Dravidian. This language family consists of the main languages of south India like Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada. These languages have long-established writing systems and literary traditions.
Where is it spoken?
Tamil is spoken wherever there are Tamil people. This is mainly in south India and Sri Lanka. It has official language status in Sri Lanka, Singapore and the Indian regions of Tamil Nadu and the Union Territory of Puducherry. It is spoken by minority groups in Malaysia, Réunion, Mauritius, South Africa and Fiji. More recently, there has been significant migration to countries such as Canada, the USA, the UK, France, Switzerland, Germany, and Australia.
How many people speak it?
What kind of people speak it?
Most Tamil speakers have arrived in Australia (mainly from India and Sri Lanka) in the last three decades or are the children of those migrants. For the younger generations, who are being educated in Australia, it is uncertain how much Tamil they will be willing to maintain into the future.
Tamil Hindus tend to maintain Tamil more than Tamil Christians. This seems to be because Saivism (the sect of Hinduism that is popular with Tamils) requires the Tamil language to participate in worship. For many Saiva devotees, Tamil provides specific religious concepts not easily expressed in English.
In what kind of contexts do people use this language?
For most speakers, the use of Tamil is limited to the home and family. While Tamil is not offered as a school or university subject, students can attend weekend language schools and can take Tamil for their final high school exams in some states.
Tamils can access an active social and cultural network, especially in Sydney and Melbourne. There are cultural events, Tamil businesses, and restaurants where Tamil is spoken. There are Saiva temples in several cities where Tamil is the first language (even though some rituals are performed in Sanskrit). I know of one temple which provides Saiva religious classes in Tamil to young students every week. Some Christian churches also offer services in Tamil.
Tamil pop music, soap operas and Kollywood films are accessible in Australia via the internet and Tamil shops. There are also Australian Tamil language publications, websites, and social media and SBS provides Tamil language radio and television shows.
What kind of things can you do in this language that you can’t do in Standard English?
The Tamil language allows you to practice and participate in particular aspects of Tamil culture, both traditional and modern. Tamil has a rich traditional music and dance culture, including Carnatic singing, Bharatanatyam dancing, and the playing of instruments such as the veena or mridangam. Music and dance classes are available in Australia and are popular with young Tamils. While fluency in Tamil is not necessary, it certainly allows you to access the nuanced meaning of the songs and dances. Similarly, when watching modern Kollywood films, knowing Tamil means you can understand the context and richness of the dialogue.
Many concepts are better expressed in one’s heritage language. For example, if a Tamil were to call their mother mum, instead of ammaa (அம்மா), they would not be conveying the same sense of closeness.
By understanding what is being said in a Tamil conversation, or by being able to speak in even ‘broken’ Tamil, you can feel part of a community and that can form part of your identity. Being bilingual in an Anglo-dominant country like Australia gives you access to another world and this can be strengthening when you feel isolated or like you don’t fit in.
What is the state of the language at the moment?
With such a large number of speakers worldwide and a stronghold in Tamil Nadu, Tamil is by no means an endangered language. The future of Tamil in Australia is a different issue. It is likely that as this migrant community becomes more established, and new generations are born, language shift to English may occur at a greater rate. To counter this shift, Tamils have achieved some momentum in accessing and using their language for specific purposes like language schools, cultural activities, and religious practices.
Niru Perera is undertaking a PhD research project on the use of language in a Tamil Hindu temple in Australia and is trying to learn Tamil in her spare time. She is a student at Monash University’s School of Languages, Literatures, Cultures and Linguistics.