Listen to this Post. Powered by

Three weeks back there was a girl scouts event in our local Indian Community Center. As a (dormant) Tamil language teacher I was asked to come by and help out. The event was a tourist approach to introduce India to upper elementary and middle school children. They had several booths and one of it was a language booth. My role was to write the kids names in Tamil in a post card so that the kids can post the card to any one/anywhere.

What would I do if I get a post card from some one I know, with a script I can’t read? I would assume that this person I know is unloading some kind of abuse on me. To save the unknown reader from that confusion, I wrote the name in Tamil, with a postscript in English that says ‘name written in Tamil – a language spoken in the southern part of India’.

There I was sitting and writing names like Dobyns and Cassandra in Tamil. Initially there was a confusion if I must use ‘sha’ or ‘sa’ what with the former one considered Tamil and the later one considered grantha(adapted from sanskrit). Since I wasn’t claiming to be an authority in Tamil and I wasn’t writing a book, I decided to cut some slack for myself. Hey, I HAD to use other grantha letters like ‘Ha’ , otherwise how can I write Higgins?

Then came the confusion of splitting the name in to syllables vs sounding out the names and writing the sounds I hear in Tamil. I mean English is a very confusing language. For example take the word ‘house’. I can say ‘h+ou+se’. Or I can sound out the word, in which case I say ‘h’, ‘a’, ‘u’, ‘s’ sounds.

At this point the name was already disfigured.

Add to this the accent. I grew up thinking that Donald was ‘Do-nal-du’. Only when I watched KamalHassan (in Tamil movie Vasool Raaja MBBS) did that dim, tube light lit up in my head, ‘Hey that is Donald’. I was a good 28 years of age by then.

Coming back, the name was severely mutilated and the Tamil too. Because every language has rules as to what letters can go together and what cannot. I had a set of no-no letters sitting together that would make my Maragatham miss(my 10th std Tamil teacher) come after me with a whip.

Yesterday, my Development of Language and Literacy in Young Child class addressed this. Apparently there is something called phonemic awareness and something else called phonetic awareness. Phonetics is the sound of letters, which we normally use to read and mostly to spell. Phonemic awareness has nothing to do with letter sounds, it just deals with how a young child hears a word and splits it in her head. As a result the phonemic spelling of a word might be something completely bizarre like the way I spelled house earlier (haus). Children mostly move from the phonemic stage to spelling the words correctly unconsciously it seems. Doesn’t your respect for toddler brain just grow leaps and bounds? Mine did.

Speaking about learning English, how did you learn English? I have been raking my mind to see if I can remember how I learnt English and I can’t come up with anything. I can say one things for sure, I wasn’t taught phonics/phonemes/morphology/etymology or any other -ology. For a long time I thought phonics has something to do with the telephone. When Chula’s leap frog phonics bus said, ‘A says a, A says AA’, I went ‘huh?’. Few memories I have that is associated with learning a language (any language)

At age 5: Telling my father, ‘Appa, don’t say FatherR. Don’t say DaughteR. Say Father, daughter’ and my father still teases me for it.

Also at age 5: Remembering my English teacher say that we have to speak only in English in school and at home. That is the only way to be better in English. Then a young naive me coming back home and speaking ONLY in English and getting teased to death by dear family members.

At age 4: Remember learning to read Tamil by reading Dhina Thandhi.


Now, at home, I consciously speak in Tamil, try read Tamil books. This is both for the benefit of the kids and my benefit. Ain’t life funny?! In just 25 years life spins a 180, that makes one do the complete opposite.

Why must English be so confusing? Like the wise KamalHassan asked in ‘Oru Kaidhiyin Diary’, why is put not rhyming with but though only the first letter is different? Why do we say but as ‘bat’ and bat as ‘baat’? I can go on and on. But I leave you with a link to a post by nm that was timed superbly with what was going on in my mind.

A couple more posts on Language Development to follow(over a period of time :) ) and hence the ‘I’ in the title.