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8th Annual FeTNA/TNF Tamil Convention Souvenir (Malar)
Article (Translation)

We Need to Rescue Thamil in America

My Background

My name is Sendhil Kumar Cheran.  I was born in America in 1978, and I have been living here for the last 20 years.  Since both of my parents worked, I attended daycare from ages one to ten.  Ever since I was young, evenings, mornings, and weekends were the only times I could play with or speak with my parents.  But even then my parents were too busy to pay attention to me.  Mom had to cook and do other household chores.  Dad had to look after family finances and attend to miscellaneous tasks.  Therefore, I spent most of my time watching tv.  Having come to America for money, my parents have to work non-stop.  Taking only minimal vacation and working hard is the way to get raises in salary and promotions, right?  As a result, my family visits relatives in Thamil Naadu once every 5 years.  None of these vacations ever lasts for more than 5 or 6 weeks.  So how is it possible to learn Thamil when one has very little interaction with parents and can’t spend much time in Thamil Naadu?  This type of situation can be found in a number of Thamil families in America.

Until 1996, I had very little knowledge of Thamil.  Even though I knew the Thamil alphabet, I didn’t know how to speak, read, or write.  When I saw Thamil movies, I couldn’t understand three-fourths of the dialogue.  But I possessed curiosity.  I wanted to know Thamil and about the Thamil culture, history, and language.  I read as much as I could find about the Cheraa, Cholaa, and Paandiyaa kingdoms.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading the English translation of Silappathikaaram.  I read about the five landscapes found in Sangam period literature and was amazed by its beauty.  As I learned more and more, my interest in Thamil increased.  Following the 1996 Thamil convention, I tried for the first time to speak Thamil at home.  I’ve been spending the entire school year this year learning Thamil in Thamil Naadu.  My Thamil is still weak in a number of areas, so I can’t say that I’m proficient in Thamil.  However, I do want to mention that I’ve written 95% of this article by myself.

The Present State of Thamil in America

As time goes by, Thamil is deteriorating in America.  The majority of this country’s Thamil youth don’t know Thamil.  Those who do know the language use it only for watching movies, listening to songs from movies, and bharathanaattiyam.  But they neither speak with other Thamil youth in Thamil, nor do they read or write in Thamil.  At the annual Thamil conferences run jointly by the Tamil Nadu Foundation and Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America, how many youth can be seen conversing in Thamil?  a number that can be counted on the fingers of one hand.  In the youth conferences not only does the fragrance of Thamil not permeate the forums, its scent is non-existent.  We need to adopt measures to dispel the ignorance of Thamil that exists among second-generation Thamils.  Only if the present condition changes will Thamil have any life in the future of America.

Thamil Education

There are two types of Thamil education.  The main type is language education.  One should be able to speak, read, write, and understand Thamil.  A number of Thamil parents in America are running classes geared toward this type of education.  But most of these attempts don’t meet with much success because the teachers don’t know the proper teaching methods.  In order to share and discuss with everyone methods for teaching Thamil, we should keep in touch through e-mail. We could also establish a webpage.

The other type of Thamil education is general knowledge.  Thamil and the Thamil people have tradition.  Do second-generation American Thamils know about Thamil tradition?  Take for example the panai tree.  In English, this is called a palm or palmyrah tree.  When one mentions a palm tree, scenes like southern California, the beach, the desert, and deserted islands may, in accordance with American tradition, come to the mind of the average American Thamil youth. But to a Thamil, the panai tree can evoke imagery of panai tree leaves [panai Olai], dried panai leaves (used for writing) [Olaich chuvadi], the alcoholic beverage tapped from the panai tree [kaL], the non-alcoholic sweet beverage tapped from the panai tree [pathaneer], unrefined sweet jaggery made from panai sap [karuppatti], the tender panai fruit [nungu], people who climb the panai trees, and the panai tuber [panaikkizhangu].  We need to teach American Thamil youth about these sorts of symbols of Thamil tradition.  Thamil dance, games, Cheraa / Cholaa / Paandiyaa history, literature, music, drama, grammar, festivals, customs, village life and the like are topics included in general knowledge.  We should gather information on these topics and write articles in clear and understandable English.  We could establish a website that would include the articles along with appropriate pictures, sound, and video.  American Thamil adults or Thamil scholars could write drafts of the articles.  American Thamil youth could then edit the drafts and include the final products in the website.

Those belonging to the Tamil Nadu Foundation and Federation of Tamil Sangams of North America need to extend their full support to these plans.  If they don’t neither one of these two organizations will exist in the future.  Every year, TNF and FTSNA (FeTNA) presidents, secretaries, and members spend lots of money and time in order to put on the annual Thamil conferences.  If they were to set aside even a small amount of that time and money for the development of youth’s Thamil knowledge, that would be enough for us to bring about big changes.  It’s shameful that those who are so eager to invite movie industry people, Thamil scholars, and artists to America don’t pay attention to their children’s Thamil education.  If someone says, “This is a good idea.  But I don’t have the time to help,” that’s not just an excuse.  It’s an expression of one’s hypocrisy.  A real Thamil will come running to prevent the death of Thamil.  He won’t watch passively and make excuses.  Thamil enthusiasts, get in touch with me through e-mail.  Let’s unite and implement these plans.

Imposition of Education

Everyone agrees that it’s good for Thamil youth to know Thamil and about Thamil.  But when one points out a few Thamil youth and says, “They should learn Thamil and about Thamil,” a number of people will disagree.  They’ll say, “Thamil education can’t be forced.”  Or youth will lash out by saying, “If I want to learn, I’ll learn.  Who are you to say that I should learn Thamil?”  Those are words that indirectly indicate a lack of interest.  People who are eager to learn Thamil wouldn’t answer this way.  Even parents will quote the above statements to use as an excuse to explain why they didn’t teach their kids Thamil.  But this view is misinformed and needs to be refuted.

In almost all American high schools, American history is taught as a required subject.  The majority of Thamil youth aren’t going to use in any way the information learned in this course.  However, no Thamil parents or youth would consider this required subject to be educational imposition.  On the contrary, our Thamil youth try hard to get good grades in American history.  But when someone tells these Thamil youth to show the same interest in learning their mother tongue that they do in American history, they’ll bring up the idea of imposition of education.  An even clearer example is foreign language courses.  The syllabus of most American high schools and colleges includes foreign language courses.  In other words, one must have studied a foreign language in order to graduate.  The majority of our Thamil youth have been studying German, French, Latin, or Spanish. But why aren’t they learning Thamil?  Is it necessary for Thamil youth who can’t speak properly with their relatives to learn other foreign languages?  I learned German from 6th to 11th grade.  Till this day, that education has been of absolutely no use to me.  If I had spent that time learning Thamil instead of German, I would know so much Thamil.  Foreign language requirements are included in syllabi with the idea that students should know some foreign language.  In general, that can be any foreign language.  Therefore, it’s worth mentioning that those who are proficient in Thamil or are learning Thamil don’t necessarily need to learn other foreign languages in school.

American colleges and universities follow the philosophy of liberal arts education for undergraduate studies.  According to this philosophy, students take a variety of classes along with the classes required for their degree.  About half the classes one takes are classes required by the degree; the other half are the various liberal arts classes.  At least one or two liberal arts classes have to be taken from all of the following types of categories: social science, natural science, history, mathematics, philosophy, (English) literature, and foreign language.  There are two reasons put forth for the concept of liberal arts education.  One reason is that studying a variety of subjects is essential for broadening one’s knowledge base.  If one were to take only classes related to his major, he wouldn’t know anything outside that field.  The other reason is that one won’t be able to decide on a major until having taken and gotten a taste of classes from various fields.  Liberal arts education is an excellent educational method.  But for some reason, even though Thamil youth accept this method and get college degrees, they are disregarding their Thamil education.  When they’re taking a broad variety of liberal arts classes, it’s not right for them to say they’re not interested  in Thamil.  And it’s sad to hear this coming from those who don’t know even the slightest thing about Thamil.

I believe that Thamil children have a natural interest in things like Thamil, family history, and their ancestor’s way of life.  It’s while they’re growing up that this spark of interest, instead of becoming a fire, becomes extinguished.  There are a few reasons for this.  One is that there aren’t any quality textbooks for Thamil language instruction.  When Thamil youth are unable to improve their knowledge of Thamil using substandard books, their interest decreases.  I have a plan to write a new CD-ROM Thamil textbook.  For information on existing textbooks, take a look at my webpage (http://www.unc.edu/~scheran).  The big reason for lack of interest in Thamil is parents.  When interacting with their children, parents don’t emphasize Thamil at all.  When their children are reading Greek epics in school, shouldn’t parents introduce to them the Silappathikaaram?  When their children are learning world history, shouldn’t parents say at least a couple of words about the history of the Cheraa, Cholaa, and Paandiyaa kingdoms?  When their children are studying the critical thinking of Greek philosophers, shouldn’t parents give them an explanation of Thirukkural?  Because parents aren’t doing this, Thamil buds, instead of blooming in young hearts, are withering from lack of care.  Just as parents have a duty to instill in their children good character traits such as responsibility, honesty, and hard work, they also have a duty to instill in them Thamil.

No one expresses pride about their ignorance of Thamil.  But a number of people who grew up without learning Thamil express a longing for knowledge of the language.  A number of youth who never paid any attention as children to Thamil desire to learn it after beginning their undergraduate education.  Maturity and the college environment are the two factors that bring about this change.  But because college is the time when youth begin to take on a host of new responsibilities, they claim that they don’t have time to learn Thamil.  Sensing that, in the future, it won’t be easy to learn Thamil, some of them mutter sadly that their parents should have taught them Thamil when they were children.  In order to prevent this situation from befalling other Thamil youth, we should hurry and put into practice plans for Thamil education.

We’ll make Thamil live in America!

My e-mail addresses:  webmaster@tamilclass.com


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