In the midst of the Google Translate era, incoming U-M Tamil instructor Vidya Mohan teaches one of the world’s oldest classical languages. Ancient as the language’s origins may be, Mohan approaches Tamil from a very modern angle.
“Incorporating platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram helps make Tamil accessible,” Mohan said of her teaching strategies. “I see it as something that can be comfortable for everyone, even though it’s an ancient language with a wealth of literature.”
Spoken by more than one million people in the US alone, Tamil is recognized as an official language in India, Sri Lanka, and Singapore. At over 4,500 years old, its history can be divided into three sangam [periods]—old, middle, and new, with most of the major texts originating from the ‘new’ period.
In the fall, Mohan will join the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures to become U-M’s first Tamil instructor in twelve years, positioning the University among just eight American colleges with Tamil programs. With her, Mohan brings almost a decade of experience teaching Tamil at the university level, as well as a background in primary and secondary schools.
Originally poised to enter the legal field, Mohan began teaching in 1999, several years after arriving to the US from Tamil Nadu. She began as a classroom aide, eventually ascending to a full teaching position.
“I grew up speaking Tamil, but my passion for ancient literature drove me to explore it more deeply. Today, I view social media as a great launching pad for students to explore that literature. Often, students see a reference online and become interested in the history behind it.”
In Mohan’s experience, Tamil courses are comprised of both heritage and non-heritage speakers. This mixture of students keeps the classroom environment fun and dynamic.
“People are interested for all sorts of reasons,” she said. “Some people see it just as a brand-new language to learn. Maybe their significant other is from Tamil Nadu or speaks Tamil. I’ve had a lot of students who use Tamil as a way to return to their roots, as well.”
The state of Michigan has a particularly high population of native and heritage Tamil speakers. Mohan knows at least four Tamil schools in the Detroit area alone, and has herself co-founded a Tamil language Sunday school in Lansing with her colleague, Suseela Umakanth.
“We’ve been running the school for 17 years. We teach children of 3-4 years of age, all the way up to high schoolers,” Mohan said.
“To preserve this language and pass it onto the next generation…that’s my passion. To me, that’s what teaching is, but it feels especially important in the Tamil context.”
After all, the Tamil of today is continuous with grammatical rules dating back more than 2,000 years. This is where Tamil diverges from other languages—Shakespearean English, for example, is pretty inconsistent with most modern English dialects.
“Tamil teaches people to focus on the details, letter by letter. It’s a language of suffixes—I’ve seen up to 14 suffixes added to a word. Learning Tamil is a great mental exercise, because just adding a suffix can change all sorts of things, like the tense and gender of a word,” she explained.
Mohan also teaches her students about regional food and dance. She believes exposure to cultural elements facilitates a deeper appreciation and understanding of language.
“I just want people to be proud of their language and culture—to have pride in who they are without wanting to hide it. You can melt into the melting pot, but you should still keep your own flavor.”