Updated: Mar 8, 2020
This is a transcript of the podcast interview. Listen to the episode here.
PREMA MENON (HOST): Australia is a country that has been built on migration. A fifth of the population speaks a language other than English at home and across the nation. There are some 300 different languages spoken. These numbers certainly sound impressive, but educators and language experts have a very different perspective. According to them, even though the non-English speaking population may be increasing, the number of bilingual speakers isn't. Language departments in Australia are struggling due to poor funding and support. And unlike many other countries, Australia doesn't have a national language policy. More than ever, language has a central place. In today's world, human movement is increasing, so populations across the world are becoming more diverse. Language builds bridges and cultivates empathy. For this episode, I speak to a Sydney based Singaporean who started her own mission to kickstart a love for the Tamil language among children here in Australia.
VANITHA VEERASAMY: Hi, I'm Vanitha Veerasamy, I'm the owner of Vaaranam Children's Books. The aim of Vaaranam Children's Books is to produce and create high-quality Tamil books for little children.
PREMA: What Can We Do? In this podcast, I speak with those who are putting their ideas into action, focusing on the good they can do for their neighbors, communities, citizens and the world.
PREMA: Listening to this episode, you'll learn why Vanitha launched these books, the challenges for minority languages in Australia and Vanitha's suggestions for preserving a language at home.
VANITHA: Well, I'm Tamil. Both my parents are Tamil but from Singapore. My great grandparents migrated from South India and Sri Lanka to Singapore. And then I'm the third generation Singaporean Tamil. I've always loved Tamil. For the first five years of my life, I grew up with my grandparents and they conversed in Tamil. So my Tamil was always pretty fluent and I did pretty well in Tamil at school. And I just love the language because it is one of the oldest, if not the oldest language in the world that is still being spoken.
PREMA: In 1959, Singapore introduced a bilingual policy. English became the official working language and the government identified three languages of the three major population groups Malay, Tamil and Mandarin. These became the second languages. A student could choose to keep them connected to their roots.
VANITHA: In Singapore, the lessons, school is run in English. English is the first language, and we also have the mother tongue lessons, as they call it, our second language. So for that, the Indian kids usually go for Tamil and the Chinese kids go for Mandarin and the Malay kids go for Malay. And Tamil is an official language in Singapore. So you would find any government document in all four languages, street signs in Tamil announcements in the public transport would also be done in Tamil. There is support for that language to thrive and grow.
PREMA: While this bilingual policy has been effective for a lot of Singaporeans, it has also forced other ethnic languages into the background with no formal system to sustain them. In 2006, Vanitha's MBA studies brought her to Adelaide. Her then boyfriend was German living in New Zealand and they decided to move to Sydney together. Vanitha and her German boyfriend eventually got married and are now parents to two children. Vanitha loves calling Sydney home.
VANITHA: I think the nature it's it's just mind-blowing. I mean, we just went to the Blue Mountains for a week before this and I've been there four times before. But it's just coming back to it and seeing a different part of it is just breathtaking. And the beaches and the people as well, I find it, overall, I've had really positive experiences with the Australian people. They've been very welcoming and friendly. And I like the whole attitude of giving it a go. That seems to be very Aussie and giving things a try and not shying away from it.
PREMA: [00:05:12] Vanitha worked in marketing until the birth of her first son. Before becoming a mother Vanitha didn't speak Tamil very much in Australia. She and her husband had communicated in English. As a new migrant in Sydney Vanitha had also been focused on blending in and becoming a part of her new community. Once their son was born funny, they found that she wanted to impart to him the language she'd grown up with, the language she associated with family and home. Her husband felt the same way and wanted to teach their son German.
VANITHA: When my son was little, his speech was delayed. Every time he went to the early childhood nurse, she was like "Is he speaking anything, is he saying any words?"
And I'm like, "Well, you know, he's saying Amma and Appa".
And she was like, "What does that mean?"
"It means mum and dad in Tamil.",
"Oh, isn't your husband German?"
"Oh, German is good? Not many people in the world speak Tamil, do they?"
So I felt really upset that day. Like, is it, am I teaching my kid the wrong thing by speaking in my own language? And also over time, some of them gave the advice that three languages is just too much. We need to drop one language. So we did stop. I stopped speaking Tamil. My husband stopped speaking in German. We just focused on English.
PREMA: As Vanitha settled into being a parent, she started to understand that language was really a way for her children to connect with her through understanding the culture she was raised in.
VANITHA: I would say it is one of the most important facets of accessing the culture. Yes, but there are so many bits to our culture the attire, the food, the values. I have to say I have been a lot more patriotic about my language and my culture since my kids came along, because I feel that it's really important for me to pass it on.
PREMA: Migrant parents frequently feel pressure to preserve their traditions a hard ask, especially without the help of extended family and friends.
VANITHA: It is quite challenging. I'll be honest because if I was back in Singapore, I know that the responsibility to pass on this language and culture to my kids is shared. My parents are there, my sisters, my uncles, my aunties, my cousins. And they all will be at least speaking with my kids in Tamil. I'm sure I will rely a lot on my parents to celebrate festivals and that kind of stuff to pass on that to my kids. Unfortunately here it's just me because my husband is German and he needs to pass on his culture and his language to them. So it's a big responsibility and I have to make sure that I am constantly trying to do things which will then materialize into them, seeing my culture and when they go to school, the other keeps us conversing with them in English. So they are surrounded by English in on TV and people around them. Neighbors, you know. So it's really quite a difficult task for the parents. You have to be on top of it.
PREMA: A few years after Vanitha had stopped exposing her son to Tamil, Vanitha felt it was time to resume her efforts.
VANITHA: I feel that books are a great way to introduce the language to little ones. It probably is one of the first few steps other than speaking to the mom and dad. But books are a great way to let them learn the alphabet and the phonics. And I did look on the internet for good quality Tamil books, but it was pretty dire,I have to say. I mean, the English books was not a problem. We had all sorts in our lift the flap books, bought books and touch and feel books, but I couldn't find the same types of books in Tamil. And what I did find was like really poor quality. The paper was really thin and the illustrations were quite scary, was very text heavy. My son was not interested in even looking at those books.
PREMA: An estimated seventy-three thousand people reportedly speak Tamil at home in Australia, making it the third most frequently spoken Indian language in the country. Accessibility to the language in local bookstores is still limited, though. Speaking to other Tamil parents, Vanitha realized they had the same experience. Finding Tamil children's books meant you had to buy them overseas and the kids in Sydney just couldn't relate to them.
VANITHA: So over time, I thought about it and spoke to a few friends and my husband and decided, why not I give it a go and try to produce some of these books myself. Producing these type of books will be great for the Tamil community to actually pass on the language to the little ones and at least get them introduced to the language.
PREMA: Not everyone is sold on Vanitha's new project, certainly not her mother. Especially since she was leaving the security of a full-time job.
VANITHA: Her first question was like, "Will it sell? Are you going to make a loss?" And I said, "Mom, this is really not about making any money." This is just really about, I said I'm looking at it as a community project.
PREMA: Vanitha assembled the elements required to produce her books, which included a printer and illustrator based overseas, and she put her marketing experience to use.
VANITHA: So my first two books are alphabet books because one is for the walls and the other ones for the consonants. The next two books, one is a touch and feel book. I was always amazed by touch and feel books. It's really interactive, especially for little kids like 1-year-olds to just feel the different textures and it's a very sensory sort of thing. So that actually teaches colours in it. And then other one is called What's the Time?"or "Mani enna?" Which is teaching kids about time in Tamil. And it has a clock face with rotatable hands so that the kids can play around with that and learn the time that way.
PREMA: She found promotors within the Tamil community willing to help her get the word out.
VANITHA: The launch was at an event that was organized by Tamil moms' group called "Ammas and Kuttis", they had their first event called Kuthu, which was in November. And it was very well received, I have to say, like even before I before that event, I had a mockup of the book. And when we actually met up with some of the moms, I actually showed it to them and they gave me some really positive feedback. So I was like, okay, I think I'm going in the right direction. So when it was that event, a lot of people did buy my books. It was, it was actually really a nice feeling that I thought, okay, at least some people want to buy these books. I've had them now for two years and I only have four boxes left. And this was out of five hundred books, each right? A thousand books. So I've actually managed to sell most of them over the last two years. So I think that's a good sign.
PREMA: Her books have now even been included in libraries in Singapore as a Tamil resource. For Vanitha the best sign of acknowledgment is always feedback from parents.
VANITHA: And they've all sent me photos of their kids reading the books, and some of them have even said oh this book is like my son's favorite or something like which is really heartwarming, which is really nice. So I'm really glad that at least, you know, some Tamil kids get access to my books and that it's making a difference.
PREMA: Tamil parents aren't the only ones going through this problem of losing exposure to a language. It is a problem for anyone trying to introduce another language in a predominantly English speaking country.
VANITHA: I mean, even with I'm talking to German parents from the German school and I have a Polish friend down the road and her husband is Belgian from Belgium. And he speaks French and she speaks Polish. So, you know, we all have the exact same challenges. The language is different, but the challenges are the same because we are bringing our kids up in English speaking country. So we kind of like have this ongoing battle to then speak in our language to the kids and then sometimes they resist because they say, "You're talking funny" or "This is different. I only speak English."
PREMA: In Australia, it's easier to access some European languages. For instance, Vanitha's son goes to a school where he learns German as a formal second language. Even so, foreign language learning is in decline across Australia. Only 10 percent of students learn a second language. In all other OECD countries, students finish school with at least one language aside from English. Education experts blame this problem on Australia's monolingual mindset and a lack of strategy around teaching languages in schools.
VANITHA: I think in Australia, it's not there yet with recognizing that some kids are multilingual or bilingual. I don't think it's celebrated. Like I mean, with the usual daycare my kids went to, it was very English based. And that's OK. But I mean, there were a lot of kids who were of Chinese heritage and like my kids were, you know, Eurasian. And then I wish they could do a little bit more with the whole bilingualism or multilingualism. Whereas there are a few like the one where the preschool where the principal said, stick to your languages. There are some like that as well. So I wish that that would become a bit more mainstream in that way. I think we'll all be richer for it because there will be a lot more languages celebrated in Australia.
PREMA: Many children from migrant or CALD, that's culturally and linguistically diverse, households might go to school in predominantly English speaking areas. They don't see other students who look like them or have similar backgrounds. This is when living in an area with low population diversity can be a challenge.
VANITHA: Because you then you see other kids who are just brown-skinned like you. It's not weird to speak this foreign language, you know.
PREMA: It's estimated that the Tamil population has grown around 120 percent in the last decade, and schools in western Sydney have been offering Tamil classes for some time. In September 2019, five languages, including Tamil, were officially included into the New South Wales curriculum, which is a step in the right direction. However, not all Tamil people live in western Sydney. Parents like Vanitha rely on her books as well as teaching their children as much of their culture as possible. For Vanitha this includes weekly excursions to western Sydney.
VANITHA: There is pretty much Little Sri Lanka and Little India, depending on which suburb you go to, like Pendle Hill is little Sri Lanka. You get all the Tamil food there and it's fantastic. So my kids go to Eastwood Tamil Centre. So they are to a Saturday Tamil language schools. Some of the libraries here do carry Tamil books as well, and there are lots of Indian arts schools as well where kids can learn Carnatic music or violin or veenai and mridangam and even bharathanatyam. There are many schools here. So there is enough things for us to still practice our culture. And temples and stuff like that to go to.
PREMA: Vanitha knows many parents will face the same challenges she does on a daily basis. This is her advice to them.
VANITHA:I read somewhere that it only takes five generations for the language to die. I would say if it's important to you that your child picks up your native language, then be proud of it and go for it. Because sometimes I have to say, when I first came here, I was trying to fit in here. But I never really fit in. And it's OK because I'm not from here, so I respect the culture here and I integrate, but I also have my own, which I'm really proud of. So I think that for other parents, if you would like your child to speak your language, then just persevere and just talk to them. It's actually great for them for their mental development and I think kids can speak up to seven languages. So it's like it's not as though, especially if you start them young, they're just like sponges. Now, I see that with my daughter, whom I actually started speaking early on, I didn't make the same mistake like with my son. And she's 4 now and she can understand more than him.
PREMA: Vanitha stresses the importance of parents finding their own ways to stay connected to their language and their culture.
VANITHA: So I do listen to a lot of Tamil songs, especially songs that I grew up with, and I do read some Tamil books and stuff. from time to time, I listen to SBS Tamil so that I can actually be in touch with the language really, yeah. And now that, you know, going to Tamil school every Saturday is really good for me because I meet people from the community and I get to converse with them, which is quite nice because I'm like speaking in Tamil again. And then I go for my dance class every Saturday, which is also fantastic for me. I feel like it really has brought me back into my culture and my roots.
PREMA: Vanitha's efforts now seem to be paying off with her son.
VANITHA: Because recently I think SBS had a national language competition. I wanted my son to do something for that. So he so we sat down and talked about it. I said, why do you think you're learning Tamil? And he was like "Because it's my mummy's language." Then I'm like, "OK, so shall we just put that into writing?" And he was like, "And I also love the biscuits at Tamil school."
PREMA: Thank you for listening. If you liked what you heard, please rate or follow the series on whichever podcast service you're on. Another great way to support this series is to follow me on Facebook or Instagram. Just search for WHAT CAN WE DO PODCAST. This an independent podcast series produced and edited by me, Prema Menon and the script editor for this series is Liza Nadolski, and the audio you're hearing has been sweetened by Nicholas Allaire.