My journey in learning languages has been rather colorful. I grew up in a Tamil-speaking household. When I was five, my parents sent me to a Chinese Methodist kindergarten, where everything was taught in Mandarin and my music classes were held in the church. I spent the first few weeks communicating with hand gestures and body movements. Boy… was that interesting! Soon enough, I started talking fluently in Mandarin. Once I finished kindergarten, I pleaded my parents to send me to a Chinese-medium school. My parents, however, decided to put me in a national school. I was speaking so much Malay during those six years that even at home, my siblings and I often used Malay to talk to each other!
Perhaps realizing how detached I was becoming to my native language, my parents forced me to attend weekly People’s Own Language (POL) classes at school. This happened despite millions of my protests. Poverty forced my parents out of school at the age of 12 and 14 respectively, so they would always strive to give my brothers and I the best education they could. Unfortunately, the teacher that was assigned to teach us somehow decided that it was best to teach the same things over and over again every year. Consequently, by the end of my middle school years, I was only able to write simple, one-line sentences. Yes, I did memorize all 247 alphabets of Tamil, but if anybody asked me to write even a simple paragraph, I would have wished for the earth to swallow me up.
Just when I thought that would be the end of my painful journey in learning Tamil, my parents asked me to continue learning it in high school. I responded with a big NO. This was followed by a lot of negotiation ending with me agreeing to take the classes as long as I do not have to sit for the paper during the junior-high exam (PMR). The classes were integrated into our syllabus, so they were held twice weekly. Other students that signed up were from Tamil-medium schools. They already had six solid years of foundation in the language. Then, there was me, barely being able to write a grammatically correct sentence. It was like signing up for a disaster.
Our first assignment was to write an essay. It felt like a joke. Of course, I couldn’t write essays in Tamil. This ended with my mom’s friend writing the essay for me while I rewrote it in my assignment book. For those of you that can speak Tamil, you will know how different the spoken language is the formal one you learn in school. I barely understood what I was copying!
This was the point when I realized how far behind I was in the language. I really wanted to stop taking the class. Yet again, my parents persistently encouraged me to continue. I was getting C’s in my Tamil exams. I honestly think the teacher was being too kind to give me a C at that point. However, I refused to end something I started with a big, fat, C as an end result. I continued pushing forward regardless of how much I was failing.
I was Really Stubborn
A lot of people expected me to fail. This really happens pretty much anywhere. Whatever it is that you do, there will always be someone out there that doubts your capabilities. Even I was doubting myself at that point. But, the more people looked down on me, the more stubborn I became at not giving up. The more people told me it was a good idea not to take Tamil paper in my exam, the more I was fired up to do so!
People always look down on underdogs, but this doesn’t mean that you should give up. I signed up to sit for Tamil in my PMR although I was nowhere ready to do so.
I Rewrote Sample Essays
During one of my semester breaks, I decided to really work on my writing skills. My Tamil teacher suggested that I should rewrite sample essays as it would help tremendously in my grammar. I wasn’t really sure how copying someone else’s writing would help but decided it was worth giving a shot. I bought a book of 25 sample essays.
Each day, I would rewrite one. I finished all 25 of them and started copying them all over again for a second round. By the end of my break, I managed to rewrite each essay twice. Trees would be crying at the rate I used up papers, but this trick worked! I saw an immediate improvement in my writing. I was making far fewer grammar mistakes and writing in Tamil came much more naturally to me.
Yes, even I was surprised!
I Read Newspaper Articles
I used to avoid Tamils newspapers like a disease but soon realized that my vocabulary will never improve if I don’t read. Plus, my grandmother always saved up good articles and put them in front of me the moment I sat down for a TV break. I had to force myself to read, but it was definitely worth it. Every time I came across a word that I didn’t know (this would be most words), I would look it up in the dictionary and figure out how to use it in a sentence. Soon enough, I started naturally using these new words in my essays!
I Read Poetry
Well, this was a disaster at first. I couldn’t understand most of the words used in the poems when I started this exercise. But with the help of my faithful dictionary and a lot of imagination, I managed to interpret them and learned to use higher-level words in my writing. Reading poetry also helped me to quote beautiful verses in my essays. I slowly discovered my own style of writing in a language that was so foreign to me before!
My C’s slowly turned into B’s and eventually A’s. I got an A for Tamil in my junior-high examination. This encouraged me to continue taking higher level Tamil classes in senior high school. It was a bumpy road, but I started mastering the literary section of the language as well and did well in my exams. I started getting higher grades for my essays than those that went to Tamil-medium schools did.
In the end, I got an A1 for Tamil in my senior high exam (SPM). This was the moment when I realized that I can achieve pretty much anything that I set my heart to. Failure is normal, but it should never be an end to your journey. No matter where you are and what you are struggling with, I hope that you too won’t give up.
Perseverance and hard work always pay off!
Written by Iswari. Iswari is a small town girl that defied the odds to obtain a fully-sponsored education at Cornell University.
She is now back in Malaysia, tiptoeing around reverse culture shock while trying to remain sane in the corporate world.
Sociable yet private, detached yet faithful; she is a paradox.
Iswari’s Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/iswari.nallisamy
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