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.


  1. Hi Devyani,
    Very nice, well-thought out post. I largely agree with the points you have raised here. Completely agree with your ideas on promoting quality english language teaching at public primary schools so that everyone has access to it. Also agree with your thoughts on increasing access to govt. documents etc. for the poor.

    But in your piece, you seem to suggest that preserving the purity of Tamil is not that critical - not sure if it's as black and white as that. But, again, the Swedish model as you've presented it sounds great. If we can learn our language (be it Tamil or any other) as well as English, that would be great...that way, it's a personal choice about which language one chooses to use. The problem now, is that we, meaning city-dwelling, well-off people who *study in english medium schools* learn English better than our own language.

    And that's very sad.

    Languages are dynamic, and should be allowed to evolve...resisting such changes is I think really futile. As you rightly pointed out, it's about communication, so people are of course going to adapt it according to need and convenience. But not just Tamil (should I say'tamizh'?!) any language in its pure form has a beauty that deserves appreciation, even if not retained in that form for everyday use. So, let the scholars focus on tamil in its pure form and use it in their writings. But at least I should be able to understand the tamil news broadcasts right? (I can't).

    my own grasp of 'sen-tamizh' is next to zero, but my interest in music, has meant that i've been listening to tamil film songs for many years...and some of the lyrics reach sublime levels that can only be experienced. Try and listen to the song: 'Narumugaye, narumugaye.' from the movie Iruvar.

    I had a friend translate that song for me. The meaning was so deep, the words so intricate, that in the years hence, I've forgotten the meaning. Again, a symptom of the malaise.

    I think the reality is that we'll have songs like this co-existing with the 'Manmadha rasa's.' And that's OK.

    So, those were my random thoughts...are they all over the place? Well, you can sift through's your blog dammit :-)

    Anand Krishnaswamy

  2. Hi Anand,

    Thanks very much for your detailed comments, and for making me reconsider what I had written on purity. You've helped me make a distinction in my mind between using language for communication, and appreciating language as literature, art, beauty, or anything else you'd like to call it.

    I've never appreciated the classics much in English literature, and therefore, in addition to not understanding 'sen-tamizh,' that's biased me from seeing older forms of a language as beautiful. But that doesn't mean that I think they should stop teaching Shakespeare or Wuthering Heights in English classes. Similarly, I'm sure that the renewed attention that Tamil classics like Silapaddikaram are getting today is a good thing. It's insisting on using Tamil words alone for daily communication that concerns me, because I think it borders on the xenophobic.