Being Tamil: Exploring the Relationship Between Tamil Heritage Language Maintenance and Ethnolinguistic Identity

Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)



Date of Award

Spring 2022


Since the Tamil language is perhaps the strongest indicator of a Tamil identity, this raises the question of how Tamil heritage language loss affects a Tamil identity? This study aims to answer this question using a mixed-methods approach involving an online questionnaire and semi-structured interviews surveying members of the Tamil diaspora about their Tamil proficiency and use, migration patterns, attitudes towards the Tamil language, and identity. The Tamil identity is unique since this ethnolinguistic identification symbolizes a specific minority language and culture which cannot be similarly conveyed with a national identity, such as Indian or Sri Lankan, which is typically associated with the majority language and culture.The Tamil identity also encompasses two divergent identities of Indian Tamil and Eelam Tamil and this study will attempt to shed more light on the comparatively understudied Indian Tamil diaspora. Tamil heritage language maintenance faces some distinct challenges including what Schiffman (1998) observed as the pedagogical complications of maintaining a highly diglossic language as well as what Canagarajah (2012) observed as the pervasiveness of English proficiency among Tamils which leads to a higher receptive proficiency of Tamil in the diaspora. Tamil youth especially struggle with language maintenance after migration when learning the dominant language, such as English, and assimilating to the dominant culture takes precedence over maintaining the Tamil language. This study showed that while higher proficiency in Tamil speaking skills has a correlation with identifying as Tamil, it is still possible for Tamil identity to be maintained without Tamil language proficiency. There are a multitude of different aspects that Tamils in the diaspora claim keep them connected to their identity, including Tamil history, family members, traditions, and food. In this way, Tamils who have limited proficiency in the Tamil language are still able to find ways to keep connected to their Tamil identity and potentially use these means to pass on that identity to future generations. Since full Tamil language proficiency proves to not be necessary for a Tamil identity, this study has illuminated how Tamil diaspora members negotiate their identity and redefine what it means to be Tamil.


Salvatore Attardo

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | English Language and Literature