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The Great Language Debate

The debate about the importance of the younger generation learning Malayalam has been with us right from the start of KALA and beyond that, I'm sure. Is Malayalam really essential, seeing as the youth of KALA have mostly been brought up in Britain and use English as their first language? Do the Malayali youth of today need to know Malayalam to learn about the rich heritage of Kerala? I have heard many points of view on this subject and The Palm Leaf has decided to formalise this topic into a written debate. I sent a set of questions to a selected number of parents and young adults within KALA families to kick start the debate. The responses I received are given below; they clearly show the different perspectives of people on the subject. The range of opinions expressed here illustrate individuals' views on where we came from as a linguistic community and where we are going. - Preethi Gopinath

1. Do you think it is important for Malayali children growing up in Britain to learn Malayalam? Why? PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE

P Ramachandran:

It is good if Malayali children growing up in Britain like to learn Malayalam and put in extra effort, even if they do not communicate in this language even with their parents. Fluency in Malayalam will be a social asset when they attend functions like that of KALA and when they visit Kerala.

G K Nair:

Yes. Because it is our mother tongue which is spoken by our parents and families in India as well as in England. To understand and validate our cultural identity it is necessary to learn Malayalam.

Dr P Nair:

It is good if children are able to learn Malayalam. But that is not a high priority.

Dr PM Ali:

It is difficult to be dogmatic about it. As I am very fond of my mother tongue, I can not expect my children to have same feeling towards Malayalam. Moreover, the children growing up in England or in any other country other than in India, may find it very difficult to learn a language, which is not spoken by their peers. If those children are going to grow up here and settle down here , then I can not possibly say that learning Malayalam is very imperative. The sad thing is that the children growing up in Kerala now opt to learn English and other languages and not learning Malayalam at all. This is more worrying as these children once grown, will have nothing In common with the ordinary people.

Balasanker:

Yes. It will help children to communicate with their parents and understand about Kerala better.

K Natarajan:

It will be quite useful, though not essential for Malayali children growing up n Britain to earn Malayalam. It will help in a better understanding of our culture and will enhance inter-personal relationships when they visit India, even when on short holidays.

YOUNG ADULTS' PERSPECTIVE

Manoj Ramachandran:

It will be nice to learn Malayalam properly, to be able to fluently communicate in one more language. Such fluency is also helpful for an outsider to understand the ethos and the culture when lie/she visits the area where the language is spoken.

Sheela Nair:

Language is an art form and in Malayalam there is a wealth of literature that would be lost if the language is not upheld. It would be ideal if those who settled in a country outside their own could pass on their traditional languages to the next generation. However as with many older languages (notably Gaelic and Latin) this will only happen if the next generation itself develop an interest.

Geetha Balasanker:

Being bilingual or even multilingual is a very useful skill. Anything that eases communication between people should be encouraged. Of course being Malayali, it would be great if we could all be as fluent as our parents. However, this should not be to the detriment of our English, which is the case with some other Asian communities

Pavithra Natarajan:

Yes, so that they can communicate with their relatives when they return to Kerala on holidays.. I know that most of our relatives can speak English perfectly adequately, but it is different to be take part/understand a conversation in Malayalam.

2. In your view, is it possible to learn about your "roots" without understanding the Malayalam language? PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE P Ramachandran:

It is possible to learn about roots by reading relevant books which have been published in English Language and through discussions with knowledgeable persons who are willing to share their knowledge.

G K Nair:

No.

Dr P Nair:

Of course it is possible. But more importantly it is also possible to be able to speak the language without knowing the essence of Malayali life. The important factor in growing up is to be able to develop ones individuality, language in this aspect is secondary, be it Malayalam or any other language.

Dr P M Ali:

If one knows Malayalam, it may be easy to understand Kerala literature better. Perhaps to discover our roots, we may have to depend on our heritage. One could get an idea about ones roots by learning from observation of our parents or elders and by reading what is available in other language

Balasanker:

Not fully.

K Natarajan:

It is possible to learn about our roots without understanding Malayalam.

YOUNG ADULTS' PERSPECTIVE

Manoj Ramachandran:

It is possible to learn about the culture and tradition of an area and people, even if one does not understand the local language.

Sheela Nair:

Of course it is possible to learn about your roots without understanding Malayalam. How many other cultures do we learn about through school/ reading/ television, without having to speak their languages? Besides, understanding of a language has no bearing on your understanding of that culture.

Geeta Balasanker:

Those who learn about something they have not experienced often make a greater effort to understand it therefore I think it is possible to learn about our roots without understanding Malayalam language. We may even learn facts than those who have grown up in Kerala haven't as we may ask questions that they wouldn't think of asking. However in some ways our understanding may be limited such as the understanding of dance and music.

Pavithra Natarajan:

Yes, to a degree, although understanding Malayalam would of course enhance this understanding.

3.How useful is Malayalam in your everyday life? Would you rate it as your first, second or third language?

PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE

P Ramachandran:

In terms of usefulness in every day life in Britain, Malayalam has no place.

G K Nair:

Mother tongue is classified as first language which is Malayalam. English and other languages are a working language.

Dr P Nair:

Probably, third.

Dr P M Ali:

In my every day life, I seldom use Malayalam, except for communicating with other Malayalees. Here also we often use English. It is easy for me to communicate with my daughter and son in English. I do not need Malayalam for my professional life! For my pleasure, I use Malayalam a lot. Without reading Malayalam poetry I do not think I can spend many days. ONV and Sugatha Kumari, through their poems fill a vacuum which will not be filled by any thing else. Malayalam in my case is second language.

Balasanker:

Third language.

K Natarajan:

In social and domestic environment it is quite useful. In other environments, it is not of much use.

YOUNG ADULTS' PERSPECTIVE

Manoj Ramachandran:

Malayalam has no useful purpose in ones everyday life in this country.

Sheela Nair:

Living in Scotland I was not in touch with any Malayalees bar my family and we usually communicate in English. So Malayalam probably would be third.

Geeta Balasanker:

Malayalam isn't particularly useful in my every day life. Most other Asians in this country speak Gujarati Hindi or Urdu and most Asian 'youth" speak to each other in English. However I do find Malayalam to be extremely useful when out shopping with my mother and we don't want people to understand what we are saying!!!

Pavithra Natarajan:

I would have to rate it as a 2nd language since my everyday speech is almost completely in English (except for the daily phone-call home!)

4.If the use of a language is to clearly articulate your needs, feelings and thoughts, does it matter whether you master Malayalam, English or Greek, provided that you are highly proficient in the language used in the environment around you?

PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE

P Ramachandran:

For Life in Britain, it does not matter if one does not know Malayalam, and in any case there is no need to master that language.

G K Nair:

Yes. Even the multicultural schools in England are telling parents to teach their children their mother tongue.

Dr P Nair:

Language is the tool for communication and it is always an advantage to be able to communicate in more than one language. If Malayalam is the tool used, then it is perfect for Kerala. But what matters is how one uses his/her language skill to communicate.

Dr P M Ali:

I believe that it is essential to master the language of the country in which one lives. Language is for communication and for effective communication, one needs to master the language of the adopted country.

Balasanker:

No.

K Natarajan:

Proficiency in the language used will satisfy the usual/routine needs. However, proficiency in ones mother tongue will enhance ones articulation of ones feelings and thoughts, in a much better way. Though I usually forget my dreams when I wake-up, I think my dreams have always been in Malayalam.

4.When you visit Kerala are you able to communicate with your grandparents and other family members in a relaxed and fluent manner

YOUNG ADULTS' PERSPECTIVE

Sheela Nair:

I can communicate with most of my relatives in Kerala quite happily, though not always fluently.

Geeta Balasanker:

I find that many 'young people in Kerala want to prove how good their English is, so even if you speak to them In Malayalam, they reply in English which makes my life very easy. When I was younger I wouldn't say much more than “Wenda” or “Mathi” (I don't know if that is how you spell it) as I was a lot more conscious of how I sounded, but I do try to make an effort now.

Pavithra Natarajan:

No, I am able to fully understand a conversation and indeed enjoy listening to my family, members' banter, but I always wish that I could join in and be an active part of the conversation, rather than a mere 'observer.

5. Indians who migrated to Mauritius, South Africa, West Indies and Fiji over a hundred years ago lost touch with their ancestral mother tongue within 3 or 4 generations. Do you think the same will happen to us?

PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE

P Ramachandran:

It can happen that, after three or four generations, descendants of Malayali Immigrants into Britain may lose touch completely with their ancestral mother tongue. However, today's world Is far different than what it was even 25 years ago, let alone 50 or 100 years, and faster and cheaper travel and telecommunication, have brought distant areas and people nearer. Frequent travels back to Kerala and India will keep values and traditions alive and in the process also enable them to be in touch with their ancestral language though not necessarily any mastery of the language. Mastery of the language has no useful purpose anyway from the standpoint of Life in Britain, as stated in my answer to question 4, although some one interested in learning more about Malayalam may and can do so for his own pleasure.

G K Nair:

It will not happen to us provided we encourage our children to follow our suits: For example Gujaratis they send their children to learn Gujarati in school even though they are born here. Same with Punjabis and Tamils.

Dr P Nair:

I think it is highly possible. We evolve rather should evolve and adapt to the surroundings. In our own family of Singapore Malayalees we see the decline of the language with the third generation. There is no reason to think British Malayalees would be any different.

Dr P M Ali:

I have visited Mauritius, Fiji, and East Africa where large number of Indians have settled. In those three countries people still speak the language of the regions from where they migrated. This is very evident in Fiji and Mauritius . This could be due to the fad that large number of immigrants settled down in the same area. So they had the privilege of continuously using the language of the regions from where they came. In those places there is very vibrant Indian culture thriving. I happened to read some of the works of Mauritian writers. They have demonstrated a very great depth of knowledge of Indian culture.

Balasanker:

Yes, because there is no day to day contact.

K Natarajan:

I think the same thing will happen to us, hut not to the same degree or extent. Owing to the great advancement in transport and communication, the world today is a much smaller place, as it were, and hence, we might not lose touch with the our mother tongue in the way as it happened in Fiji or South Africa.

YOUNG ADULT’S PERSPECTIVE

Manoj Ramachandran:

After 100 years, it is quite possible that our descendants may lose touch with Malayalam.

Sheela Nair:

I think Malayalees in Britain will be more aware of losing their language and will probably make more of an effort to maintain its use. Over a hundred year or so who can tell where the priorities lie.

Geeta Balasanker:

This isn't an exclusively Indian problem. Ties with the motherland do tend to be lost as generations pass. Just look at the USA, the population is comprised of the descendants of people from all over the world, yet in many cases the only clue as to someone's ethnicity may be their surname. Another reason is the global dominance of the English language. The world is changing so I think its something we have to expect.

Pavithra Natarajan:

Yes; anything not taught to our children dies when we die.

6. Many Malayali parents In Britain blame themselves for not teaching their children the Malayalam language. If Malayalam classes were available within 10 miles of your home, would you have attended the course regularly?

PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE

P Ramachandran:

My children were not taught Malayalam as they went to Junior Schools in Madras and Bombay. Not only that, instigated by the teachers of the English medium schools, the children were encouraged to speak in English at home also. They did not also need Malayalam, for interaction with other children socially. They spoke broken Malayalam when they visited Kerala, which was once in every two or three years. They have been in this country now for fifteen years, and for life in Britain they have no need of Malayalam. Manoj had tried to learn Malayalam at home, and can identify the letters and also read haltingly. Navin cannot read that language. Both however understand very well when spoken to in Malayalam. I do not blame myself in not making them master that language.

G K Nair:

Yes. At present in MKA is teaching Malayalam in Southall and Malayalee Association of the UK is doing the same in East Ham. I don't know about Croydon.

Dr P M Ali:

I do not blame myself for not teaching my daughter and son Malayalam. When I decided to settle down here, I have accepted that my children may not learn Malayalam. It does not mean that they do not know Indian culture or they do not understand Malayalam. I am not sure whether I would have compelled them to learn Malayalam even if the facilities were available.

Balasanker:

Yes.

K Natarajan:

As far as I am concerned, this question now is only of academic interest and the answer would only be subjective. The answer is “Most probably, Yes”.

YOUNG ADULT’S PERSPECTIVE

Manoj Ramachandran:

Might have attended Malayalam classes, if these were available. Audio cassettes and books will be of real help.

Sheela Nair:

Probably not, as a child my mum would have made me go.

Geeta Balasanker:

That would have depended if the classes were presented to me as being a fun and interesting activity, or whether they would have been a chore that I was forced to participate in. I have got a Malayalam alphabet book at home which I occasionally like to flick through.

Pavithra Natarajan:

Yes, I would like to learn Malayalam in a classroom setting, but only if the emphasis was on learning it for pleasure and conversation without too much work on grammer (and definitely no exams!)

7. There are many websites containing news items in Malayalam. Should KALA develop a website to help Malayali children who live in remote areas of the world to learn the language?

PARENTS' PERSPECTIVE

P Ramachandran:

I do not think there is any need for KALA to develop an internet site to help Malayali children who live in remote areas of the world to learn the language. For those who are interested in learning the language properly, an audio cassette with supporting literature, similar to the earning materials available for French, German, etc would, I think, be more appropriate for remote areas while interested children in cities could be given access to properly organised Malayalam classes.

G K Nair:

Some people may not have internet facilities for various reasons. In this case, it is advisable for these children learning should get a regular photocopied subjects.

Dr P Nair:

I personally think Kala's responsibility at this stage is towards its member families. In the future when there is enough commitment from the group, perhaps, yes. In any case if there are many such Internet sites, we should probably evaluate them and make recommendations to the group.

It is great to learn a language and I personally believe that Malayalam is a great language. We have a wonderful literature and culture. It will be a great idea to have a web site for Malayalam sponsored by Kala so that not only Malayali children also others interested in learning Malayalam could use it.

Balasanker:

Yes.

K Natarajan:

It will be a good idea and a great step forward.

YOUNG ADULT’S PERSPECTIVE

7. There are several internet sites containing news items in Malayalam. Should KALA develop an internet site to help Malayali children who live in remote areas of the world to learn the language?

Manoj Ramachandran:

Audio cassettes and books will be of real help.

Sheela Nair:

I don't know if it should be KALA who set up such a site. But it would be a good idea as it will no doubt be well received by some and this is how association will grow after all.

Geeta Balasanker:

Having studied French, I don't think the best way to learn a language is through a computer. A variety of resources must be used, hook, audio-visual material, group activities, and you can’t beat contact with a native speaker. I think listening to my parents talk to each other has taught me more Malayalam than any internet site ever could!!

Pavithra Natarajan:

I think that it would not be easy to learn a language as complex as Malayalam simply over the internet.

Conclusion

That ends the debate for this issue of The Palm Leaf. In general I thought that the young adults of KALA understand the importance of Malayalam in communication but realise the practicalities of Malayalam are limited. The parents varied in their views, neither always agreeing nor disagreeing with their children, all the better for the debate!

Being a young adult myself, I think that even though I don't use Malayalam at university or with my friends, I appreciate being able to understand and speak it, when with relatives and family friends. I think that associations such as KALA have made the importance of knowing Malayalam even more prominent. I think that although the youth wing of KALA have grown close, I still believe that the overall lacking in literary proficiency in Malayalam has made us a separate group in KAL.A as we don't fully understand the poetry and literature referred to in KALA meetings. The ability to understand and appreciate the wealth of literature in our Malayalee culture, are skills that are sadly lacking in today's generation. With all our scholars on Kerala's rich and vast literature in KALA alone, surely we can educate our youth so that our heritage and ancestral mother tongue do not disappear in the generations to come.

Finally, I would like to thank all the people who participated in the debate, without your varied and insightful replies this article would not have been possible.

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