Digital media is full of information and therefore the school curriculum should be designed to rekindle interest in languages
It’s the first of January of all my years that I spend without my father, who was fit as a fiddle at 91 until the second wave of corona ripped him away from us. I remember the verse from Thirukkural, “The benefit which a father bestows on his son is to place him in the assembly of scholars.”
Sensing my flair for languages, he enrolled me to learn Hindi outside the curriculum, even when there was anti-Hindi agitation in the 1970s in Madras. This decision later proved correct when my banking career took me to the rest of India where I was able to adapt easily to Hindi, in addition to 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 mesmerized by the voice of legendary Hindi playback singer Mohammed Rafi and it was a real reason to learn Hindi. This was when Moore Market ran thrift stores stocked with books on Hindi movies, songs and sweets. My imagination was at its best and this was also the start of my reading and writing habits.
Quoting Samuel Johnson “Language is the clothing of thought”, I realized that one can convert thought into a story with finesse by possessing good language skills.
English was the medium of communication at 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 part of student life. The school believed that effective communication could get its students moving or help improve their professional skills. I too believed it. English remains the language of communication with the rest of the world. Yet, today, we see the lack of good vocabulary or speaking skills among many professionals, resulting in poor presentation.
On the other hand, teaching the second language or the regional language is not enough to help develop an appreciation for 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 the desired audience in the courses despite passionate lecturers. As students, we grew up knowing little about the pioneering efforts of Dr. UV Swaminatha Iyer, the great old man of Tamil literature, a Mahamahopadhyay, recovering literature from palm leaf manuscripts that would otherwise have been lost to the world. During his mission to bring Chintamani and Silappadikaram to print, he traveled far and wide across Tamil Nadu to meet people.
A report of the new yorker in 2015 noted that on all continents, people are abandoning their ancestral languages for the dominant language of the majority of their region. But the loss of languages passed down for millennia, along with their unique arts and cosmologies, can have consequences that will only be understood when it is too late to reverse them.
The way forward: Digital media is full of information and so the school curriculum can be designed to rekindle interest in languages, both English and regional, by making learning holistic. Simply making the regional language compulsory in schools and passing exams will create chaos in the education system, as many have expressed. Dropping languages for core subjects still does not bode well for the healthy development of students. At this time when there is competition and a rush for engineering and medical seats, we also need serious practitioners of literature who can make the most of digital technology by successfully marketing their works both for their passion and their livelihood.