Tamil Language Maintenance in the Bay Area Tamil Community

Swathi Vanniarajan

San Jose State University, United States of America


The maintenance of language minority children's first language is often a desired outcome, but previous research has illustrated the difficulties of maintaining this language at home, especially when the language is not supported in the social and educational environment. In such situations, research (Fishman 1991, Heath 1986, Li 1996) suggests that the role of parents, specifically their attitudes and perceptions, is crucial since it can greatly influence their children’s way of looking at their native languages. Li (1999) adds that “children’s attitude toward, and the maintenance of their L1 depend mostly on how we parents look upon our L1, when, how often, and with whom we communicate in L1, and with what we associate L1, especially when our L1 is marginalized in the new culture” (p.115). Fishman (1991) also argues that the role of parents is as significant as the role of schools in acquiring and maintaining children’s native language. The goals of the study presented here are twofold: The first goal is to understand primarily from children aged 10 to 18 born to Tamil-speaking Indian immigrants settled in the Bay area of Northern California and secondarily from the Tamil speaking Indian immigrant parents themselves whether the children’s attitude and parents’ attitude toward the importance of maintaining the home language match with one another; the second goal is to study how and to what extent Tamil language is maintained in the bay area households of new immigrants from Tamil Nadu, India.

Data were collected by administering questionnaires to 20 children and 10 parents and through interviews with 5 children and 5 parents who had been living in the United States for 15 years or less. The study was designed to investigate the parental and the children’s perceptions about the importance of maintaining the language at home and the language environment in which young Tamil speaking Indian Americans grew up and how their parents incorporated language use experiences in their lives.

The following were the major findings: 1. Parental and children’s attitudes toward the importance of maintaining the home language in the household correlated with each other. 2. Children’s perceived levels of importance of maintaining the home language correlated with their the self-perceived levels of proficiency in the language. 3. The informant-children’s active use of the language in communicating with the siblings and parents played a major role in the maintenance of the language at home. 4. Other supporting variables such as watching Tamil movies on the video with parents and relatives, parental preference to mingle only with Tamil speaking families, parental attitude to discourage children from having friends from other cultures, chatting with relatives in India on the internet in Tamil, and once a year visit to India contributed to active bilingualism at home. The findings are in agreement with Schecter, Sharken, and Bayle’s (1996) claim that dual language maintenance cannot be achieved without a strong commitment on the part of the home.

Session: Paper session
Shift 2 (Maintenance)
Friday, April 4, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 05