Has a foreigner mastered the Tamil language?

Multilingualism of a refugee woman - two worlds through the language glasses

When she escaped from her former country Sri Lanka, she could already speak three languages. Shanthi also learned German and French in Germany. What does the linguistic reality of this woman look like? Where does she draw strength for her social commitment?

At the age of 18, Shanthi fled to Germany via India. The half-orphan left her mother and three siblings in Sri Lanka; they have all emigrated to Canada in the past 25 years. First Shanthi came to live with relatives in northern Germany and applied for asylum. The application was rejected, but she was able to find shelter and then gain a foothold. “I think my résumé is a little unusual for normal migrants. Then I also moved away from the relatives. "

Blessing in disguise

Having entered the country as an adult, Shanthi was initially at risk of being housed in a refugee home. It didn't get that far with the help of a lawyer. Instead, she was placed with a foster family. “I was lucky that I was able to live with them.” She then learned German with the family “by speaking in the household” and conveyed it through television, but also deciphered smaller texts from brochures and local newspapers and expanded her vocabulary. In addition, on the advice of a foreigners commissioner, she attended courses at the adult education center.

Shanthi says she finds her current situation regrettable. “As a foreigner or asylum seeker, you neither have a work permit nor a real residence permit.” It is very difficult to get access to school or training. Nevertheless, the scarce certificates available were recognized and she was allowed to start school. Also because “a German woman stood up for me, discussed and phoned everywhere.” Shanthi initially got her secondary school diploma, but the authorities believed that she was too old to attend grammar school. She had to get her high school diploma in other ways - in the end she passed the Abitur with good grades.

Optimistically Shanthi emphasizes that she was lucky after all. She was lucky after school because despite everything she got an apprenticeship position. That took a long time because she only got the place when no locals were interested. She just had to give up the desire to study. For her first job, the employer did not want her to gain further qualifications through evening events. As a result, instead of recovering, she would have "studied in the evening and used the vacation days to study for the exam."

She has a strong will - and outside help. "If I had followed the path that society had given me, then I would probably be a cleaning lady somewhere today - or on sick leave, because I would be so psychologically worn by the work and the situation that I would no longer be able to do it completely to live normally. ”Unfortunately, this is the situation of a number of refugee women who either pursue less qualified jobs due to financial constraints or have the feeling that they are completely incapable of acting due to the resulting gap and the perceived hopelessness. However, Shanthi has further qualified as a construction specialist while working.

Linguistic trinity

In northern Sri Lanka, Shanthi was born into a "socially respected family with educational background," as she says. The family language was Tamil. The official transfer of her civil servant father then took her to the south of the country. Here she spent the first eight years of her life, the people around her spoke Sinhala. In her multilingual reality, she grew up speaking Tamil, Sinhala and English in the early 1970s. At the request of her future-conscious father, Shanthi started school in a Sinhala school, where she was still learning English. The door to university education should not remain closed to her. At first, Tamil was just the family language.

In order to understand this linguistic trinity, one has to take a brief look at history. Sri Lanka is linguistically divided: while the majority language Sinhala is spoken in large parts of the country - except in the north and east - around a fifth of the population speaks the minority language Tamil as their first language and lives primarily in the north and east of Sri Lanka. The linguistic dividing line roughly coincides with the two major faiths: Buddhism corresponds to the Sinhala language, and Hinduism is interwoven with the Tamil language. The followers of the two smaller religions of this country, namely the Christians and Muslims, can - according to their first language - be assigned to one of the two larger language communities.

The political conflict between the two language communities was evident in language politics after independence from the British colonial power in 1948. With the law "Sinhala Only" from 1956, the majority language was preferred. Access to higher education for Tamil students was made more difficult in 1971. The reason for this was, among other things, the counteraction of the former privileges of the Tamils ​​in the colonial bureaucratic apparatus.

When Shanthi was in the second grade, her father passed away. With his untimely death, "the foundation" to continue living in the south-west of the country fell away, she says. Shanthi therefore moved north to live with her grandparents with her mother and three siblings. First, she was sent to the Sinhalese military school. "When I was back home, I went to a foreign school with a foreign culture during the day, but in the afternoons I lived Hinduism in the neighborhood," says Shanthi. After about two years, however, because of the civil war-like condition, she was de-registered and sent to a Tamil school. It was not until the fifth grade that she got to know Tamil as a written language.

In addition to her best friends, "who were all Sinhalese and Buddhist" and whom she had to leave behind mostly in the south, she accompanied Sinhalese for a while. But because of the hostile situation and the civil war that was waged by national language, the language fell into oblivion for a few years. The sparks of this hostility could not jump over to them, however, because if everyday life, experience and circle of friends are constantly intertwined with several languages ​​and religions from childhood, then open-mindedness is probably the result.

When she arrived in Germany, she had other worries. Her hope that the English language would serve as a bridge and that the experience of Sri Lanka's British colonial history would help her further abroad were both equally shattered. “People looked at me and just walked away when I spoke to them in English,” she says. “Old and young, everyone got mad. At some point I didn't dare to speak English openly. ”That was one of the reasons why she learned French as a foreign language at school.

Survivors' fault

However, Shanthi regrets that she has been unable to meet her obligations to her family and those left behind in the war. Her own situation was uncertain in the first few years and, although she had a temporary residence permit, she did not have a work permit. In her attempt to create normalcy for herself as an unrecognized refugee in a new environment, “I just wanted to go the regular route,” she says. So: don't work illegally and first see that she can make ends meet herself. This feeling of guilt and the feeling of helplessness eats her up. "Because I just couldn't manage the balancing act of quitting school and going to work somewhere to be there for the family or for people from home."

In addition, she could not bow to the wishes of her family and fulfill them by finding a suitable husband and starting a family. Despite her professional career - first a construction manager, then experience in a construction company, then in a bank and finally with the city administration - Shanthi has a feeling of failure because she did not receive recognition from her mother and siblings. Instead of feeling proud of Shanti's career path - that she is independent of any help and has shaped her life independently - the mother is rather sad. Shanthi therefore sees himself as the black sheep of the family.

Obligation to deliver: compensatory function

To counteract this feeling of guilt and failure, Shanthi made her experience available. “But what I have done in my life here: that I provided the people I knew here with linguistic support.” She advises her compatriots on numerous administrative and legal matters. “And there was one case where I accompanied a person who was almost terminally ill and I had to translate a certificate at short notice.” At that time, she had herself sworn in so that the interpreting that she was doing anyway was officially recognized. She has been a sworn interpreter for more than 10 years and continuously accompanies people as needed.

As the second generation of Sri Lankan Tamil refugees grew up, several families are gradually able to receive language support from within their own family. It was time to expand Shanti's commitment to other migrant groups. That's when she heard about the local integration plan, which was supported by every federal state, and decided to take part.

At first, Shanthi had concerns because she could not do volunteer work at all times due to her tight schedule. But then she found out about the peculiarity: “We can only be contacted by authorities, not private individuals.” Through the adult education center, which not only carries out training to become an integration pilot, but also acts as a coordination point, she has access to various people from many countries . In addition, she is actively involved in an environmental association, “which offers energy advice, energy saving and sustainability, especially geared towards migrants.” She does not have much time for her voluntary work, but Shanthi takes it as often as she can despite working full time.

Not necessarily fixated on the words "

Shanthi's biography shows the crossing of personal, institutional and social levels. It shows how in some respects linguistic nationalism can force people to flee - and at the same time language skills and openness towards others can act as a bridge and relief.

“I always found it nice when a group of people sat together, Germans and people from other countries; and everyone was talking, ”says Shanthi. If you were “not necessarily fixated on the words”, then you “understood completely and exactly what the person was trying to say,” she says. "That was this linguistic thinking, thinking and listening."

Radhika Natarajan is a doctoral candidate and lecturer at the German Seminar at the Leibniz University of Hanover. She is doing an interdisciplinary doctorate on the interface between language, refugee migration and gender.