Every Friday evening Minette and I drive several miles south to our Tamil class. Tamil is Appa‘s mother tongue, the language spoken in his native state, Tamil Nadu, at the southern tip of India. Don’t make the mistake of associating Tamil with Sri Lanka only, that tends to slightly annoy Appa. Tamil, a venerable language that belongs to the Dravidian family, is not even a distant relative of the Indo-European language tree. Pretty challenging for someone who has never learned a non-European language before and whose brain is no longer at its plasticity peak. I am talking about me, not Minette of course! But I come from a family very curious about languages – more about this in posts to come – and I certainly enjoy discovering a linguistic system so totally different from what I know.
The Tamil community is pretty large in Greater Cleveland so there are apparently three different groups providing Tamil teaching around here. We go with Tamil Malar Mandram (TMM). The level of commitment of TMM’s organizers and teachers is truly impressive. They are all dedicated volunteers, actively involved in the group’s curricular and extra curricular activities, while obviously pretty busy with the rest of their lives. We get class summary, homework reminders, all sorts of updates through WhatsApp — in case you don’t know, most Indians have an ongoing love affair with WhatsApp.
Coming to Tamil class is like immersing ourselves in a different world. Apart from a young couple – she’s half Tamil, he’s plain Caucasian, Minette and I are the only persons who are not ethnically fully Indian, as far as I can see. The building (graciously lent by a church every Friday evening) is full of dads, moms, and children happy to get together and to catch up. Grown-ups speak Tamil together. Most children speak English together. The reason everybody’s here is for the children to learn good Tamil, to be able to read and write in the venerable language, although it is pretty clear to me that English will be – already is – their dominant language. Appa says TMM is an eye-opener on how much his fellow Tamils value their mother tongue.
Every person I interact with here is friendly and kind, sometimes with a touch of puzzlement. Why exactly do I want to learn Tamil? That’s a good, unasked, question. I guess I just want to understand something about my family’s Tamil heritage through the language, something I don’t think I would grasp without knowing some Tamil, even though I realize I will never master it. As said earlier, I am also in for the fun of exploring a new language and marveling at the differences.
I enjoy Tamil handwriting too. The picture above features A and I letters traced by Minette. She is in pre-school level, doing really good, or so the teachers tell us. Her class concentrates on colors, shapes, animals, numbers, and singing. I am in level 2, struggling a bit to keep up with my cohort of 7 to 10-year-olds. I sometimes feel a little silly in the midst of my classmates — luckily, the young couple I mentioned before is also in my class. Mostly though, I feel happy to be there and thankful for the graciousness of the two teachers. When we get back home, Appa has made dinner. We eat and talk about the upcoming weekend. Minette’s bedtime is later than usual but there is a truly good reason for that.