit background are more likely to choose a for-profit structure for their own social enterprise” leads us to believe that there is a correlation between the background of social entrepreneurs and the legal structure they choose for their social enterprises. However, establishing a correlation between these two phenomena requires regression analysis.

The simplest form of regression is linear. If you plot the data collected on a graph, regression analysis will create a single line that best summarizes the distribution of points. The typical distance between the line and all the points indicates whether the regression analysis has captured a relationship that is strong or weak. There is no evidence of regression analysis in the Beyond Profit report.

In addition, the statement discussed above begins with the words “not surprisingly”. This suggests that it is because a social entrepreneur used to work in a for-profit that he / she chose the same legal structure for his / her social enterprise. When one variable (in this case, legal structure of social enterprise) is inferred to be because of another variable (in this case, background of social entrepreneur), this is known as causation. Causation cannot be measured from this study because both the variables were measured together in a setting.

One of my former colleagues described the Ashoka report as impressive and inspiring, and I don’t mean to detract from the achievements of their Fellows by pointing out the weaknesses in the research. A strong research methodology would have made these achievements even more impressive, as they would have been supported by firm evidence.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

I Am The Head Of My Household!

When I was living in Toronto with my landlady and good friend Elizabeth Chen, I would often pick up the home phone to find a Mandarin speaker on the other end. Since Elizabeth doesn't speak Mandarin, I soon learned that these calls were from banks trying to reach out to new immigrants. They identified their potential customers by scouring the phonebook for (in this case) Chinese names and calling them. I quite enjoyed taking these calls, as while fending off the eager bankers I could practice my Mandarin.

When I lived in the dorm/hostel, it was my turn to be targeted by these bankers, but this time in Tamil. The conversation (in Tamil) would go something like this.

"Hello, can I speak to Srinivasan?"

"This is Devyani Srinivasan speaking."

"Is he there?"

"Is who there?"


"I am Srinivasan - Devyani Srinivasan."

This conversation would repeat itself at least a few times on each occasion.

Part of the confusion arises from the fact that, like many South Indians, we don't really have a family name. Srinivasan is my father's first name, which has become my mother's and my family name. However, this is also common practice, and I'm sure the Tamil banker was aware of it. The bigger problem is that there's an underlying assumption that a woman cannot be living on her own, without a husband or a father. And of course, that banking matters must be discussed with the man of the household.

Fast forward to Chennai, 5 years later. The census ladies come to our house. They ask who the head of the household is and I say, "Devyani Srinivasan" because a) I don't see why a woman can't be the head of the house and b) I thought they wouldn't be interested in my husband because he's a foreigner. So under head of the house they put, "Srinivasan".

Then they ask who the parents of the head of the house are, so I say, "T.V. and Sujata Srinivasan". But we all realize that this isn't the right answer when we move to the next line, and they ask who my parents are. So since the only other Srinivasan I know is my father, in the first line I put down his parents.

By now I have managed to explain that there are only two of us living in this house, my husband and I, and my husband is a foreigner. The census ladies then decide that between the two, having a foreigner as the head of the household is a lesser evil than having a woman. So they put down Patrik Oskarsson as the head of the household. However by this time they are too exhausted to start writing down the names of the parents again, so they leave it as, "Head of the household: Patrik Oskarsson, Parents of head of the household: T.R.V. and Vembu Chari". So my father and husband are now brothers!

I have a friend who used to work for the census, and she claims that it is possible to have a woman as head of the household. But if it is only possible in cases where there is no trace of a man around, what about families where men migrate for wage labor, and women are de facto heads? If we don't even record this information, how can we begin to know what the issues and conditions are that these households face?