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Vol. XXXIII No. 7, July 16-31, 2023

Teaching Thamizh to a Thamizh Child

-- Sujatha Vijayaraghavan (

“I don’t want to study Thamizh. I will learn Hindi” wailed Chelvan, whose full name was Thamizhchelvan. The name meant that he was the child of Thamizh. He was in his third standard and had got single digit marks upon hundred in his Thamizh exam. He had barely passed his other subjects. But had failed in Thamizh. He had got above sixty in Hindi. He was born to Thamizh parents who knew no other language. He too spoke the language fluently, could shout and throw tantrums in Thamizh.

How did such a problem arise?

And what made him fare better in Hindi, which he was being taught for the first time?

“Why don’t you want to learn Thamizh?” I asked him gently after comforting him and calming him down.

“Why should Thamizh have 247 letters? English has only 26” he queried. He was under the impression that Hindi had only 13 letters as he had been taught only the vowels in his third standard.

The magnitude of his problem dawned on me for the first time, and I had learnt, spoken, read and written Thamizh all my life. There began my quest for a way to teach the language to this child, who could neither read nor write it after having been taught for three years in a reputable school.

The task was as daunting to me as it was to him.

Once he was familiar with reading and writing the vowels, I started on the uyirmei ezuththu, which are formed, by combining each of the consonants with the vowels. I skipped the old method of learning the 18 consonants in the given order. Instead, I opted for the three groups Vallinam (hard), mellinam (soft) and idaiyinam (in between), so named according to the sound. Now it was jingle time and I taught him the sing song lines

Vallinam ka cha ta tha pa Ra ena aarey

Mellinam gna, jna, Na, na, ma na. ena aarey

Idaiyinam ya, ra, la, va, zha, La ena aarey

He loved belting it out as he rode his little bicycle or went back and forth on the garden swing. I sang with him till he got them right.

I prepared flash cards for each of the 247 letters, and grouped them into uyir, mei, and uyirmei of each of the 18 mei letters. With the aid of a slate where I wrote each letter and showed him the card, I started making him visually recognize the letters. A long process that lasted nearly three months. During this phase I jumbled the groups and quizzed him again and again till he gained a certain amount of familiarity with the letters.

Then came the writing of the uyir mei alphabets, combining the vowels with the consonants. I started with the vallinam. It was easy up to the first four vowels a, aa, I, and ee where the letters followed a pattern. For instance, aa required placing the pi symbol like kaal next to the consonant. I sprouted a horn or kombu overhead and ee had a curl with the horn.

When we reached u and oo we reached a roadblock. We realized that the u s and oos were mavericks, law unto themselves and followed no rule. For instance, ku would do a curve all the way around and go overhead and come down. Chu would just sprout a short limb below its extended arm. Tu will drop its horizontal line and grow a long curve to go clockwise and end on the right. And so on. Chelvan just could not figure them out or remember their quirky ways.

I hit upon a sign language and devised an abhinaya to depict the letters. Ku had the left arm curved across the tummy and the right went in a curve above the head. Chu bent the right elbow across the tummy and dropped the left arm fully below the right arm. Soon we got better at these gestures and Lu which started with a bulge on the right where the curve started, found me puffing my left cheek.

We had hours of fun as we went on devising these gestures to represent the letters. We then proceeded in similar fashion with Mellinam and Idai inam letters. Once Chelvan got the trend the going was much easier. He started reading words from the text for the first standard. Alongside I had started writing out words using only vallinam letters like Pappa, Thaththa, kakka and followed it up by combining them with the vowels. Chelvan was made to form words on his own like athu, ithu, ethu- aadu, eedu, aedu, odu, aRu, aaRu and so on as the meanings of the correct words were given to him and he was encouraged to make sentences with them orally.

Mellinam and Idai inam followed in similar fashion until he was able to make short three letter words with them. In the meanwhile, stories and songs were read out to him as he followed the lines with his eyes. He was thrilled when he found that he could write poems and songs on his own on the cats that wandered in the garden, on butterflies and the rain, simple verses which were set to music and sung. Soon he could write a song, set it to music and sing.

Reading aloud was an exercise that started painfully slow as Chelvan struggled to recognize letters in a bunch. As he went on, he gained proficiency and gained speed and accuracy. Writing took longer to settle down as he searched his memory for letters and made several errors.

I realised that writing of the alphabets also needs to be monitored and supervised when I found that he was using the single kombu where the double kombu was called for. Thus, Koedu became kodu and poenaan became ponaan. For the single kombu the curl must be started at the bottom while the curl has to start at the top for the double kombu. By starting both curls at the bottom he had automatically got to writing the single kombu at all times and was unable to write the double one. It is still a painful process to make him consciously switch his writing method and make him start the curl at the top.

As we raced through his old Thamizh texts of the second and third standards, the first unit test for the fourth standard was upon us. He could sing the poems and song prescribed and could write them with some difficulty with few errors. We concentrated on one-word answers like word meanings, opposites, fill in the blanks etc where he could score marks. He was pleasantly surprised that he had scored well above pass marks for the first time.

Reading, writing, storytelling, singing and watching a couple of old Thamizh movies like Avvaiyar, Veerapandiya Kattabomman reinforced his interest in the language.

His text gave meanings for only half a dozen words for the poems, while he had no clue to the rest of the poem. A summary was given, but he could not understand most of the poem by himself. I started on the age old method of padha urai and pozhippurai, where the meaning of each word is given and then strung together to form the summary.

His prose lessons were no better. More than fifty percent of the words were new and far advanced for his age. They were not written for children but were couched in an artificial language, formal and stilted. The topics they covered were not of interest to the children. Some of them reiterated what was taught in their other subjects like science, civics, social studies and so on. The stories were uninspiring and uninteresting. Humour was totally absent.

It was then that I realised that there were hardly any story books in Thamizh for children, that could make interesting reading. Our childhood reading of Ambuli Mama, Kannan and Kalkandu had enthralled our imagination and we devoured them week after week. Even weekly magazines like Ananda Vikatan and Kalki had pages as Balar Malar for children. And the jokes with pictures in those magazines were relished by us and shared with our friends Unconsciously we imbibed the language in all its beauty. It was not a matter of surprise that most of the eleven-year-olds were able to read Kalki’s magnum opus Ponniyin Selvan and go for more such novels.

The Thamizh films of those days had sonorous, alliterative dialogues which every child memorized and took pride in reciting. “Kutram enna seydhen kotravane” from Manohara and “Vaanam pozhigiradhu, Bhoomi vilaikiradhu, unakkaen koduppadhu kisthi?” from Kattabomman were the staple fare that rang aloud from loudspeakers in the neighbourhood.

All the children’s magazines of those times had stopped publishing and we have now come to a barren land for tales. After some search I was able to find a handful of books for children, poorly written, badly printed and unattractively brought out. Some children’s books were written in the colloquial spoken Thamizh, which defeated the purpose of learning the language.

Chelvan and I went on with our reading, repeated writing, singing, quiz, riddles, stories, poems and jokes to enliven the learning sessions. In the process both of us learnt from each other, as the language revealed so many new facets and joys.

By the time Chelvan reached the half yearly exams he had gained confidence and familiarity with the language and his lessons. Neither he nor I could believe it when he managed to come out on top of the class.

We now became aware that the real journey had just started for both of us.

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