Battle for the mother tongue: Taking the trouble for Tamil

It’s a complaint that reverberates around our multilingual country. Many of our children who are taught in English battle to speak their mother tongue. City Press asked four families how they keep their languages and heritage alive.

For Logesvaran Devan, learning to play the ancient Tamil drum, the mridangam, and sitting front row for a Michael Jackson gig were both part of growing up.

The 27-year-old logistics manager is the grandson of Palanisamy “PI” Devan – the man who convinced the apartheid government to introduce Tamil and other Indian languages at government schools in the 1980s.

He says it’s his duty to keep the Tamil language and music alive to preserve his cultural and religious heritage.

Logesvaran wants his children, when he has them, to have the same exposure to his “roots” as he had.

“You really do have to know where you are coming from to know where you are going,” he says.

Logesvaran, who can speak, read and write Tamil, “but not as fluently as I’d like to”, went to Chennai, India, where he studied for his BCom and learnt to play the mridangam.

His Tamil studies began in Durban, first at school and later from private tutors after the education department stopped vernacular studies.

Logesvaran’s sister, Saranya (17), made waves at Westville Girls’ High School with her insistence on wearing a black dot and nose ring for religious purposes.

Their mother, Rajes, is proud of their Tamil heritage and supervised their childhood instruction.

“Studying and living in India put me in contact with my roots and my history, the people I come from. It was a very important thing for me,” Logesvaran says.

His father, Yogin, spoke only Tamil until he was five, even though he was born on a farm on what is today Chatsworth.

His grandfather, Iyanna Moodley, came to South Africa in 1910, part of the last wave of indentured labourers brought to then Natal from Madurai in south India.

Ironically, their surname, which “means nothing” was created by an ignorant white official at the then department of internal affairs.

“My upbringing was very strictly Indian and Tamil, with very little dilution. We listened to Tamil music only.

When my mother went to do shopping on Saturday, she wore a sari.

We only spoke Tamil at home.

My father was incredibly passionate about the Tamil language, and believed that the best way to keep a language alive was to speak, read and write it,” says Yogin.

Yogin believes government should do more to help preserve languages like Tamil.


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