The Debate: Reading to Your Children in Colloquial vs. Literary (The Case of Tamil)

It has always been my conviction that Indian parents who train their children to think and talk in English from their infancy betray their children and their country. They deprive them of the spiritual and social heritage of the nation, and render them to that extent unfit for the service of the country. – Gandhi, The Story of My Experiments with Truth.

I recently discovered the blog Baby Loves Books (from which I borrowed the above epigraph), in which a Tamil-and-Hindi-and-English-speaking mother writes about multilingualism and books for the youngest readers. I became particularly interested when she mentioned that Tamil also has a high “literary” form as well as a colloquial, and that she has come down on the side of a formal or semi-formal literature for children.

In the post, “Children’s Books in Mother Tongue – Formal Vs Informal,” she says (and I think you could substitute “Arabic” for  “Tamil” in most cases):

I guess, it may not matter initially, as long as children are reading something – anything – in their mother tongue or at least making an effort to. …. But, when it comes to a language like Tamil, where the spoken and written forms differ so vastly, and which has several dozens, if not hundreds of dialects and countless colloquialisms characterizing each geographical location, community or generation…it’s sure to be very challenging to find a common written format that will appeal to all.

Also, we know that this kind of ‘informal’ Tamil is easy for kids to pick up anyway, since that’s what they use on a day to day basis at home and are exposed to in movies, on TV and through various outlets of pop culture. …

However, you can’t say the same about ‘formal’ or pure Tamil. If we don’t consciously make an attempt to expose kids to pure Tamil( as pure as it gets these days, anyway), there’s not much chance they’re going to learn it. And only the child’s parents can determine how important or insignificant that exposure is.

She has decided, in the end, to read to her daughter in a “semi-formal” Tamil, something I assume is similar to a simplified (fun) MSA. And she reports some success with her daughter:

I’d say the language in most of these is semi formal, but not so stiff that kids won’t enjoy it. At first, my daughter found words like ‘Muzhangiyathu’ and ‘Magizhchi’ amusing. Now, she’s got used to the sounds and words and likes using them. She’s figured out that that’s probably not the way we speak but that it’s the way Tamil is written. Given the fact that my daughter may never learn formal Tamil literature, syntax or texts in the traditional sense, the only way for me to introduce her to ‘literary Tamil’ at least to a small degree is by means of such books.

I believe the above also neatly responds to the argument that “they already know Arabic,” and thus it’s more important to learn English (or French, or Mandarin Chinese). While one’s children might “already know” spoken Arabic, that doesn’t mean they can read literary Arabic. And what are they losing out on if they can’t?

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7 Responses to The Debate: Reading to Your Children in Colloquial vs. Literary (The Case of Tamil)

  1. AC says:

    We’ve had a lot of debates in Sweden on this topic – should children learn to read in their mother tongue? The thing is that in Sweden children who speak a language other than Swedish at home have the right to take classes in that language to improve their speaking, reading and writing skills. And of course lots of people think that this is wrong, that they should only learn Swedish, because they live here. Of course they should learn Swedish! But it is quite possible to speak more than one language, and if you don’t read but only speak your mother tongue at home with your parents you will never learn some of the more sophisticated components of that language. There is a difference between the spoken and the written language, even in languages that don’t have the kind of “formal” variant as Arabic. And the better you know your mother tongue, the easier it will become to learn new languages.

  2. mlynxqualey says:

    “And the better you know your mother tongue, the easier it will become to learn new languages.”

    I couldn’t agree more!

  3. “Given the fact that my daughter may never learn formal Tamil literature..”

    Is this because they don’t teach Tamil in schools?

    Many Spanish-speaking parents in Texas actually refuse bilingual services for their children. They are afraid they won’t learn English if they also are taught Spanish. They already “know” Spanish so why waste time teaching them (to read and write) – give them English! It’s unfortunate, especially when the services are actually available. But how do you get parents to really understand the value of their native language?

    • mlynxqualey says:

      Yes, it seems to be a global problem. Dominant languages don’t so much wipe out non-dominant languages (except in a few cases) but it’s the dominant languages that get mastered.

      “If people need to learn a particular language, they generally will. Children are no different to adults in this respect. … You can expect your child to learn a language if the child thinks it’s some use.”

      But what these linguists don’t discuss is learn to what extent. You can “know” Arabic but certainly not have any mastery.

      I suppose it’s a question of creating the cultural need, the value for mastery of non-dominant languages, or even creating a different idea of languages/multilinguilism. Some countries, I’m sure, are more comfortable with it.

      • Bernadette says:

        I believe the point the linguists are making is that learning a second language is pretty much the same as learning a first language. (Again, another “big idea” in our teacher-training.) People – children or adults – need authentic interactions with fluent speakers to learn to understand and speak a language. The key being *authentic*, having a true need and desire to communicate with others. (No worksheets and drill-and-kill!) But another important factor would be comprehensible input. We could sit around all day and listen to a language but if the speakers aren’t “coming down to our level” as far as what we understand, we will learn little if anything from this interaction. And the extent of the language you learn would be tied to the amount and type of exposure you have. And how much you need it. We often discuss the difference between acquiring social language ability (BICS) and academic language (CALP). On average, BICS take 6 months to 2 years for ELL students in the States to acquire. CALP on the other hand can take 5 – 7 years! (Recent research showing that CALP will take longer to develop, 7 – 10 years, if there is no support in native language development.)

        So, yes, in theory, we will learn a language if there is a need. But the extent of the learning will be unique to the individual, much in the same way people all understand their native language to different extents.

        Would you apply the term “linguistic imperialism” to what happened to language here in Egypt….Egyptian and Coptic languages being lost to Arabic?

    • mlynxqualey says:

      I found a Wikipedia debate on “linguistic imperialism,” which seems infuriatingly simplistic on both sides:

  4. mlynxqualey says:


    I don’t know. I found the idea of “linguistic imperialism” pretty simplistic (at least as explained on the internet, and not in scholarly articles). And I think they meant “imperialism” to have a specific plan to supplant local languages (via the British Council, in the case of English). So I guess you’d have to find a similar program with intent to wipe out Coptic and other local languages. I don’t know—perhaps there was.

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