18 Mar 2010
Considering how I acquired language and how I grew up, my brain is very bilingual and it adapts to the environment I am in. While in India, I found myself reading more Tamil, speaking more Tamil, hearing different dialects of Tamil and thinking more in Tamil. I remember hitting road blocks while trying to do creative writing in English. My vocabulary tank hit empty often and I confuse tenses. Presently the case is reversed. In my case, I feel my Tamil is just dormant and will come back with immersion.
My parents are with me right now, which makes me focus on something interesting. My dad was educated in Tamil medium till he completed high school. English was just one of the subjects. But he studied his history, geography, math, science, for that matter even English, through Tamil. He started formal English medium in his undergrad. He later acquired three masters degrees and a PhD in organic chemistry. He says that he struggled quite a bit for the first couple of months in undergrad, but it was smooth sailing after that. I find that his English is REALLY good. Much better than mine! We are talking about the person, who represented Annamalai University in the National Level and received prizes from Jawaharlal Nehru and Dr.Radhakrishnan for his creative writing in English and his mono act as Shylock. This is not totally out of context, because this article triggered my train of thought.
Now to the challenges I face as an immigrant parent. Both my children started as very fluent in Tamil. When they started preschool, they could follow simple one sentence directions in English, but couldn’t talk other than yes or no. It was a silent language receiving period for them for the first two months of preschool. After that they started code switching. Now it is English all the time. Initially I thought that the fascination of the newly acquired language is making them talk in English all the time and that they will change. After two years, I feel that they have successfully converted me!
Most of the bilingual studies in the United States, I feel, cannot be applied to the unique case of the Indian immigrant. In the States, the focus is more on ‘ENGLISH AS A SECOND LANGUAGE(ESL)’ learner. An ESL learner, is very fluent in his/her mother tongue, is introduced to English after the home language is mastered and continues to get her home language immersion at home, from relatives, peers from the same cultural background, entertainment media and books. Where as the development of home language in children of Indian immigrants is precarious. The children switch to English after they enter school and their level of home language immersion is not that great, owing to a great deficit in the dosage of home language they receive.
As a resident of the state of California, I am in a better shape when compared with my peers living in some remote city in the States. Here we have The California Tamil Academy, a Tamil school that we can send our children to. Not that an one hour a week, Tamil school is a cure all wonder, but in the worst case, one can at least hope that the children pick up some basic Tamil for survival. I volunteer to teach Tamil for a small group of ten year old children. I have to say that these children are pretty good. They can read, write and understand Tamil. They can talk, but are extremely self-conscious.
As a teacher how do I bridge the gap between spoken and written Tamil in my classroom? CTA follows the text books from Tamil Nadu text book society. Also the Tamil classes through CTA can count as foreign language credits in certain school districts in the Bay Area. So the text books have to be of a certain format and the syllabus has to meet certain standards. So the Tamil in the text book is appropriately formal for that level. From my observation of the children in my classroom, they do not think that that Tamil in text books are formal or different. They do not recognize the gap, because most of them converse mostly in English. Their dose of spoken Tamil at home is limited. Even if their parents talk in Tamil, an average ten year old gets a total 30 minute talk time with their parents after school-homework-homework related talk-play-extra curricular activities.
This is different from an average child growing up in India, where the child gets quite a bit of regional language from the environment and this language is different from what they read in books.
My aim as a Tamil teacher is to make the children feel comfortable talking in Tamil while helping them to read and write. Some how make them connect Tamil language and Tamil literacy. If at the end of a year, these children can recognize that there is a gap between spoken and written Tamil, I will be happy. Major portion of my 60 minute class is devoted to conversation. Most of the time, we talk about something that they can relate to. So I pick the young adult fiction to talk to them. (May the husband note that I am merely doing classroom research and Y.A Fiction is not to satisfy the child in me that refuses to grow up.) Books like this and this gets the conversation flowing effortlessly for a good 30 minutes. Every one has two cents to add and we help each other when we get struck forming a sentence in Tamil. The wimpy kid even branched off in to areas like right and wrong, about how bullying affects them etc.
This concludes part IV.