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Language Shift.

If language maintenance does not occur, there can be several results. One is language death; speakers become bilingual, younger speakers become dominant in another language, and the language is said to die. The speakers or the community does not die, of course, they just become a subset of speakers of another language. The end result is language shift for the population, and if the language isn't spoken elsewhere, it dies. In the case of Tamil in Malaysia, we do not speak of death because Tamil continues to live on in Tamilnadu, but the effect is the same. For the speakers who go to their death as Tamils still, it is a kind of death to see their children shift to another language.

In Malaysia, if Tamils shift languages, there are two possible outcomes. One is that they will become Malay speakers, the other is to become English speakers. (Chinese is not a practical outcome.) In fact, few Tamils are becoming Malay speakers, except for individual Tamil Muslims who intermarry with Malays and whose offspring grow up speaking Malay. The more general outcome is that many Tamils, especially well-educated Tamils, are becoming English speakers. Less-educated Tamils, however, especially those still living in plantation communities, continue to speak Tamil, and the prognosis for their language maintenance is for the time being favorable.

There are a number of reasons why English-educated Tamils are in fact switching to English as a dominant language, and there is no one reason that is more important than others. There is a tendency in the Tamil community to lay the blame for this shift at someone else's door, but neither the government's language policy, nor the Tamil community itself, nor the difficulty of maintaining a Tamil-maintenance infrastructure, nor any other reason is sufficient alone. In fact Tamil is doing fine when the conditions that enhance language maintenance pertain, and these are precisely those enumerated by Kloss for German immigrants in the US:Note that Kloss's fifteen factors contain six positive factors, and nine ambivalent factors; in the current case, factor 1 is unambiguously positive, while 2-4 below are ambivalent, i.e. they can work either way. In the Malaysian case, combined with factor 1, they are positive in terms of maintenance.

Isolation and linguistic islands:
Low educational background and aspirations
Small size
Great cultural difference (including religion) between group and majority.

The plantation economy, where most of the work in rubber and palm oil tapping is performed by Tamil and other Indian workers, provides a perfect cocoon in which Tamil can be maintained. Tamil is admissible as a medium of education for elementary education in Malaysia,Malay is the medium of "National Schools" and Chinese and Tamil are tolerated as the medium of "National-type Schools", but English is not tolerated for state-supported education. Private schools using English do exist, and private Chinese medium secondary-schools also exist, but they do not receive any state support. and this is provided to the children of the communities. Because of the segmented nature of Indian society and its perpetuation in emigration, the kind of workersThis point may not be emphasized too strongly: Indian plantation workers, mainly Tamils, came from the most destitute, impoverished and lowest-caste, including untouchable, backgrounds. They were already socialized to be docile, servile and unquestioning of authority, and the colonial plantation capitalized on these attitudes and helped to perpetuate them. Indian workers are praised again and again for their docility and willingness to put up with the most abject conditions,compared with the Chinese, who were rebellious, entrepreneurial, and uncooperative with the plantation system. who came to do this kind of work tend to have not much of an educational background and/or aspirations for anything more. Unlike the educated (Sri Lanka) Tamils who worked as clerks and teachers, knew English, and rose to become a professional urbanized elite, these Tamils never had educational opportunities, and despite being able theoretically to go on to secondary education and higher education, do not aspire to do so. Their elementary education in Tamil suffices them, and since these small pockets of Tamil speakers are (until recently) always located in isolated rural areas, are perceived as no threat to Malaysian society. (One imagines Malay culture wishing that the Chinese were as small and insignificant a minority as the Tamils.)

Given the religious differences (Hinduism vs. Islam), plantation Tamils other than Muslim Tamils are unlikely to ever `merge' with Malay society, either linguistically or culturally. In the article by Marimuttu in the Sandhu and Mani volume (Sandhu and Mani 1993), the claim is made that the educational system provided to the plantation Tamils does not raise them out of the cultural dead-end they are stuck in, and is not designed to do so. This system, according to Marimuttu, preserves and perpetuates the plantation system in a kind of neocolonial atmosphere. As such we can imagine that the Tamil language will be maintained in this environment for the foreseeable future; as long as their is rubber tapping and palm-oil cultivation, the same population is bound to continue to do that work, since Malays do not perform this work, and Chinese are primarily urbanized and in business.There is some movement out of the plantation economy into urban areas, but neither the schools nor the ``profession" of rubber-tapping provide people with salable skills in the city. Those who do leave are now being replaced by Bangladeshi and Indonesian contract workers to some extent. Another reason for little social movement is that there has been no practical way to mechanize tapping, so there is no way to increase productivity, and wage levels; individual workers must still go to the trees and tap them.

The situation of the urbanized educated Tamilian, however, is a different one. Here we see in operation a number of other factors that work against language maintenance. One is the pervasive segmented character of Indian culture, and Indian communities abroad. One can discern linguistic differences, caste differences, and differences of village and even `national' origin, i.e. whether Tamils came from India or Sri Lanka. Tamils (and other Indians) in the urban environment are perhaps even more segmented than are rural tapper communities, so the urge to work together on language maintenance is weak. Just like Germans of different backgrounds in the 19th century US, Tamils of various backgrounds do not see themselves as having any interests in common with other Tamils, or at least not enough to lay aside these differences until it is too late.

Secondly, the aforementioned language maintenance strategies brought from India turn out, in post-colonial Malaysia, to be counterproductive. An emphasis on keeping Tamil pure of Hindi, Sanskrit and English influences is rather futile when the language of threat is Malay. But it is the emphasis on corpus work rather than status concerns that is counterproductive. It is not the corpus of Malay (or Hindi, or Sanskrit or English) that is the problem here, it is the status of Malay within the national language policy that is a problem, but the other issue is that the status of English in this equation is conflicted.

That is, this urban group had an original `leg-up' in colonial Malaya because of their knowledge of English, and used that advantage, and still uses it, despite obstacles from the official policy, for their own benefit. But in another sense, the status of English is a danger, since this group of Tamilians, and indeed Tamilians everywhere, have not treated the status of English as problematical.They object to mixing Tamil and English, angilak kalappu, but they do not object to anyone knowing English. They have embraced English, and continue to embrace it, as a barrier or buffer against Hindi, Sinhala, and Malay. The problem now is this group has relaxed its guard about English, and too much knowledge of English now means that this group now knows too little Tamil, and is in fact not committed enough to Tamil. In fact, many of my informants, though committed to Tamil, even professionally (University teaching, Ministry of Education) declared that they would not put their children in Tamil schools because Tamil schools are a dead-end professionally and socially.

next up previous
Next: A New Factor: Urban Up: Malaysian Tamils and Tamil Previous: Educational Policy
Harold Schiffman