Saturday, November 17, 2007

Free markets and Choice of Language

I never expected it. It was in June 2007 when my daughter came and asked me "Appa, tomorrrow we have to choose our second language in School, shall I select Hindi?". It was a complete shock to me as I had started teaching her Tamil alphabet even before the school started teaching her. I tried to act rational and asked her, " Why Alagu, what's the reason. After all we speak Tamil at home, why do you want to learn Hindi?". "No appa, my friends Nidha and Neha are taking Hindi, so I also want to go to Hindi class". I was able to convince her to take Tamil finally, only because her other friend, a Srilankan boy had chosen Tamil.

That incident was a jolt to me. It set me thinking about the crisis that Tamil as a medium of education is facing. Lot of people think of Tamils as language chauvinists, and there is a truth in that the way our leaders act. After all the Tamils were amongst the first people to fight the imposition of Hindi, way back in 1965. The Dravidian parties came to power based on that issue and have been ruling the state since then. They have taken measures to keep the language flourishing - establishing a Tamil University, making it compulsory for all government officials to sign in Tamil, getting the Central Government to declare Tamil as a classical language and so on. Some of these were constructive, most were half baked ideas and just crowd pleasers, but atleast some sort of a step towards their proclaimed aim.

But it is in the last 40 years that a change in mindset has taken place in common place Tamils. You hardly find anybody sending their children to Tamil Medium schools. Every one wants their kid to study in an English Medium school. Other than the Government schools and some of the older educational institutions, you can hardly find any new private Tamil Medium schools.

The Tamil people seem to have decided that it is better for their kids to learn English. I am not talking about the cities only, even in towns like Tuticorin or Karur or Udumalpet this is the case. The market has decided that studying in an English medium school is a better option. The cities have taken this further, Tamil is not even considered for a second language. The choice of second language is either Hindi (will help the kid when he goes across India to work) or Sanskrit/French ( you get more marks in the Board exams since even those who correct the papers don't know these languages perfectly).

If left to the market, Tamil as a written language might not live in Tamilnadu for more than three generations. Already we have a generation of Tamils who proudly declare that they can't read or write Tamil. This situation is not unique to Tamil alone. From what I read, it is true of most vernacular languages in India. The market is enamored only by two languages - Hindi and English.

The immediate provocation for this post came from this Outlook article.
So, how does a language become extinct? Besides the obvious reason of a depleting population of speakers, small languages face a subtler but more pervasive threat when its speakers are exposed to a more dominant speech form—they often find their mother tongue socially inferior and economically unrewarding. This leaves them with no choice but to switch to the majority language for better integration and economic opportunity


In such a situation should the state support the languages or should it leave to the market to decide? I don't know. The free marketer in me says that the market is the best arbiter. The Tamil in me says that Government actions are needed to keep the language flourishing. Is there an answer or is my language destined to whither away?

17 comments:

Anand said...

Chenthil: As far as I'm concerned, letting the government do anything, especially if it involves some perverse incentives, would lead to unintended consequences. Forcing Tamil might actually create more resistance to learning or studying the language.

Now look at it this way. How does a language evolve and how is it sustained? My great-grandparents might have called themselves Tamils, but since then, we have been bilingual or n-lingual. Learning English, French, Hindi or Sanskrit has not made me personally any less Tamil. I don't think it is an either-or situation at all.

Intha browserla Tamil irunthiruntha naan itha Tamizhla exhudiruppen.

Now the market isn't some pre-ordained entity that has some sort of mandate. On the contrary, the market is something that we all evolve, and in today's technological context, cultural products can hardly even really die away.

Frankly, my interest in Tamil was rekindled not because the government decided that I should learn the language. In fact I hated Tamil while I studied it in school. It was the internet, and some smart guys who invented Murasu, the Anjal keyboard, and Unicode fonts that helped me rediscover my love for Tamil literature, and most of which were not government sanctioned works, but those that were written because there are those of us who want to read it. Does the writer know who his/her readers are going to be? Absolutely not. But somehow, using the price system, the knowledge of the market is assimilated.

And to end with a bit of polemic myself, considering the fact that we've had scions of the Dravidian movement ruling us for so many years, it is proof that the government has absolutely no say in how the people conduct their lives or evolve their culture. If at all one has to talk about a decline of Tamil, many would even point fingers at all the 'good that has been done' by the Dravidian politicians in the name of Tamil.

Chenthil said...

Anand - I am not for the government forcing Tamil on the citizens. I am just observing that the citizens themselves seem to veer towards English. (And let's hope that The Queen doesn't hear our mauling og her language). We all speak a sort of Tamil where the noun and verb are in English.

Agree about the Dravidian era. Most of their policies have been counter productive, but don't you think establishing of a Tamil University / organising Tamil net conferences would have been possible without Government support?

Robin said...

Chenthil,
Like you and me who wanted Tamil as a language to flourish, there are hundreds of people who think otherwise. And How could the government act on this issues if the opinions of people are divided. And the economics and reach of the language support English over Tamil.
[And a sad fact most of people of my generation - i was born in 80's even dont know about the struggle against Hindi imposition in 1960s..

Mukundan said...

I do not think much that the Government as a body could do. We have a complex judicial system which do not understand the fundamental rights vis-a-vis preserving culture and tradition. We all know how fast the court reacted to some government initiatives towards language.

Forget about current generation, people who reached the top position and excelled during the last 2 decades or so were predominantly educated in Thamizh medium but still majority of them talk about the market of value the language which is a comic. Just for sake of information, the person from whom I learnt so much of English what I know & use in present day, had his education career in Thamizh until he joined the Vivekananda College for graduation. I swear he has a tremendous command over English which was nothing but the result of his keen interest to learn the language to pace his career. How many of us would think this would be a reality ?

Nilu said...

Mukundan, it's evident that you learnt English from someone who started taking it up at tertiary levels of education. But does that mean you started with Shakespeare and not that tiny book which was written for the children of British officers posted in India?

Anonymous said...

தந்தைக்கு தமிழில் எழுத ஆசை இல்லை என்றால் மகளுக்கு தமிழ்ப் படிக்க ஆசை எப்படி வரும்?

Echo/Lavanya said...

Err...Chenthil...years ago, like your daughter, I went and said something similar to my dad. He must have been taken aback too, having made it a habit to perch me on his knee and teach me a kural every time I was overflowing with excess energy. Finally I ended up taking Tamil as a second language, but, honestly, Appa was a better teacher of the language than my Anglo Indian school.

Back then people were already talking about the decline of Tamil. Several years later I don't think such a thing has happened. In fact there is a lot of voluntary interest in pursuing Tamil these days. Someone was telling me that we live in an era where people know more and more about less and less. I thought that remark really off-target as a generalization. In fact the reverse is true imo.

I think the auto correcting mechanism of society will ensure the survival of Tamil as a language. As long as the government doesn't wield any severe measures and damage the trend.

Chenthil said...

Robin - I think I lost the plot somewhere along the post. My observation was that the people themselves seem to desert Tamil.

Mukundan - some of my good English Teachers were themselves educated in Tamil.

அனானி - எனது தமிழ் வலைப்பதிவினைப் பார்க்கவும்.

Lavanya - My observation is that the voluntary interest is dwindling. I will be happy to be proved wrong though.

Mukundan said...

@ Nilu

How does it really matter ? Care to explain a bit ?

Mukundan said...

@ Chentil,

Thats the key. You may find good teachers out there to learn English or for that matter any language. Its little a Government could do. Maybe its the responsibility of political parties/other organizations (if they have such policies) to ensure the language not losing its value whereas the Governments has other priorities and judicial hurdles.

My father learnt English only by reading The Hindu regularly and picked up Telugu when he transferred to Andhra in between his career. He would show keen interesting in conversing only in Telugu whenever he meets any Telugu people.

sirpy said...

Oh Chenthil, I agree with you. Tamil must not and cannot be forced. The article in the outlook is hundred percent true. Who will want to learn a language that is not going to serve any purpose? Here is where the Chinese come in. How come their language happens to be most spoken and not English?

Simple reason: They did not do the mistake which we are doing now. We are more focused on letting only our children know and learn Tamizh. We have spared no thought about taking it outside the country on a major scale. We have more or less confined Tamizh to Tamizh Nadu. We must propagate the language; make people want to use it; explain the nuances and the beauty of it; both within Tamizh Nadu and outside. Only then will our language survive.

Anonymous said...

Languages are sustained by public incentives. There are a few things that the gov't could do, from making Tamil cumpulsory in primary and secondary education (most if not all other states make their language cumpulsory) to issuing public signage in Tamil.

The Dravidian movement did a lot to kindle my own interest in Tamil -- its progressive, modernizing imagining of Tamil(-ness) intrigued me in a way that the god-bothering or merely pretty couldn't have.

Hawkeye said...

how does 'hindi' help anybody economically?

Its not as if I want to copy Anna Durai's 'trapdoor' argument. But in the private sector (not s/w sector but let say a sector comprising of some random factories in gujarat) do you think taking hindi as 2nd language helps one to get a job there ?

Premalatha said...

Hindi is not necessary. I worked in the north. I didn't know hanji ya nahiji before going there. I survived. Better than many who had learnt Hindi. Because bookish hindi is not what spoken there. bookish hindi doesn't help other than for the initial days.

இப்பக் காலத்துல உங்க பொண்ணு அரசாங்க உத்தியோகம், வடநாட்டுல போயி வாழ்க்கை-ன்னா எதிர்காலம் இருக்கு? எதுக்கு ஹிந்தி?

British English, American Englishனு சொல்லிக்கொடுத்தா சேர்த்துவிடுங்க. நம்ம நாட்டுல நடத்துற இங்லீசும் இங்க வேலைக்காகிறதில்லை.

Na.Su.Krishnan said...

Sad but true: Practically most of the regional languages will be preserved as an art in the long run. Your quote fom the Outlook is evident even now.

We respect Periyar for eradicating caste system. He insisted Dalit's to leave their Family job since it is unrenumerative and not respected. What if the corporate world speaks and respects a different language and not the one we speak? Should we leave?

Anonymous said...

I would say that the biggest damage to Tamil has been done not by English speaking corporate crowd or the Hindi Speaking North Indian politicians, but rather by the Puritan tamil scholars /Tamil Intellectuals and the pseudo patriotic Tamil Politicians.

Why do i say that ? Because, to start with, people should realise that " Language exists for the sake of People " rather than "People existing for the sake of language". Language is something that evolves with time. It is not a fixed entity. The average Tamilian (even living in a village) in 2007 has a totally different lifestyle compared to a Tamilian living in 1907. So, the language should also adopt to new words and ideas.

Just look at Hindi. A language that is actually a fusion (or confusion) of words from Sanskrit, Prakrit, Pali, Brijbali, Turkish, persian and Arabic and some English too. See how it is doing well. It does not make sense to reinvent the wheel and re-invent terms in Tamil for words already existing in other languages like English.


But our puritan zealot Tamil fanatics had their way since 1960s and then enforced a "Senthamil" that is absolutely unrelated to the tamil that is spoken in daily life. The net result is that people are voting with their mouths, rejecting the puritan language version , in favor of their own fusion version of Tamil and English. Yet, the puritan Tamil scholars refuse to see the writing on the wall .

If only Tamil adopted the roman alphabet (with 26 letters) and adopted many English words, it would be doing much much better. It didnt and so people are showing less interest in the classical language. Forget the alarmisists who predict decline of language (And thereby demand the closure of English medium schools). The reality is that we will slowly evolve a fusion language - Tanglish that will have both english and tamil influences.

Perhaps try to talk with a typical blue collar worker in Chennai, the language he or she speaks is what will become the lingua franca of the state in coming years. Just like Bambaiya Hindi is slowly getting adopted by Bollywood and rest of India.

PS - I am posting this as anonymous because any such post telling the reality point blank will invite lots and lots of hate mail. I dont want that happen to me.

tamilan said...

I agree with the anon comment just before me.(atleast for the most part) Let the language evolve!! Why go invent a word for keyboard, software, computer when you did not invent the entities themselves. Let Tamil just adopt the terminology from another language. (why call it kanipori?)
There is a lot happening in the world especially with the internet that defines the activity of the people..Forcing someone to restrictive expressions to sustain a language is counter-productive.