Her mother tongue isn’t Tamil

***A quick note of explanation before I get into the post.  English is the language of instruction in Singapore.  However, all students must take a second language–called a Mother Tongue  (henceforce I’ll refer to it as MT) language.***

I recently went to Ellie’s new primary school to fill out some paperwork for the MOE.  As I was filling out a form, I saw the box where you can write your child’s Chinese name.  I said jokingly that although Ellie has a Mandarin name, I can’t write it and that she’ll have to tell her Lao Shí next year.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 2.49.57 pmI asked her to write it for me.  In pinyin it is Ài Lì

“Her dad is Indian, so her Mother Tongue is Tamil. You want her to study Mandarin?” the attendant asked me.

I explained that her Indian MT is Gujarati, not Tamil.  That Gujarati and Tamil are very different languages linguistically.  That Elanor’s Indian MT being Gujarati is a moot point because my husband only speaks English.  That Ellie has been studying Mandarin in school since N1 and that she’s been working very hard to be ready for P1 Mandarin, including twice weekly tutoring at home.

“Okay, you’ll need to fill out this form.”

I then write that in the space provided on the form that requires a reason for changing MT’s and pass it back to the attendant.

“Oh, okay.  Shouldn’t be a problem.”

From what I’ve heard it won’t be.  Switching to Mandarin is a pretty simple process.  (A word of warning to expats who plan to attend local schools–anecdotal evidence seems to imply that is extremely rare to get a Mother Tongue exemption for a P1 child and that they will need a second language.)

In all fairness, we could have chosen to switch her MT to Gujarati (or whatever your MT language is–check with the MOE).  However, she would have to receive instruction outside of school, and still pass MT exams in Gujarati in school.  We had given Ellie the option of doing so, and she elected to continue with Mandarin rather than start at square one with a new language.  Given her Indian identity, we were actually a bit surprised by this.  Then again, she has worked so diligently to learn Mandarin perhaps we shouldn’t have been.

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 2.55.20 pmMy favorite image result for “Mother Tongue”

Much like our experience at the ICA where the clerk wrote that Ravi’s language was Gujarati and my religion was Christianity (detailed about halfway down in this post), this was a minor but common instance of racial assumptions that we’ve run into in Singapore.

The Indian population of Singapore was 58% Tamil in 2000 (with the remaining 42% divided among various other Indian ethnicities).  The Indian MT language is Tamil because it is the most widely spoken Indian language within Singapore.  But both the MOE and non-Indian Singaporeans as a whole tend to conflate being Indian with being Tamil.  When I’ve spoken to non-Indian Singaporeans, I’ve heard the assumption that Tamil is the Indian national language more than once.

For the record—according to the Wikipedia entry on Languages of India, there are 22 official languages in India.  Tamil is one of those 22, spoken by 61 million Indians  (according to 2001 census data) and is part of the Dravidian language group.  Gujarati belongs to the Indo-Aryan family spoken in the Western part of India and is spoken by 46 million Indians (again, according to 2001 census data).  Hindi is spoken by approximately 258+ million people and is the language of government in India (along with English).

***edited to add—When Ravi was a tween, he and his parents lived in Bangalore for two years.  Bangalore is in Karnataka (the state next to Tamil Nadu) in the south of India.  The language spoken there is Kannada.  Ravi’s parents, who grew up in India and each speak three Indian languages, did not understand Kannada.  They relied on English to get by.***

Screen Shot 2014-10-17 at 2.39.38 pmThis is India.  The red is where they speak Tamil.  Ravi’s family isn’t from there.

Beyond the non-Tamil Singaporean Indian citizens, there is a large population of Indian expats in Singapore both from India itself and the larger diaspora (such as the US, in Ravi’s case).  Non-Tamil Indians find themselves as an odd minority within a minority population, and in instances like MT they are an invisible population.  Ravi doesn’t have much in the way of strong emotional or cultural ties to India, but he was uncomfortable with the conflation of Elanor’s Gujarati heritage with the Tamil language.  There is no value judgement about Tamil language or culture implied.  His (and my own) frustration over the erasure of Elanor’s Indian heritage comes from constantly being told that Singapore is a leader in diversity while simultaneously shoving everyone whose heritage can be traced to the subcontinent into the same box labeled “Tamil.”  Tamil culture and language are rich and have contributed much to India and to Singapore, but it has nothing to do with Ravi (and by extension Elanor and Rhiannon’s) ethnic heritage.

This erasure and compression of many ethnic groups into one ethnicity does not just apply to Indians in Singapore.  It’s also true of people of  Chinese heritage in Singapore.  I don’t know any Malay Singaporeans or much about Malaysia as a whole, so I apologize for not including them in this post.  But when it comes to the Chinese in Singapore, just as the government decided that Indian=Tamil, it was also decided that Chinese=Mandarin, whether that applied to a family’s actual heritage or not.  I have several Chinese friends who have told me that while they can speak Mandarin, they can’t speak to their grandparents, because Mandarin isn’t the language of their Chinese heritage.

If I were to speak directly to the MOE, I would say the following–When we would have to request a Mother Tongue Exemption for the girls to study their ACTUAL mother tongue of Gujarati, there is a problem.  Mother Tongue is a loaded term, and it’s understandable that people will be extremely sensitive about how it is used/how it is applied to them.  Perhaps the MOE should consider renaming the language program and stop automatically sorting students into languages based on ethnic heritage that may have little or nothing to do with their daily lives. If we have to fill in forms before the start of P1 anyway, why not make selection of a language part of that process?

It’s great that Elanor will in all likelihood be allowed to shift to Mandarin, but I should have just been able to pick it without wasting time on debunking fallacious assumptions based on race.

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4 Responses to Her mother tongue isn’t Tamil

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 20 Oct 2014 | The Singapore Daily

  2. Laura says:

    Some people seem to have difficulties with gradients and deviations, there’s certainly a tendency to put things in boxes here.

    I’m sorry you have to deal with this, but I do laugh at the thought of this brilliant child speaking perfect Mandarin in a few years while confused onlookers are expecting Tamil!

    • You’re absolutely right.

      There is “diversity” as long as you sit in your assigned box, no matter how ill suited you are to it. Never mind that there’s a history of hostility and violence between Tamil speakers and Hindi speakers. Or that as a member of the Indian diaspora you might have a heritage link to the subcontinent but that your lived existence/heritage is another part of the world

      Even calling the girls Eurasian is not really an accurate racial description–Eurasian actually means that someone from Europe married a local Asian. Someone Kirsten knows is a family where an African American married a Singaporean Chinese person and their biracial kids expose the flaw of the four box system. Because nope, not Eurasian. There is no “biracial” or “other” box.

      I remember ST doing an article entitled something like “They’re Singaporean!” and highlighting Singaporeans who aren’t Chinese, Malay, or Indian like exotic zoo animals a few years ago.

      Yes, Ellie and Rhi will defy expectations! If they keep it up, we’ll have to go to China one day and let them be our translators 🙂

      • Laura says:

        The box placing does seem to get out of control. Heck, I even confused someone today at lunch.

        “So you eat salad everyday?” No, I am eating a salad today. “So you bring your lunch everyday?” No, I brought my lunch today. Can’t imagine how it must feel when it’s something as personal as race.

        Hang in there and let me know when this translation included trip to China happens!

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