Sunday, November 13, 2005

Language and culture

A couple of times a year, I act as facilitator at study-abroad programs here, where I talk to students traveling to India for a few quarters in a study-abroad program. These students come from various majors, and go to different cities in India with different subjects or areas of study in mind.

In my last counseling session, I met a rather interesting student.

He was Chinese-American, but was deeply interested in Indic studies, especially Indian languages. He told me of some of his experiences.

He first wanted to study Tamil (Tamizh), and get a better understanding of Tamil Classical literature, ideas and philosophy (he’s of course a philosophy major). He was fascinated by what little he had read about early Sangam literature (200 BC-300 AD), and wanted to learn the language itself.

So, he went down to India, and spent time in Madurai (Madurai Kamraj University), then Trichi, and then three months in Chennai. And he struggled. There were no programs that allowed him to enter at an interested novice level, and allow him to learn. Nor were there useful resource centers or libraries for him to access information. The professors he met were largely unhelpful. And there aren’t any good translations or commentaries in English of the Silappadikaram and other such Tamil classics. He was surprised, and extremely disappointed His quest for this knowledge was largely futile, but he wondered why if he could so easily learn any European language, or Chinese, or even Tibetian classics, was it so hard for Indian languages. And why weren’t there good university systems in place to enable that learning or research? I clearly had no answers.

His present effort (this time) is to go to Jaipur, and study Hindi, and medieval Rajasthani literature. He’s apparently had a little more success in finding a good teaching, study and resource center, and I hope his quest is successful. But he’s not being too optimistic this time, and hopes to at least have a good time traveling (he’s a smart kid, and now pretends to be Assamese to avoid paying the ridiculous “foreign tourist” fees at various tourist places, since he knows some broken Hindi).

But this made me think of a deeper issue. In Tamil Nadu, the “Tamil” revival movement (and the Dravida movement) dominates the political scene. For over 40 years, the state has been ruled by one Tamil party or the other. They shout hoarse about Tamil being denied it’s classical rights and pride of place. But if someone wants to come in and learn Tamil, there’s hardly any place he or she can go to, and there’s mighty little these so called champions of Tamil have done for Tamil language or culture (except shout hoarse that if girls wear jeans or if girls and boys talk, it’s ruining Tamil culture. Sorry, I couldn’t help that dig). If it is to study Tamil classics, it’s even harder. To the best of my knowledge, there are no dedicated centers for research and study on this area of priceless history. There are no dedicated university departments, or endowed chairs in universities for academics to pursue this research (if there are some, I haven’t found them). The few language departments have no incentive to teach, publish or research this area.

I’ve found this true for almost any major Indic language (Sanskrit’s priceless legacy at least has a few study centers of excellence).

Contrast this to the situation here, far away in the States. Some of them have outstanding programs in Indian languages, and carry out excellent research. They publish not only in scholarly journals, but also publish high-quality books available in various bookstores and almost all libraries. The University of Washington library has complete sections on Indian books, with shelves after shelves lined with books in Sanskrit, Tamil, Hindi, Bengali, Urdu and many other languages, ranging from reprints of classics, to commentaries and translations (in English). When the movie Pinjar released, not only did I find and read the Hindi original, but I also found (in the library search, as related books) other books in Indian languages, related to partition.

It is one thing to shout hoarse about culture or language. But there does need to be incentives and resources to enable this education or research. And even at a basic level, for just spoken or written language, when it’s so easy to learn French or German (which is fantastic, I think) in India, shouldn’t it be the same for vernaculars?

Or shouldn’t that be the case?

postscript: Also read Vikrum’s excellent post on Orientalists, here. Incidentally, this is the 101th post on Balancinglife. That’s more blogging than I ever thought I’d do.

postscript 2: Vikrum "responds" to this post, with another excellent post, here. Bang on.


Anonymous said...

First of all, congratulations on your 101st post! Thanks for all the wonderful stuff.

If the student you have mentioned is still interested in Tamil, the best thing for him to do would be to:

* Buy the government published text-books for primary school and

* Study under a private tutor who can speak English (probably a Tamil school teacher in an English medium school).

We know all about Indian universities and politicians, don't we.

He might get a better access to Tamil (or any Indian language) books via the American inter-library loans or Amazon.

I shall come back with more thoughts soon.

Anonymous said...

Nice post, and congrats on 101!

R.Nandakumar said...

there is a certain 'international institute of tamil studies' (not sure about the name but it is somewhere thereabouts) located in tharamani, chennai which, among other things, seems to have courses for 'outsiders' to learn spoken tamil upwards. i remember seeing a primer of theirs many years ago - it began with a conversation between two 'classically' named friends, ilangovan and valluvan. not sure what the scene is there NOW though.

Sunil said...

government school textbooks for primary school, or a private tutor is completely useless in this case because he knew how to read and write tamil. He wanted to study sangam literature, and couldn' the state of TAmil Nadu....where even universities didn't have a set up in place for that. This is largely true for any want to study the classics, you need to do it on your own initiative, with little resources or access to resources. Like Amrit's amazing how much you can learn of indian languages in say the States, but very little for advanced studies in India itself.

Nandakumar....i don't know about this place....but this kid said he was studying in it might even have been this place. seems a little obscure, and even the website i found for it is redundant, with little or no information, and no publications etc. So, how's a person supposed to go there and do research or find resources? Just on good faith?

Anand, Srikanth, thanks.

Vikrum said...


I just wanted to let you know that I very much enjoyed your post and posted a "response" to your article on my blog. "Response" is in quotes because I am not refuting anything you said - I agree with what you've written. You're article made me think more about language and culture, and that's my response. Thanks again for a nice article.

Sujatha Bagal said...

Thought-provoking post Sunil. Never thought of the study of Indian languages from the perspective of a foreigner. I googled Berlitz (I love their teaching method) and I found that they teach Tamil and Hindi. But I understand what you're saying - that there is no facility of the study of and research into the classics.

On another note, the latest news about the "moral policing" issue is that the actress Suhasini has thrown her weight behind Kushboo.

Finally, congratulations on your 101st post!

The ramblings of a shoe fiend said...

as always a thought provoking post. the so called 'protectors' of indian culture would do better to preserve our architectural and cultural heritage than enforce prudish dress codes on young men and women in colleges. how can young people be asked to respect indian culture and tradition when it's crumbling right in front of their eyes? btw congrats on your century+1

Sunil said...

Vikrum...excellent post, that's now linked here.

Sujatha, Shoefiend, thanks. I won't even say studying Indian languages from the perspective of a foreigner. We ourselves are foreigners in our country. If a person moves to Assam, and wants to learn Assamese (thoroughly), there's no way to go about it easily. But i'm sure in Guwahati, there must be an alliance francaise, and i can learn french systematically and thoroughly. Forget about me wanting to learn about Assamese classics.....that's impossible.

The dress code issue of course a big joke.

Brunda............language education is not about teaching classes alone, but outreach AND research. And dedicated resource centers, where the resources are created and enhanced. But knowing the pathetic condition of most general libraries themselves, these resource centers are a very distant goal. Forget about using microfilms to save ancient documents. Take a look at this one project where i know the people involved, here. Can you imagine this kind of research happening anywhere in India? It's not the costs alone that matters....its the entire ideology of wanting to preserve and propagate language.

some courses don't have a large enrollment. I took Sanskrit courses here at UW.....there were on average 8 students per course. The course content and teaching was absolutely fantastic.

Any language researcher in India will easily agree that the best place for learning Indian languages, and researching the area, is not India but the United States. Funding is a problem if you want this kind of standard in every single university. But for dedicated resource centers built specifically for this purpose (for starters built in major universities, or independently, in some cities), funds can easily be raised in India. This does not have to go through the government at all, nor does it have to necessarily use tax payer money.

Anonymous said...

Long story about my own experiences studying Hindi-Urdu:

I'm a white guy from California, but a serious, non-hippie, student of India. I went on a study-abroad program from my college (UC Berkeley) in 2003, and began studying Hindi at the Landour Language School in Mussoorie, Uttaranchal. The teachers there were almost uniformly terrific - dedicated and friendly, with a really thorough understanding of how to teach a language.

After a month there, my whole group split up, some to Delhi University and others to Hyderabad Central University. When I got to HCU, I started studying Urdu with the chair of the Urdu department chair. He was a very sweet man, but just a terrible language teacher. Of course, that's not his job - it's a graduate school, and he's supposed to be teaching native Urdu speakers about literature, not helping some gora get around the bazaar. But the fact's still there that I and my fellows were Americans who had come to India in an earnest effort to learn everything we could - in my case, I'm planning to get a Ph.D. in Indian history, so I'm absolutely serious about learning Hindi and Urdu - and the school had nothing to offer us. The other kids at HCU who did Hindi, and the ones who went to Delhi, had no better luck. Eventually, the other Urdu students and I went to A.A. Hussain's Books and bought ourselves Teach Yourself Urdu, brought it to the professor, and asked him to use it, because we were tired of sitting around while he asked us what words we wanted to know. It helped a bit, but not much - we got through about three chapters in four months, enough to maybe say "Limca dijiye."

I came back to the US, kept in practice for a year by watching filims, and then said, screw this, I need a teacher, so I signed up for Hindi classes, and now I'm studying under Usha Jain, who essentially invented Hindi pedagogy in the US. Next year, after a couple years of preparation, I'm planning to attend a school in Lucknow, run by the American Institute of Indian Studies, to really get fluent in Urdu. But look - I need a couple years, just to get that far? Actually, the AIIS has programs for elementary language learners too (for about 8 languages), but for one thing, you need to apply and have university backing and so forth, and for another thing, it's an American group! Where are the schools run by Indians? Or never mind who runs them, why can't I just waltz in and learn? Why do I need to be in Berkeley if I want to study with a great teacher?

Venkatarangan TNC said...

I am not sure where he went in Tamilnadu for learning Tamil. Tamil Virtual Universtiy ( has lot of good programs to learn Tamil. Speaking to any Tamil teacher in any Schools would have helped in identify hundreds of places where he can learn Tamil.

As a matter of fact there are tons of learning materials in the Internet free as well for learning tamil. For sample, check out:

Venkatarangan TNC said...

There are tons of good english translations of "Silapathikaram".

So before you complain on this, please do a google search for 'cilappatikAram in english' and you will find lot of books.
As a sample check:

Anonymous said...

I agree that Indian languages don't have institutions that are the equivalent of Max Mueller Bhavans or Alliance Francois across the country. That would be great. The Dakshina Bharat Hindi Prachar Sabha is probably one such. (I think it's done a great job.)

The TN Govt. could try to replicate this model for Tamil in the north. I am sure there are a large number of Tamils there who don't have access to resources for their children to study the mother-tongue.

I see more potential for the self-study books. The "Learn X Through Y" series of books (by Balaji publications) is a great idea. However they need a lot of improvement. I feel the scripts might be a stumbling block, so having an IAST English transliteration might help a lot. This would also help identify the common elements (which is a lot) across languages.

Anonymous said...

In the present scenario, I still think language teachers of English medium schools are a great resource for people like David Boyk. (Most of my Hindi & Sanskrit teachers at school did a great job.) Not for your Chinese-American, though.

And the advantage of (Government published) text-books is that they increase in complexity and detail gradually, with each successive standard.

R.Nandakumar said...


i myself have very little first hand experience with this 'international institute'. but i have heard from folks that they found their spoken tamil courses useful and well-organized. and as i said, my info is dated (it is from early nineties).

Anonymous said...

hmm...quite unfortunate and disheartening...political power and its implementation for a greater cause has almost become an exception to such an extent that it raises a feeling of burden,on behalf of the government....well...more or less is similiar about the status of shiv-sena in maharashtra..they are the self-appointed leaders of culture and civilization but were themselves responsible for the destruction of an archeaological library in pune,in oursuance to a matter written in relation to

Srivaths said...

Are you sure the student visited this place? More here.

Anonymous said...

The "Tamizh Revival" movement is chauvanistic and in denial of history for which it has no use at all; and its fervour is almost - OK I won't precipitate Godwin. The current "protectors" of the language have always had a anti-woman line of thought that I have many times talked and written about only to be ignored. Now with the campaign of hate unleashed against Khushboo (a Deccani Muslim) these zealots have shown that they have no respect or appreciation for those from other cultures who learn Tamizh and live with TamizhargaL. The Tamizh of classicism and modernism; ELango and Kannadasan, ChitranAr and VAli; is a very differernt thing from the beast these bigots have come up with. It is indeed sad that a rich language and culture is now in the hands of these spoilers.

Sunil said...

Thanks for your comments all.

The point here is not a TAmil issue at all.....but a pan-indian one. David's comment really reflects that very well. Srikanth,Nandakumar this is not just for learning simple spoken or written language (though even that does not have a process). This is for some one to become a dedicated student of the language AND learn and research the classic texts, history and philosophy from a region. And a system that would allow students and researchers to come in and learn a language scientifically and efficiently. That is what's missing completely. talk about speaking to tamil teachers in schools. if a person is coming from a distant place, even finding resources is very difficult. There is no system in place where he can just go and learn. you don't need to hunt down and speak to school teachers if you want to learn french, do you? that is indeed an excellent resource.........that seems hard to find. Why is that not liked to from websites of Tamil departments?

Anonymous's....thanks for your comments. I will have to agree with your comments, and the general direction the movement has taken has done mighty little for Tamil. But again, i just used Tamil as an example could have been any indian language, and the situation would be as bad or worse.

Anonymous said...

One more thing I forgot to mention - when I was studying Urdu in Hyderabad, there was another guy there doing the same thing. He was some type of British diplomat, trying to work on his Urdu before going to his posting in Islamabad. So even the British Foreign Office has trouble finding good language teachers!

Anonymous said...

The Union Services (IAS and IPS) and the Indian Army have excellent Indian language schools. In case of the civil services a few successful candidates are posted to their home cadres (state of origin) while the rest are posted to other states or to the Union Territory cadre. Using a tried and tested method (not like the parody you see in English August) officers learn to first speak the language and in a matter of months can read and write it. I have known several IAS and IPS officers in Tamil Nadu from other states whose fluency in Tamizh borders on the literary. In the Army there are 10s of infantry units from every corner of the land. While the men are recruited from their respective regions, officers can be from anywhere; like Gen JJ Singh current CAS, a Sikh from Punjab is from the Marathas. The late Sundarji was from the Mahars; while F/M Manekshaw fought with the Dogras. All members of the regiment must learn Hindi while the officers are expected to learn the language of their men. In multi-lingual units like the Madras/Bombay/Bengal Sappers; Madras Regiment etc., officers are known to have learnt two and even three languages.

But of course these schools aren't open to the - you guessed it - public!

Sunil said...

Anonymous........thanks for that! I was aware that officers in the Armed forces had to speak in the language of their regiment, but had no idea that their language schools were this good. The Union Services ofcourse do have some excellent systems.

David...perhaps your friend (being in the British foreign office) might be able to access these resources in the IAS.

But schools like this are what students need and deserve.....

Anonymous said...

Venkatarangan TNC is right, and anyone interested in higher level Tamil study can go to IAS in Chennai. For that matter you can do a course in TamiL Lit at Madras Univ even through distance learning. But when you claim Mozhi/Muthiah Trust is hard to find, I begin to wonder about the claims!!

Anonymous said...

An online Bookshop from India with one of the biggest database for all subjects of Indian Books from major publishers of India.
Like subjects are as............
Ancient History
Art & Archeology
Art & Craft
Biographies & Autobiographies
CD Titles
Children Books
Competitive Examinations
Computer Crime
Defence Studies
Development Studies
Dictionaries & Encyclopedias
Drug & Narcotic Studies
Earth Sciences
Economics & Commerce
Environmental Studies
Epic Books
Food & Nutrition
Forensic Science
Forestry & Wildlife
Gender Studies
General Books
General Science
Gift Books
How to Series
Human Rights
Indian Polity
Islamic Books
Law Books & Journals
Library Science
Media & Mass Communication
Medical Books
Military Books
Osho Books
Philosophy & Religion
Police Studies
Religion & Spiritual Books
Rural Development
Sports & Physical Education
The Himalayas
Trekking & Mountaineering
Women and Child Studies

Click Here to See More..

Unknown said...

Re: Tamil home tutor in Chennai.

Can someone pls recommend one to me? Many thanks.