There is a misconception among non-native English speakers that their schooling in vernacular language makes them less suitable for corporate jobs. This is a sentiment expressed by many youngsters from Tamil Nadu, the region I come from. I see it in Facebook posts and in movie themes. It is claimed that even though they may be smart and intelligent, they feel less confident and feel out of place in a predominantly English speaking corporate culture in India, 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 the Tamil literature offered. Though my Tamil is now rusty, I can say that during those years I read works by the 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 the 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 very well, I had very little 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 went there quite often to buy sesame oil that my mother used for cooking. We made a pact that we will 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 in English conversation. Needless to say, these conversations were pretty much limited to text-book English.
It was also during the 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 both 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 Tamil medium of education to one in English at the engineering college I chose to attend was quite 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, particularly English, these days. There are schools that help you learn spoken English. There are lots of opportunities to learn a language online, on your phone using the many apps that are available; find a like-minded friend to practice, anchoring the practice to something you both might do together. Seize the opportunity to learn about other cultures, languages, and be open to new experiences. Embracing other languages does not mean you are less proud of your own heritage. It means you are a superior human being with limitless possibilities in this global economy.