Embracing other languages

tamil enlish

There is a misconception among non-native English speakers that their schooling in the vernacular language makes them less suitable for corporate jobs. Many youngsters from Tamil Nadu, the region I come from, express this sentiment. I see it in Facebook posts and movie themes. It is claimed that even though they may be smart and intelligent, they feel less confident and out of place in India’s predominantly English-speaking corporate culture, especially in Information technology.

I come from Tamil speaking family. My high school education in the 1950s and ’60s was in Tamil. I did have English as a subject and also learned Hindi. My Tamil teachers, Mr. and Mrs. Natarajan, hoped I would become a Tamil scholar because I was very good at it.

Looking back, I am thankful for the Tamil immersion during high school. The Tamil literature I was exposed to was vast. My reading habit started with absorbing all that Tamil literature offered. Though my Tamil is now rusty, I can say that during those years, I read works by well-known Tamil literary figures, all the way back to the Sangam and post-Sangam literature – Avvaiyar, Thiruvalluvar, Ilango Adigal, Kambar, and more recent writers such as Kalki (Ponniyin Selvan, Sibagamiyin Sabatham),  Akilan (Vengaiyin Maindhan), Poet Bharathiyar, prolific modern writers Jayakanthan, and Sujatha. Every Friday, I would run to the corner store to buy the latest edition of Ananda Vikatan, a weekly magazine, which is as popular today as it was then. (For those unfamiliar with Tamil literature, every one of my mentions can be Googled if you are interested in reading about them.)

While I could read and write English well, I had minimal opportunity to speak it in the day to day life. Things might have been different if I had lived in a city such as Chennai or Mumbai, but I lived in Madurai, the seat of Tamil literature, where everyone spoke only Tamil. I am not sure what the motivating factor was, but my older sister Girija and I decided we would learn to speak English. We chose a specific opportunity to practice speaking in English. This was the long walking trip to the oil mill. We often went there to buy sesame oil that my mother used for cooking. We made a pact to only converse in English during this trip. No Tamil allowed. It started out pretty dismal. I recall several trips when not a single word was spoken between us. But gradually, we started coaxing each other into English conversation. Needless to say, these conversations were pretty much limited to textbook English.

It was also during my high school years I started reading voraciously in English. I credit my father for borrowing English books from the library and giving us access to historical and contemporary English literature. I remember reading books by James Michener and dreaming of life far away from India. I was not much of a traditional English literature reader. I liked writers such as Agatha Christie and Earl Stanley Gardner. I devoured books by Somerset Maugham and Ayn Rand. Reading books in English helped me when I landed in my first year outside of high school to prepare to enter an undergraduate program. The transition from a Tamil medium of education to one in English at the engineering college I chose to attend was relatively easy for me.

When I landed in the USA several years later, I learned the US idioms and culture by watching television while I was home with my child. Another transition that seemed quite fun.

To all those recent graduates who feel inadequate and intimidated because they studied in their vernacular – DON’T! There are plenty of opportunities to learn other languages, mainly English. There are schools that help you understand spoken English. There are many opportunities to learn a language online, on your phone using the many available apps; find a like-minded friend to practice with, anchoring the practice to something you both might do together. Seize the opportunity to learn about other cultures and languages and be open to new experiences. Embracing other languages does not mean you are less proud of your heritage. It means you are a superior human with limitless possibilities in this global economy.

7 thoughts on “Embracing other languages

  1. Enjoyed reading your article!! IT is definitely an eye opener for those who feel they are inferior to people because of their poor foreign language skills, especially English!!


  2. Thank you shantha.I am from a Tamil medium school. Every thing only in Tamil. In our college days, I ran the Tamil Manram ( Now a days it is Maathavam) and since to promote love for Tamil, my Batch 1966 also created a Tamil Library with books and shelves worth Rs 3 lakhs and our Dean Er. Narayanasamy gave a Big room also near the hostels and Our past President Er. Karunakaran was backing us very well . I was a Tamil orator in my college days and won the Most coveted PSG Rangansamy Memorial Rolling Trophy for best tamil debating Team in tamilnadu along with my Senior O.A.Sivakuamaran. But thanks to Mrs Senior in Madras Christian College Miss. Nirmala Sundaram Later became IFS, i got my English Polished. But Tamil helped me to learn Japanese as the grammar is very similar and understanding and speaking Japanese became easier for many Tamil Medium school students. For my IT company, we prefered more of Tamil Medium students. But what pains all is, the leaders who speak so much about Tamil and learning Tamil on the political meetings, send their children to English merimum schools


    • Yes, so many are just providing lip-service. I prefer to ignore them. Each of us needs to do the very best in everything we do, and that is all we can ask of ourselves. Thank you so much for providing your comments here. I very much appreciate it that you read this. I am very impressed with what you have been able to do with Japanese. As someone who took a couple of Japanese classes, I know it is not an easy language unless you keep talking!


  3. Enjoyed reading this article, Shantha. Very well said. It is indeed a plight of many from vernacular medium. Why for that matter, I was a bit awkward in the presence of Convent educated people because though I was from a English medium school, it was not a convent school. Of course, it never came in the way of my education. Nice that your article will be an inspiration to many. Kudos to you and your writing. 🔡


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