I am friends with a girl who speaks Tamil really poorly, by societal standards at least. She comes from a Telugu speaking family and has little to no exposure to Tamil at home. In the ten years that we have known each other, she has steadfastly reduced the amount of Tamil that she speaks to me or anyone else for that matter.

One day, while casually chatting with her, I found out that she stopped speaking Tamil because many people had chided her on various occasions for not speaking ‘good’ Tamil. In fact, some were insensitive and rude enough to tell her that if she could not speak the language ‘properly’, then she should not speak it at all. Sadly, she took their advise and has stopped speaking this language altogether.

In recent years, I have noticed an alarming rise in the number of Tamil purists. They turn up at many Tamil based literary events and are generally on the prowl, constantly looking out for those who are unable to converse in fluent Tamil, introduce English words into their discourse and pronounce the various ‘la’ and ‘zhas’ wrongly. You will hear them moan and groan endlessly about how young people today do not speak sufficient Tamil and also that many people do not speak Tamil ‘properly’. They would then morbidly end their rant with the inescapably pessimistic declaration that “Tamil in Singapore, (drumroll please) is dying.”

Newsflash – you people are actually killing it! (accessories to murder actually) Ironically, these very purists are causing part of the apparent demise of Tamil, (specifically its speakers) with their narrow-mindedness and refusal to move along with the times. Attempting to drag them to the 21st century results in copious amounts of kicking and screaming. So they remain stuck in their old ways and beckon the rest of us to come there too. Some unfortunate trying souls get so fed up of constantly being told that they are not good enough that they decide to flee the arena completely. Can we really blame them though?

There are two important things to note here. First of all, Tamil is a language and like all languages in the world, it changes (fact of life). Secondly, this is going to hurt the sensitivities of some, but Tamil is not a language that you need in order to survive in Singapore.

Honestly, ask yourselves: “Can I get away with knowing only English in Singapore?”

The answer, painful as it may be to some, is that you can. Tamil is not a language required for success here.  We almost never get job listings with the description ‘Tamil speakers preferred’. This then makes Tamil a language of choice in the Singaporean context. People need to consciously choose to retain this language and we are not making this choice very attractive when we tell them there is a fixed standard to meet.

When I was younger, I really sucked at Art. I actually still suck at Art. But what really dented my love for Art was being mocked for my inability to meet standards. This all begun when my parents (with the best of intentions) sent me to an Art class when I was a kindergartener. I do not remember much about it, except that one day, my dad asked me to draw a pig. (they had taught us that in the class that particular week)

After I finished my perceived masterpiece, I brought it for him to look at and I do not remember what he said but I do remember that he had a disapproving tone and said something along the lines of it being a waste of money to send me to this class. That killed my love for Art and till today, I avoid anything that requires me to be creative for the fear of being inadequate.

This is the reality for moderately competent Tamil speakers today. Let us not forget that we live in a bilingual society and people readily have at least two languages at their disposal, albeit in varying degrees of fluency. Perhaps, it is quite natural that they would be stronger in one language than the other. It is also expected that they will code switch and mix between the languages when speaking and it should be quite acceptable that they might never learn the word for ‘nuclear plant’ or ‘solar system’ in Tamil. Surely we can live with that.

The problem is that many purists see the glass as being half empty instead of half full. So they try to shame the glass into filling itself, but usually the glass ends up cracking under the pressure and all the water just seeps away, leaving behind only the shards. A little encouragement goes a long way. Maybe if we all adopt a more uplifting stance, the glass might just decide to slowly fill itself.

I am not against the Tamil language. I do not encourage ‘bad grammar’ (inverted commas because as a linguist, I am aware that good and bad is subjective) but I discourage austere non-classroom based language policing. I have understood that you cannot ‘save’ or cling on to a language by telling its speakers that they are not good enough for it. You will probably also need to embrace that change is the only constant in this world. You need to let Tamil evolve together with its speakers. After all, what is a language without its speakers?

Written by Hemma

Hemma is a travel enthusiast who is greatly fascinated by language and culture. Linguistics and cultural anthropology deeply interest her. She constantly seeks to comprehend and make sense of the world through these two mechanisms. An eternal optimist, she sometimes lives in imaginary little bubbles, each one a different shade of purple. On good days, she wants to change the world, on better days, she dreams of living in an igloo, curled up next to a golden retriever with a Roald Dahl novel.

2 comments

  1. நல்ல கருத்து ஹேமா. பாராட்டுகள். Something is always better than nothing. ஒருவர் தவறான தமிழ் பேசினாலும் அவரது முயற்சியைப் பாராட்ட வேண்டுமே தவிர, அவரது குறையைச் சுட்டிக்காட்டிக் கிண்டல் செய்வது முறையில்லை. எனக்குத் தெரிந்த பலரும் கூட என்னிடம் தமிழ் பேசத் தயங்குகிறார்கள். காரணம் கேட்டால் நான் அவர்களது தமிழ்ப் பேச்சைக் கேலி செய்வேனோ என்ற பயம் என்கிறார்கள். இது கவலைக்குரியது. உண்மையில் ஆங்கிலம் கலந்து தப்புத் தப்பாகப் பேசினாலும் பரவாயில்லை. தெரிந்தவரை பேசுங்கள். நீங்கள் பேச விரும்புவதே சிறப்பான ஒரு பண்பு என்பேன். However, this only applies to the common people, and not for the professionals. Tamil teachers and Tamil media journalists need to maintain good standard in their language proficiency, for they are in a position to influence others.

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    1. Hello Meenatchi. Thank you very much for your kind words! நீங்கள் இவ்வாறு சொன்னது எனக்கு மிகவும் மகிழ்ச்சியாக இருக்கிறது. உங்களை போல் தமிழ் திறன் கொண்டவர்கள், அனைவரையும் அரவணைத்து கொள்ளவது மிகவும் அவசியம்.

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