I don’t speak my mother tongue. I used to be regretful, upset and honestly a little bit ashamed that I never tried very hard to learn it.
My parents first tried to teach me when I was a baby. Apparently, I used to flip flop between Tamil and English, which confused my white preschool teachers. And I guess my teachers were concerned enough that they told my parents to only teach me English at home.
I like to think that my teachers had good intentions, but deep down, I still hold a little bit of resentment towards their inflexibility in teaching a bilingual child. In a world of “what-ifs,” I sometimes imagine a universe in which speaking solely Tamil from birth would have made me feel more secure in my Tamil identity. I wish that I had learned earlier that my American and Tamil identities aren’t mutually exclusive. I wish that society didn’t pressure my parents and other immigrants to assimilate and sacrifice their culture to survive in America. I wish that my teacher didn’t tell my parents to only speak to me in English.
In late elementary school, my parents tried teaching me my mother tongue again by sending me to a Tamil school on Sundays. We would wake up at 5:30 in the morning and drive an hour and a half to Ann Arbor to attend religious and language classes. Since I was starting with very little prior background, I attended a baby class with 4- and 5-year-olds. There, the classrooms were bare, with no furniture and empty white walls, but I never felt isolated among the sharp scolding of our teacher and the whispers of students. We sat on the floor, crisscrossing our legs, studying off of yellowed, torn workbooks from India. After a few months, I went from learning how to count to three to introducing myself, and before I knew it, I was piecing together sentences. Eventually, I was good enough that when I went to Sri Lanka, I could talk to the store owner to ask for a bottle of soda and converse with my cousin who didn’t speak English.
Over time, we stopped going; life got busier, and driving an hour and a half for a two-hour class just didn’t seem sustainable. Slowly, my Tamil skills started to fade without practice. I mean, I can still kind of understand it — I can use my limited knowledge to put together thoughts with the help of a few occasional English words and exaggerated hand gestures. However, I am far from fluent.
As a member of the Tamil diaspora that was forced out of Sri Lanka, the Tamil language is central to our identity. In language lies stories, history and culture passed through generations. The survival of the Tamil language in Sri Lanka particularly represents the perseverance of our community through war and state-sanctioned genocide. Considering the struggles that my community has overcome to keep our language and culture alive, it almost feels more sacrilegious that I don’t know how to speak it due to its vast history and continued efforts at preservation.
As an adult, I reckon with this loss. My experience is not dissimilar to other first-generation children, who must also now redefine their cultural heritage in the absence of their mother tongues.
In college, without my parents, I’ve interrogated my relationship with the Tamil language. I even signed up for a Tamil class during freshman year but quickly dropped out when I realized that I was much further behind my classmates. Despite these experiences, by meeting other Desi peers that don’t speak their native tongue, I have rediscovered ways to exchange cultures. I realized that language is not the only way to build community. Instead, I have found other ways to connect with my Tamil ethnic identity — through eating foods like dosa or appam, going to temple and celebrating Navratri and Tamil New Year, learning the history of our community and sharing it through MiC. And even though I don’t speak or even fully understand Tamil, its rhythmic cadence gives me comfort.
From a young age, I grew up listening to my parents speaking it to each other, my dad playing the BBC Tamil radio every night and my Tamil teachers singing us bhajans. So, when I hear it on the street or at a party, I feel at home.
Ultimately, I really hope to relearn my mother tongue, but if I don’t, that’s okay. The sounds of Tamil will always put me at ease, and maybe I’ve come to accept that this little comfort is enough. In the process of mourning my mother tongue, I have redefined what being diasporic Tamil means to me.
MiC Columnist Maya Kogulan can be reached at email@example.com.