No, I Don’t Speak Tamil: Understanding Non-Tamil Indian Languages (NTIL)

By Samyak Jain (21S03A) and Snehal Sachde (21S07C)
Cover image by Neo Xin Yuan (21A01D) 

Chances are, you’ve complained about taking Mother Tongue before. We sure have. However, some of us have more to complain about than others. On top of the regular boredom which many associate with the subject, students who take Non-Tamil Indian Languages (NTILs) face a unique set of challenges that are generally not considered by the wider school population. 

Chances also are, you know that most Indians in Singapore speak and learn Tamil. However, this isn’t an accurate representation of the languages spoken in India at all. 

In fact, Hindi has the fourth-largest number of speakers in the world, majorly spoken in northern India. In comparison, Tamil is mostly spoken by people from a specific region in South India. Other NTILs taught in Singapore, which include Gujarati, Urdu, Punjabi, and Bengali, are spoken in different regions across the South-Asian subcontinent. All these languages, however, form only the tip of the iceberg—India has a diversity of more than 780 languages. 

A summarised map of the various languages spoken across India and Bangladesh.

In Singapore, the teaching of NTILs is regulated by the Board of Teaching and Testing of South Asian Languages (BTTSAL, a lot of acronyms, I know, but please stay with us), under the purview of the Ministry Of Education (MOE). Teachers and materials are provided through smaller schools that train and send teachers to schools to conduct lessons. 

Currently, a significant number of NTIL students spend their Saturday mornings at language centres for lessons because their mother tongue is not offered in school—think third language lessons at MOE Language Centres (MOELCs) but with a lot more students and held on Saturdays. 

Thankfully, in some schools where there are a sizable number of Hindi students, lessons are conducted on campus. For the Batch of ’21, our school had over 40 students who took Hindi and sat for the A-Level examination, with all lessons being conducted in school. 

It would be inaccurate to say that we are ungrateful for the opportunity to learn our mother tongue languages. The impact that learning our mother tongue has had on our understanding of culture and heritage is immense and cannot be understated. However, that is not to say that there are no flaws in the way NTILs are handled in our schools and in the public psyche—both in the way it is taught and in the way it is viewed by other students. 

NTILs, being “unofficial” mother tongues, have been placed lower on the rank of importance compared to Chinese, Malay, and Tamil. The effects of this are seen across every aspect of the teaching of these languages. There is no Higher Hindi, which means that even high-achieving NTIL students need to take their mother tongue in their critical JC years, using up time and energy. 

Hindi teachers typically receive lesser training and fewer resources, which means that Hindi lessons generally don’t include group work, online learning, or a continuous assessment component. As a result, the lessons are often repetitive, with students partaking in similar exam preparation constantly without an attachment to the language being inculcated. 

Many times, the Hindi teachers are not even given spaces to sit in school outside of lesson time. Mdm Divya Tripathi, a Hindi teacher at Raffles Institution, described having to mark for hours in the canteen at her previous school despite the noise and distractions, because she was not provided a staff room table or a marking space. 

Moreover, classrooms provided for the teaching of Hindi often are cramped, dirty, and uncomfortable, with both students and teachers having to deal with such discomfort over the years. Given the difficulty already associated with doing well in mother tongues, these disparities in resources only further complicate the learning process. 

Myth vs. Facts about NTILs.

But let’s be honest—there is very little that you and I can do about the structural inefficacies of the teaching of Non-Tamil Indian languages in Singapore, because it would require changes on the policy level. However, what you can change, and what NTIL students are affected by, are the microaggressions we often face.

Take a moment to ask yourself some simple questions. Before you read this article, what did you know about NTIL languages? Do you know anyone who takes a NTIL, and do you know which language they take? 

While doing research for this article, we tried to figure out the answer to these questions. 

As a random experiment, Samyak, who takes Hindi, went around his classroom asking his classmates which language he took as his mother tongue. Barely a handful could even name the language, despite it being on the timetables they see every day. Clearly, a large number of students do not even know that Hindi exists, let alone know anything about it. 

In a survey of all Hindi students in RI and some students in other schools, we asked them about their encounters with misinformed opinions and ideas about Hindi. Almost every single responder had a story to tell. Some were shocked that their classmates held basic misconceptions about NTILs. Others were jaded, having faced this ignorance on a regular basis with the common trope being “aren’t Hindi and Tamil the same (insert racist accent)?”.

Snehal, personally, has many stories to tell about how many of the people around her are blissfully unaware of the NTIL-taking students around them. A primary school teacher once told Indian and Hindi students to stand up separately, implying that Hindi was not an Indian language. 

Several non-Indian people have also tried to convince her, a person who speaks Hindi, that Hindi is exactly the same as Tamil. The informal word for this is annoying. The formal word for these encounters is microaggressions.

But such misconceptions not only lead to annoyance, but also a deep and omnipresent shame in a group that already forms a minority of the population. Many NTIL students are children of immigrants and therefore have to pave their own way into integrating into a multicultural Singapore. When our authenticity as Indians too is undermined due to our deviation from the language norm, we find ways to hide—whispering on the phone while conversing with our parents and telling our friends that “we pretty much speak English at home.” We work hard to remove every trace of our original Indian accent, afraid that we’d be judged for it. Chances are, we would be. 

Perhaps such misconceptions could be attributed to ignorance—there are such few Hindi students, how can you expect anyone to know about Hindi as a language? However, in a country that values multiculturalism, is ignorance enough of a justification for not bothering to ask someone you know what language they speak?

Making no efforts to correct your ignorance, especially when information is readily available, is often the product of racism.

Conversations about mother tongue languages in this country, and likely in your class and friend groups, are often shallow at best. The CMIO model has been packaged neatly for us: we have Mandarin for the Chinese, Bahasa Melayu for Malays, Tamil for the Indians and a nice little section called “Others” which we try not to think about. 

For the average student, Hindi and other NTIL languages are forgettable. It is easy to ignore, easy to forget, easy to make a mistake, apologise, and never think about it again. The effect of this, however, is not easy to bear. Many students who speak NTILs feel that the popular notion that Tamil is the “only” or “main” Indian language has stripped them of their Indian identity. The division of languages drives a wedge between speakers of Tamil and speakers of other Indian languages, further alienating an already marginalised group in Singapore. Many students grow embarrassed of their Indian identity since it does not fit the preconceived notion of what Indianness is. When the only archetype of an Indian person in popular consciousness is a dark-skinned Tamil-speaker, the rest of us are denied access to an inextricable aspect of our identity. 

For too long, we have allowed the misinformation and caricaturing of what being a certain race is under the guise of ignorance. It is time to change. It is time to do better. 

If there is nothing you have managed to remember from this article, remember this last paragraph. Hindi is not a country, it is not a religion, it is not Tamil, it is not three languages on top of each other in a trench coat. Hindi is a language. Reach out to your NTIL-speaking friends the next time you see them—ask them about the language they speak, about which part of India they come from, what they like about their heritage. Their answers might just surprise you. 

One thought on “No, I Don’t Speak Tamil: Understanding Non-Tamil Indian Languages (NTIL)”

  1. Very heartfelt and sincere. While I do not wish to derail the conversation, I think there’s an interesting parallel to be made with the Chinese community, who can only study Mandarin in schools instead of Hokkien or Cantonese etc. However, as the majority race, it’s important for the Chinese to respect and acknowledge the diversity of other races’ cultures instead of viewing them as a simplistic monolith so as to encourage greater understanding and empathy.

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