It is difficult enough to learn a language that one hardly speaks at home. It is even more challenging when the spoken and written forms of the language are not the same, as is the case with the Tamil language. How can we get our students to use a language they do not own?
As part of Singapore’s bilingual policy today, every student needs to learn a “mother tongue” language. In every mother tongue language classroom, it is not uncommon to find students who struggle to learn this second language, be it Mandarin, Malay or Tamil.
The main aim of the second language curriculum is communication. We want our students to be able to converse comfortably in a language other than English. This is particularly important for minority ethnic communities because the language also embodies their culture.
However, it has become more difficult to achieve this goal as increasingly, more and more students are from English-speaking homes, where the “mother tongue” is hardly spoken, if at all. This has many implications for the second language classroom.
Learning the Language
What makes learning the Tamil language particularly challenging is what sociolinguists call “diglossia”. This means that the language has many varieties or dialects. In Tamil, the spoken and written varieties are not the same.
The Tamil dialect that is spoken at home has no written equivalent. It is a colloquial, functional variety. It is the language spoken in informal interactions, on the streets and in the shops.
However, the Tamil language curriculum in Singapore focuses on a literary variety of Tamil that is reserved for formal, usually written, communication. Literary Tamil is hardly ever used in everyday social interactions.
It does not help that the content of the Tamil language textbooks is also alien to both students and teachers. “The lessons are mostly about ancient kings and ancient Tamil literature, which is very difficult for our Singapore students to understand because they are in the 21st century,” says Dr Seetha. “We cannot expect the students to understand the out-of-context content.”
Speaking the Language
In previous generations, learning Literary Tamil in school was not difficult as almost all students came from Tamil-speaking homes. They already had a grasp of the spoken language, which made learning the rules of formal communication easy.
Today, however, statistics show that more than half of the Tamil language students come from English-speaking homes. Without early exposure to the spoken language, learning Tamil is like the proverbial Greek – totally foreign and a herculean task for many.
Dr Seetha argues that by eliminating the spoken language from the classroom, we are only tolling the bell for the demise of the language. And research has found that it takes just five generations for a language to be lost.
“Because within the classroom they don’t speak (the language), so when they go to the community, they switch to English,” explains Dr Seetha. “If you speak literary Tamil, then people will laugh, so they immediately change.”
Keeping the Language Alive
In an effort to keep the Tamil language alive in the community, researchers like Dr Seetha have recommended incorporating the use of spoken Tamil into the curriculum. “If spoken Tamil is used, then code-switching (to English) will be reduced,” says Dr Seetha.
For many years, however, this recommendation has been met with resistance because of the perception that spoken Tamil is a low – and lesser – variety of the language. Literary Tamil, on the other hand, was perceived as a high – and thus, better – variety of Tamil.
According to Dr Seetha, this is a grave misperception. “Within spoken Tamil, there is one variety, which is Standard Spoken Tamil, spoken by the educated Tamils. It is not a low variety,” she explains. “Standard Spoken Tamil is a lingua franca… like a bridge between the dialects.”
It is only in recent years that policy makers in Singapore have recognized the need to incorporate this standard spoken variety of Tamil into the language pedagogy.
Teaching the Language
Starting from 2008, Standard Spoken Tamil has become part of Singapore’s Tamil language curriculum. The challenge for Tamil language teachers is – how do we make use of spoken Tamil in the teaching of Literary Tamil?
Dr Seetha’s advice is simple: Keep talking. “The teacher has to talk – talk a lot – because they need to listen,” says Dr Seetha. “And get your students to keep talking, too!”
Provide as many opportunities as possible for students to speak to and interact with each other in Tamil. You could sing songs, tell stories, engage in discussions. You can also make the more confident students role models.
But do remember to withhold judgement. Be open to their spoken language, even if it isn’t perfect, or when they take a little longer to articulate their thoughts.
As students become accustomed to the language, they will become more confident in using it. In time, they will hopefully also come to love the language and to own it as theirs
Ministry of Education. (2005). Report of the Tamil Language Curriculum and Pedagogy Review Committee. Available from the Singapore Ministry of Education Web site: https://www.moe.gov.sg/media/press/2005/pdf/pr20051117t.pdf
Saravanan, V., Lakshmi, S., & Caleon, I. (2007). Attitudes towards Literary Tamil and Standard Spoken Tamil in Singapore. International Journal of Bilingual Education and Bilingualism, 10(1), 58-79.
Schiffman, H. F. (2002). Tongue-tied in Singapore: A language policy for Tamil? Journal of Language, Identity and Education, 2(2), 105-125. Retrieved 1 July, 2009, from https://www.tamilnation.org/diaspora/singapore/language_schiffman.htm