Mother tongue – Tamil, medium of enlightenment

Can we have a more classical medium of instruction than our mother tongue, our hoary Tamil language which also happens to be the oldest and the best documented Dravidian language, asks Prof. G. Thiruvasagam, Vice Chancellor, University of Madras.

Published - June 23, 2010 10:14 am IST

G. Thiruvasagam. Photo: K. Ananthan

G. Thiruvasagam. Photo: K. Ananthan

It is said, “To be a great country we must be great citizens. To be a great citizen we must have a great education!”

It naturally follows that to have a great education we must have a great medium of instruction.

Can we the citizens of this great state of Tamil Nadu have a more classical medium of instruction than our mother tongue, our hoary Tamil language which happens to also be the oldest and the best documented Dravidian language?


Prof. Asko Parpola who richly deserves the Classical Tamil Award and other Dravidian researchers consider Old Tamil to be a possible means to decipher the language of Indus inscriptions.

In his message, Prof. Parpola states, “The Tamils are entitled to some pride, having preserved so well the linguistic heritage of the Indus civilization.”

From the very beginning, mother tongue has been found to be the best medium for acquiring knowledge.

The Romans imposed their mother tongue, Latin, on the world. Since then, imbibing a classical language like Latin is considered an essential part of the education system.

Research has shown that the students who are proficient in their mother tongue are not only better equipped to learn other languages but as a study by the University of Leicester proves the “exclusion of the mother tongue from the learning environment hinders students' identity construction, language learning and critical thinking development”.

Other studies have proven that “countries that used mother tongues as medium of education were better in augmenting and creating knowledge.”

In fact, the Hague Recommendations on theEducational Rights of National Minorities and the UNESCO Education Position Paper Education in a multilingual world (2003) recommend that “the longer indigenous and minority children in a low-status position have their own language as the main medium of teaching, the better they also become in the dominant language, provided, of course, that they have good teaching in it, preferably given by bilingual teachers”.

Let us take the case of our very own children hailing from Tamil medium schools who are confident and happy individuals suddenly transplanted into a hostile and alien atmosphere where they are linguistically at sea as English is the medium of instruction in most institutions dispensing higher education.

We have seen these children transforming before our eyes into timid, sullen individuals whose creativity and voice are silenced by the linguistic imperialism of English.

Grandmothers and Grandfathers

Thank you for our language

that you have saved for us.

It is now our turn to save it

for the ones who are not yet born.

May that be the truth!

Maliseet Honour Code, written by Imelda Perley, Cree from Manitoba quoted by Dr. Tove Skutnabb-Kangas, University of Roskilde, Denmark In The right to mother tongue medium education- the hot potato in human rights instruments.

Apart from the sentimental echo of those words, historical experience shows that mass literacy and, hence, enlightenment is better achieved when mother tongue is used as a medium of education and it has in fact ‘quantitative as well as qualitative outcomes'.


Let us take the case as laid out by Dr. ManzurEjaz in his article ‘ Education in mother tongue' wherein he states “historical records have proven that at the time of British annexation, the literacy rate in Lahore and its neighbourhood was about 80 %, which is down to single digits now…The literacy rate plunged because the medium of education was changed from the mother tongue to Urdu and English… Some English civil servants had foretold the consequences of not making the mother tongue the medium of education.

“They argued that when Latin was the medium of education in England, education was limited to narrow circles.

“However, when French was adopted as a medium of education, the literacy rate expanded a bit, but mass education was made possible only when the Celtic dialect, adopted as Standard English, was made the medium of education”.

Despite our tall claims about the average Indian's proficiency in English, the percentage of people speaking English is supposedly about 23%.


Though the population eligible to speak English is 110 crore only 2.32 crore speak English.

Despite all the hype about English being cosmopolitan language, the first most widely spoken language in the world is Chinese, Mandarin as it is spoken by 1,120 million people in the world, against 480 million people speaking English.

A number of countries like Japan, China, Germany and France have made giant strides along the path of progress including the teaching learning process, research and international trade, scientific advancement, cultural development and day-to-day life and all this in their own native tongue without using English!

Proficiency in English therefore is not an index of development.

Seventy million people speak Tamil throughout the world.

These 70 million have the right to expect that their mother tongue would be used even for research and fast developing Information Technology and coping with the demands of modern society.

The steps initiated by the Tamil Nadu Government in this regard are quite reassuring.

Coding schemes for Tamil monolingual and bilingual scripts have been finalized and notified besides, a certification mechanism, supported by the Tamil software industry has been put in place to certify compliance of hardware and software offerings with the standards referred to above.


So far 26 software and hardware offerings have been certified which conform to the standards and have been authorized for use in Tamil Nadu Government and its institutions.

To supplement these efforts, Government of Tamil Nadu is a member of the international “Unicode Consortium” ( to deal with issues regarding the coding of Tamil characters.

That Tamil language has it relevance and more importantly a perfectly anchored place in modern day higher education is reflected in the results of the Civil Service Examinations.

Tamil Nadu accounted for 16.2% of successful candidates in recently concluded civil service examinations.

A large majority of them belong to the middle class and poor families and have been groomed through Tamil medium.

A wise Maori from the Whanganui iwi, Manu Metekingi is reputed to have said “ As long as we have the language, we have the culture. As long as we have the culture, we can hold on to the land.”

The land of the Tamils or Tamil Nadu is ours!

We have a culture and a language whose enriching power will be seen, heard and appreciated during the five day Ullaga TamizhChenmozhi Maanadu that has been organized by our visionary Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi to usher Renaissance in Tamil and transmit this heritage to posterity.

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