Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 2 : 8 November 2002

Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editors: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.
         Sam Mohanlal, Ph.D.
         B. A. Sharada, Ph.D.




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    Bloomington, MN 55438 USA.
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    Central Institute of Indian Languages,
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Copyright © 2001
M. S. Thirumalai


Gwenola Cillier

1. Introduction

This article is about the difficulties that I faced in learning Tamil. However, probably no two students experience the same difficulties in learning a foreign language. So, what I write in this article could only be related to my personal experience and situation (that of a native French speaker). Yet I hope that this article may be useful to those who wish to learn Tamil as a foreign language.

2. Wide Differences Between Tamil and French

For a native French speaker, studying Tamil means studying a language belonging to a different linguistic family, therefore differing widely, as regards many different aspects, from the French language.

3. Difference in the Script

The difference that the student will naturally notice first is the script. It is often stressed in Tamil textbooks (in those dedicated to literary Tamil, as well as in those dedicated to the colloquial form of the language), that mastering the Tamil alphabet is a necessity BEFORE starting to really study the language in terms of vocabulary and grammar, all lessons being presented in the original script.

I personally feel that learning a script out of context makes it a little dull, and maybe even more difficult. To my mind, the easiest way of learning a new script is to do so along with learning vocabulary and grammar. It is helpful to have concrete and authentic examples from the vocabulary and structures to practice the letters of a script. This makes script learning easier and more interesting.

Some Tamil textbooks use this method - the student does not have to learn all the letters immediately, but only those that he/she comes across in the words he/she is acquiring at the moment. The script is thus gradually mastered, in a quite natural way.

I also did not feel the Tamil script to be a particularly complicated one. It is a very logically and clearly organized syllabic system, and I did not find the letters particularly difficult to draw. In comparison, I found the Devanagari script, for instance, much more complex and difficult to master. The Tamil script does not have super and subscript letters. Also the consonant clusters such as those we use in the Devanagari script are not used in Tamil. In some sense, the Tamil script is more linear than the other script systems used in Indian languages.

4. Tamil Grammar

Tamil vocabulary and grammar are very different from those of the French language.

As regards grammar, the structure of the Tamil sentence, for instance, is not like that of the French sentence. I personally think that a good knowledge of grammar in general, like the ability to analyze the function or position of a word in a sentence, is particularly important for one who wishes to learn Tamil.

Personally, I feel that having studied French grammar of course, but also Latin and German, two languages requiring a very precise analysis of the function of words, before learning Tamil, helped me greatly.

I think that a person who would not be comfortable with doing grammatical analysis would find Tamil a very difficult language to learn - many points of its grammar like cases, the differences between verbs and verbal nouns, to name a few, would be very difficult to understand and master.

5. Tamil Vocabulary

As regards vocabulary, Tamil words (with the exception of course of those borrowed from Indo-European languages) sharing no common roots with the French ones, require for the French speaker a memorization effort greater than that which would be required for learning Spanish, for instance.

In Tamil textbooks, the presentation of lessons through a careful and very gradual introduction of vocabulary, as well as its use in different situations (in the singular, in the plural, with different case markers) makes it much easier.

I must also say that being fluent in English when one starts to learn Tamil, especially the colloquial form, makes the task much easier. Many English words are widely used in daily life in the spoken form of the language, and a student who does not not know English would find that to be a disadvantage, posing extra difficulty.

6. Greatest Difficulty: Mastering Pronunciation

Finally, I feel that the greatest difficulty in learning Tamil for a French speaker is the mastering of pronunciation. The use of recorded material for those not having the chance to be helped by a native Tamil speaker, is virtually a necessity.

Another point is that Tamil speakers are used to speaking especially fast, and getting trained to understand a faster pace of speech than one is accustomed to as well as speaking Tamil with a faster pace is also something that I feel to be essential.

6. The Colloquial and Written Forms of Language

The existence of two different forms of the language (the spoken and written forms of the language) may seem to be a difficulty at first sight, but I personally felt that it actually is a help in learning the language. Having to study two forms of a language is like studying two entirely different languages in terms of time dedicated to study, but the two forms back each other up, hence giving the chance to the student to go deeper in mastering grammar and vocabulary. For instance, a word learnt in its colloquial form will later be introduced in its literary form, hence the chance to recall it, to practice it again, to analyse it again.

Initially though, studying the two forms of the language entirely seperately from each other, helps to avoid confusion and mixing up between the two forms. But once some proficiency in the two forms has been acquired, comparison between the two becomes most interesting and rewarding.

7. Conclusion

Differing widely from the French language, Tamil offers many challenges indeed to the French speaker. But these challenges are also one of the things that make Tamil so interesting and fascinating a language to learn. Its richness is indeed one of its beauties.

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Gwenola Cillier