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For the love of language

This is the first January in all my years I am spending without my father around, who was fit as a fiddle at 91 until the second wave of corona snatched him away from us. I recollect the couplet from the Thirukkural , “The benefit that a father confers upon his son is to place him in the assembly of learned.”

Sensing my flair for languages, he enrolled me to learn Hindi outside the curriculum, even when there was an anti-Hindi agitation in 1970s Madras. This move proved correct later when my banking career took me to the rest of India where I could adapt myself easily to Hindi, besides the local language.

During my early years, I had a natural affinity for Malayalam and Tamil, being a Kerala-born Tamil. As a teenager, I was mesmerised by the voice of Mohammed Rafi, legendary Hindi playback singer and this was real reason to learn Hindi. This was the time when Moore Market ran second hand shops flush with books on Hindi films, songs and the tidbits. My imagination was at its best and this was the beginning of my reading and writing habit too.

Quoting Samuel Johnson “Language is the dress of thought”, I realised that one can convert thought into a story with finesse by possessing good language skills.

English was the medium of communication in the Anglo-Indian school in Chennai where I studied. The colonial influence in the school was such that one could read, write and speak English with ease. Visits to the British Council Library were a part of student life. The school believed that effective communication could take its students places or help to improve work skills. I too believed so. English remains the language of communication with the rest of the world. Yet today, we see absence of good vocabulary or speaking skills among many working professionals resulting in bad presentation.

On the other hand, teaching of the second language or regional language was not enough to help develop an appreciation of the beauty of the language. The poetic beauty of Kamba Ramayanam , Silappadikaram and Periya Puranam or the Bhakti element of Thevaram and so on did not find due audience in classes despite having passionate lecturers. As students, we grew up without knowing much about the pioneering efforts by Dr. U.V. Swaminatha Iyer, the grand old man of Tamil literature, a Mahamahopadhyay , in retrieving literature from palm leaf manuscripts which otherwise would have been lost to the world. While on his mission to bring Chintamani and Silappadikaram to print, he travelled far and wide through entire Tamil Nadu meeting people.

A report by The New Yorker in 2015 noted that on every continent, people are forsaking their ancestral tongues for the dominant language of their region’s majority. But the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, may have consequences that won’t be understood until it is too late to reverse them.

The way forward: digital media is awash with information and so the school curriculum can be designed to revive the interest in the languages, both English and regional, by making the learning holistic. Merely making the regional language compulsory in schools and clearing the exams will create chaos in the education system as voiced by many. Forsaking the languages for the core subjects will again not augur well for the wholesome development of students. In this age where there is a competition and scramble for engineering and medical seats, we also need serious practitioners of literature who can make the best use of digital technology by marketing their works successfully both for their passion and livelihood too.


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Printable version | May 20, 2022 11:51:58 pm |