For presentation at the International Forum for Information Technology in Tamil (INFITT)'s fifth Tamil Internet international conference and exhibition (TI2002), San Francisco Area, California, Sept. 27-29:

For information about Tamil Internet 2002, please see

For the complete list of papers, please see

"Videoconferencing and 
the Teaching of Tamil Language and Verbal Arts"
by Eric Miller
Folklore Ph.D. candidate, University of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia)

1) Introduction.
2) Interactional Routines in Language Learning.
3) Videoconferencing for Language Learning
4) Suggestions.

1) Introduction.

The Tamil language has been described as a goddess; therefore, communicating in both spoken and written Tamil can be seen as a mystical experience (1).  The teaching of spoken language often first occurs in the context of the mother-infant relationship, which is among the most intimate of human relationships.  In addition, both spoken and written Tamil have ancient histories.  Thus it is with respect and humbleness beyond words that this paper begins to explore how the teaching and learning of spoken Tamil language might occur through videoconferencing.

2) Interactional Routines in Language Learning.

Following are seven questions-and-sample-answers.  Via substitution, transformation, and accumulation drills (or games), these seven simple conversational exchanges can serve as a gateway to the entire language.

In each case, four lines are given --

Transliteration (International Phonetic System).
Word-for-word translation (English).
Colloquial translation (English).

On the Transliteration line: a capital consonant indicates that the tongue is in the retroflex position; and a double-vowel indicates a long vowel sound. 

The teacher may choose to speak the question and have the student repeat; or, the teacher may speak the question and have the student give an answer.

The above questions-and-sample-answers were compiled by myself.  Additional interactional routines can be used, whether made up, taken from everyday conversation, or based on traditional language games.  For example, in an accumulation game: one player says word A, the next says words A and B, the next says words A, B, and C, etc.  Such a game could begin with the speaking of a noun (tree).  An article could be added (a tree).  Then an adjective (a tall tree).  Then a subject and a verb (he climbed up a tall tree).  Then an adverb (he slowly climbed up a tall tree), etc. 

If there are two participants, turn-taking can go back-and-forth; if there are three or more participants, it can go around-in-a-circle, becoming a ring game. When players are co-present, they sometimes clap hands with other players when taking turns; other movements might be devised for a videoconference ring game (or, perhaps a player's body movement could cause a stroke of electronic paint or a visual special effect).

It seems that, almost everywhere, children have played language games since the beginning of human language (2).  One function of such play has been to practice spoken language.  These games present language together with rhyme, melody, rhythm, repetition of variant phrases, and gestures, all of which can assist with the memorization and internalization of words, grammar, and syntax (3). 

3) Videoconferencing for Language Learning.

Videoconferencing can be defined as communication in which all parties can send-and-receive audio-and-video to-and-from each other.  All other types of electronic communication (including typing, drawing, the viewing and manipulating of websites, the playing of prerecorded video, etc.) can occur within, or concurrently with, a videoconference.

Videoconferencing can occur via any number of technologies, including regular telephone lines, ISDN lines (a specialized type of telephone line), the Internet, and Internet2 (4).  It is also possible to simultaneously transmit the combined audio-and-video of a videoconference over the Internet as a webcast, so that others can observe the videoconference conversation and participate via e-mail (5).

Under optimum technological conditions, videoconference partners can talk with each other in a conversational tone and can feel like they are almost in the same room and are only separated by a meter or two of space and a pane of glass.  However, to the degree that conditions are not optimized, the following principles of Signal Detection Theory should be kept in mind.  Five principles that increase the reliability of signal detection in noisy environments are:

A) Redundancy of part of a signal, or of the entire signal, enhances detectability.
B) Conspicuousness by exaggeration of acoustic features enhances the signal-to-noise ratio by increasing the contrast between the signal and the irrelevant background information.
C) A small repertoire of signals reduces the listener's uncertainty and enhances performance in signal detection tasks.  With fewer and more distinctive categories in which potential signals can be classified, the opportunity for identification errors is minimized.
D) Alerting components at the beginning of a signal increase detectability and recognition by letting the listener know when to expect the message component of the signal.
E) Alerting components at the end of a signal alert the listener to ignore subsequent immediate material, and can serve as a request for the listener to indicate that she has received and comprehended the signal just sent (6).

It is sometimes helpful to utilize many of these principles at the beginning of a videoconference, and then forgo some of them if communication seems to be going well.  Actually, it is a good idea to take the time at the beginning of a videoconference to take stock of the system, so that all can understand its limitations and not hold the other participants responsible for disjunctures in communication that are inherent to the system.

For example, in a videoconference there is often a delay between the time one sends a signal and the time it is received.  One way to determine the magnitude of the delay is for participants to sing a few lines of a song together.  Party A should sing independently, and Party B should attempt to sing along synchronously.  They will most likely find that the singing is synchronous on Party B's side of the videoconference, but that on Party A's side, Party B is singing a second or so behind Party A. 

Can participants speak simultaneously?  That is, can participants' audio systems simultaneously transmit and receive?  If a test determines that simultaneous reception and transmission is not possible, participants might decide to agree upon a signal to indicate requests for the floor.  It may be a useful convention to leave a half-second-or-so of silence between turns of speaking.

Other technical factors to take into account include: 

Screen configuration: where is self, where are others?  Do all participants in the videoconference see the same combination of images in the same way? 

Do audio and video arrive at the same time?  Often audio arrives a split-second before video: if this occurs to a noticeable degree, the effect can be similar to a poorly-dubbed cinema.

Where are the cameras?  Use of eye contact is a very important factor in communication in which participants are present to each other, but it can be difficult to achieve simulation of eye contact in a videoconference.  This is due to the fact that if the camera is above the screen, a person looking directly at that screen seems to be looking downward, from the perspective of the camera above the screen (and this is the image of oneself that is sent to one's videoconference partners).  In a sense, an ideal placement for the camera is in the center of the screen one is looking at, but technical limitations can make this impractical.  Participants can experiment with camera placement and develop solutions together.

4) Suggestions.

Tamil Nadu could provide language and verbal arts instruction via audio- and videoconferencing to people all over the world.  She could take a leadership role in developing and providing such services for scholars, students, businesspeople, potential tourists, children of Tamils who have emigrated, and others.  This could lead to more people visiting Tamil Nadu, and to those visitors being more culturally-educated.

This could also provide work for videoconference language instructors and videoconference language practice-partners in Tamil Nadu.  University-trained Linguistics and Communication scholars would need to oversee such processes, but videoconference language practice-partners in Tamil Nadu could be less formally educated.  Selected browsing centers in the state could be used as educational/commercial teaching and practice centers.  24-hour access to these browsing centers would be necessary, so that clients around the world, in all of the various time-zones, could be catered to at times convenient for them.

Such dreams can only come true with the enthusiastic and mutually-encouraging participation of people in academia, business, and government.


1)  Sumathi Ramaswamy, Passions of the Tongue: Language Devotion in Tamil India, 1891-1970, Berkeley: U. of California Press, 1997. 

2)  Iona and Peter Opie, The Singing Game, Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 1985.  The Opies' wonderful collection is mostly drawn from Great Britain and Europe.  Tamil singing games -- both those taught by adults to children, and those which children teach to each other -- should also be collected, analyzed, and used in the teaching of spoken Tamil language.

3)  Diane Larsen-Freeman, Techniques and Principles in Language Teaching (2nd Edition), Oxford: Oxford U. Press, 2000.  This very useful book presents and discusses many language teaching techniques in addition to the conversational routines, drills, and games focused on in this paper. 

4)  Internet2, the new generation of the Internet, allows transmission of full-screen near-broadcast-quality video.  For information, please see .  It might be beneficial for universities in Tamil Nadu to increase their Internet2 activity.

5)  Information about, and Realplayer audio-video recordings of, two recent videoconference-webcasts can be found at: , "Old and New Forms of Storytelling," co-hosted by Warlpiri people (in Yuendumu, Australia) and Penn Folklore graduate students (in Philadelphia, USA); and , "Virtual Performance," co-hosted NYU Performance Studies graduate students (in NYC) and Penn Folklore graduate students (in Philadelphia).
Also please see, , "A Discourse about Kannagi, and about Traditional Storytelling Techniques."
For information about upcoming videoconference-webcasts involving "The Teaching of Tamil Language and Verbal Arts," please contact Eric Miller <>.

6) Based on material in Anne Fernald's, "Human Maternal Vocalizations to Infants as Biologically Relevant Signals: An Evolutionary Perspective," in Language Acquisition, Paul Bloom, editor, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1994, pp. 51-94.