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Joint Sojourners and Co-Learners on a Plurilingual Journey

Updated: Feb 11, 2021

I was recently invited to write a blog post for the Belonging, Identity, Language, Diversity Research Group (BILD). Here is an excerpt from my post:

“Good morning, students. My name is Shakina, and I’m here to learn Tamil from you.” 35 faces stared back at me, with looks of confusion and slight amusement in their eyes. A few students stole quick glances at the daily schedule plastered on a notice board at the back of the classroom. It was their English period now, and they were expecting to meet their new English teacher for the year. So, who was this person at the front of the classroom asking to learn Tamil from them, then? A few students muttered something to each other under their breaths. I continued, “I’m brand new to your school, and my Tamil isn’t very good. I heard that you’re all Tamil language experts, and I would love for you to be my teachers this year.” A few students chuckled quietly, but still, no one responded to me. I gathered up all the courage in me and said something in the little Tamil I knew, “நான் தமிழ் கொஞ்சம் கொஞ்சம் தெரியும்” (I know Tamil, a little little). Laughter erupted all across the room. “Teacher, எப்படி இல்லை!” (Teacher, that’s not how you say it!). I smiled. This was going to be the start of a beautiful plurilingual journey together.

In 2010, I was commissioned by the Malaysian Ministry of Education to teach English in a Tamil-medium primary school in the state of Selangor in Malaysia. As I had received a full scholarship from the Malaysian government to pursue my Bachelor of Education in the United Kingdom, I was contracted to teach English in any public school of their choosing for at least 4 years after I graduated. I was posted to a primary school in the minority Malaysian-Indian community. Tamil was the official medium of instruction for most subjects in this school, and English was taught as a separate subject. The night I received my offer letter and found out where I would be teaching for the next 4 years, I was awake all night, my mind racing with many anxious thoughts. Although I was a Malaysian-born Indian myself and had learned Tamil for over 10 years, I did not consider myself to be a proficient speaker of Tamil. I was afraid that I would be perceived as an outsider in this community because of my lack of proficiency in the language. I was anxious about not being able to communicate and connect with my students and their parents. I was embarrassed about having an “accent” when I spoke in Tamil, about the countless pauses and fillers in my speech. I was worried I would not know how to express my thoughts clearly when speaking in Tamil.

It was only after I spent some time getting to know the students in my school that a very important realization dawned on me – a realization that would go on to determine the course of my teaching and research. How I felt about Tamil was exactly how many of my own students felt about English, except that the stakes were much higher for them, and they had experienced a systemic marginalization of Tamil that I had not experienced with English.

If you would like to learn more about how this important realization went on to shape my teaching and research, and how I became joint sojourners and co-learners with my students on our plurilingual journey, I invite you to read the rest of the story here:

If you have taught in a similar context, I would love to hear your story! Please leave a comment or send me a message. I look forward to connecting with you.


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