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Talk: Tamil Language and Tamil Teaching

Speech by Mu. Ramanathan, in a function conducted by the Young Indian Friends Club of Hong Kong to commemorate the shifting of their weekly Tamil Classes to the premises of Newman Catholic College at Yau Ma Tei. The meeting took place at the School auditorium on 3 November 2007. The school authorities and members from ethnic minority committees were present.

Tamil Language and A Milestone in Tamil Teaching Programme

Mr Siu Sze Chue, principal of Newman Catholic College; Mr Abdul Azeez, president of the Young Indian Friends Club; Mr.Tsang Yok Sing, Legislative and executive councilor; Mr.Albert Lam, chairman of the ethnic minorities committee of the DAB; Mr.Ip Kwok Chung, chairman of Yau Tsim Mong District Council; Mrs. Kwan Sau Ling, chairlady of the Parent Teachers Association of Newman Catholic College; and parents, teachers and young friends, good afternoon to you all.

This is a happy occasion. I am very pleased to stand in front of you today. The Young Indian Friends Club of Hong Kong has been teaching the Tamil language to young people of the Tamil community for over three years. The classes so far have been conducted in a private restaurant owned by Dr. Jowher Ali. He has been kind enough to offer his place on Saturday afternoons for the Tamil classes. Today, the Tamil Teaching Programme is entering into a new phase. It is a new milestone. The programme, as of today, will take place in a formal class room, in an established school. Spacious classrooms, aisles between rows of benches, large black boards, podiums for teachers, multi-media teaching tools...This has been the dream of the organizers, teachers, students, parents and well-wishers of the programme. The dream has come true.

Hong Kong society has always treated ethnic minorities with the utmost regard. More than 95% of people living in Hong Kong are Chinese. We Indians, numbering more than 20,000 according to a 2006 survey, come next to Filipinos, Indonesians and Caucasians, in a list of population by ethnicity. Other ethnic minorities living in Hong Kong include Nepalese, Japanese, Pakistanis and Thais. All these ethnic minorities consider Hong Kong as their home or a home away from their home.Hong Kong has provided platforms for minorities to maintain their tradition and culture. Spaces and buildings are provided for temples, mosques, and churches. Laws have been made to protect the interest of the ethnic minorities. Bilingual facilities are offered everywhere, which makes Hong Kong an attractive place not only for 14 million tourists visiting the city annually, but also for local minorities. And today, in the list of Hong Kong community’s care for the minorities, one more item could be added: providing a classroom facilities for teaching mother tongue for an Indian community.

At this juncture, I wish to share some information about our language—Tamil. India, with 1.1 billion people, is the second most populous country in the world, next only to China. India is a multi-cultural society, a federal republic with 28 states. India is also a linguistically diverse country. According to 1961 census it was reported that as much as 1652 languages were spoken. However, many of them are dialects, spoken by small group of people. Indian constitution has recognized 22 languages with official status. Many outsiders believe that Hindi is the only official language of India. Hindi is spoken by nearly 40% of Indian population, and true-it is the official language of the union government, but together with English. And all other provincial languages enjoy the status of official language within their respective province or state, and English continues to be the connecting medium.

And Tamil, one of the 22 official languages of India, is spoken by nearly 62 million people within India. Tamil is also spoken in Sri Lanka and Singapore, the two places where Tamil enjoys the official status as well. It has been estimated that number of Sri Lankan Tamils is about 6.5 million. Significant minorities are speaking Tamil in Malaysia, Fiji and parts of South Africa, and many emigrant communities around the world- which includes a minuscule percentage in Hong Kong.

Apart from being a world language, Tamil is one of the oldest languages, and has a very rich literary tradition of more than 2000 years. Tholkappiyam is the earliest extant of the Tamil language. Opinions differ about its age, but many agree that it dates to 300 B.C. Tholkappiyam is basically a work on Tamil grammar, but also talks about people and behaviour. It is a book where language, literature and grammar all merges with people.

More importantly, Tamil is one of the classical languages. The other classical languages are: Chinese, Sanskrit, Arabic, Greek and Latin. What is the definition of a classical language? Professor George L. Hart, who is Chair-professor of Tamil at the University of California, Berkeley, says that to qualify as a classical tradition, a language must fit at least three criteria and they are:

  • it should be ancient;
  • it should be an independent tradition that arose mostly on its own not as an offshoot of another tradition, and
  • it must have a large and extremely rich body of ancient literature. 

Tamil satisfies all these and more. It is an ancient language, rich in literature. I mentioned about TholkappiyamThirukural is another celebrated work, a great literature of all times, which also dates back to some 2000 years and focus on ethics and love. And the list is long.

Tamil comes out from a literary tradition indigenous to India. All other Indian languages are derived from Sanskrit. Tamil has its own poetic theory and grammatical tradition.

Apart from being ancient and having an independent tradition,. Tamil has something more. A Tamil scholar once said that the supremacy of Tamil lies not on its age, but on its continuity. The language has passed through numerous generations, and still vibrant, and is a living language.

Gentlemen, we take pride in being Tamilians, and Indians, and Hong Kong citizens. We belong to a chain of rich tradition and culture. Our children, brought up in Hong Kong, can appreciate this tradition only by learning the language. For any person their language is important, but for Tamils, speaking a classical and living language, it gives more pleasure and pride. Young Indian Friends Club of Hong Kong makes it possible, despite several odds, by arranging weekly classes. And now the Newman Catholic College and other well-wishers from the society have made another step possible, providing a formal classroom to this venture. 

I wish to thank one and all for your efforts and help in making this possible. 

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