The United Nations cultural agency UNESCO has declared February 21 as International Mother Language Day, highlighting the importance of promoting local and regional languages around the world.
But the increased usage of Tanglish phrases such as ‘scene podradhu’ and ‘chancey illa’ in the recent past has led to crises of sorts for the local language. While the rise in diluted and diversified vocabulary has been attributed to the changing culture, its long term impact on local languages is worrisome.
Many believe that one of the main reasons for Indian regional languages being lost is the rise in English medium schools. Says Gitanjali Chatterjee, deputy secretary of the Sahitya Akademi in New Delhi, “Parents are increasingly turning to English medium schools; the mindset is that unless you know English, you have no future. Protection of the mother tongue is very necessary to enhance and retain culture. Some of the best literary works have been written by authors in their mother tongue, because they even think in that language.”
The ability to think in their own language is hindered because of this bias, believes writer P. Lalitha Kumari, who goes by the pen name Volga.
“The medium of instruction plays an important role in developing the students’ knowledge accumulation, thinking power and questioning power... it depends on the language children are familiar with, the language in which they can think. You’re killing the intellectual capacity of the student. How can they think in a language that’s not their own?” she asks.
Rethinking our language policy
Charu Nivedita, a post-modern Tamil writer, believes the only way to get people back to speaking their mother languages properly, is a shake-up of the education system. He says, “In the west, it is necessary for a student in France or Germany to study and clear certain levels of French and German respectively, whereas in our country, we always have the option of choosing not to study our mother tongues, but taking up foreign languages. Our education system is killing our mother languages, and we need to change the way we look at our language policy.”
Charu adds — “In our state, during the recent jallikattu protests, which were about fighting for Tamil identity, one could notice how more than half of the protesters didn’t know any Tamil. If we don’t take steps to change our education system, there is a chance Tamil could turn into an Aramaic language, the language that was spoken by Jesus Christ, and now has only 3,000 people who can speak the language.”
Technology to the aid
Baktavatsalam, an educational researcher and the founder and director of Eduplay India, conceptualised a first-of-its-kind Tamil app for children called Chutti Tamil Arichuvadi, with an aim to teach the basics of the language to students from the state and Tamil NRIs across the world.
He says that the standard of Tamil learning among school children has dropped drastically over the last few years and goes on to claim that more students are finding Tamil as the hardest subject in school — “I’ve been in the education sector for almost 25 years and I have to tell you that the quality of not only Tamil, but other regional languages has gone down. When it comes to Tamil, I think the situation has arisen primarily due to the way it’s being taught — the language is entirely sound based. But it’s being taught only as a stroke-based language.
Hence youngsters lose familiarity with it.” He adds, “But on the other hand, the awareness to make their children proficient in mother tongue has increased among parents recently — not only among people here, but also NRIs all over the world. That’s when we decided to build an app, because in modern era, only efforts like these would click among students.”
The app provides flash-card like sequences of all 247 letters, along with audio of pronunciations; it also has an erasable slate to practice letters.
Spreading love for the mother tongue overseas
American-Indian Maya Eashwaran struck a chord at the White House, when she recited her poem about the fear of forgetting her mother tongue, Tamil. In her poem ‘Linguistics’, she shares her experience as an immigrant, and how it was painful for her to replace her mother tongue Tamil with English. The poem even prompted Michelle Obama to congratulate her for raising an issue relatable to people from different parts of the world who live in the US. In an earlier interview to DC, Maya said, “I never realised how far reaching and universal my poem’s subject matter was. To me, it was a collection of memories from my own experience with losing my mother tongue that carried the poem forward. I am grateful for this opportunity and look forward to using it as a platform for poetry in my community.”
(Inputs from Bhavana Akella, Balajee CR and Merin James)...