Indians in B-N: Language schools in Bloomington-Normal pass along culture, tradition and skill
It's been six years since Janakiraman left her home in India, but on these Saturdays, the place that's thousands of miles away feels just a little bit closer.
Saturdays are when parents — mostly of Indian or South Asian heritage — bring their children to classrooms in Bloomington's District 87 where they learn one of the oldest languages in the world: Tamil.
"Whenever I go to school, everyone around me is Tamil, and we are talking about our festivals, our culture," she said. "It's like I'm in a mini-India for at least 90 minutes."
To be clear, the program is not a District 87-sponsored program. Rather, the Bloomington district allows this nonprofit school to use a building on Saturdays to teach Tamil.
The school, called Dr. Abdul Kalam Tamil Palli, was established in 2015 — the same year its namesake, Dr. Abdul Kalam, India's 11th president, died.
While it is, technically, a language school, its purpose and existence runs much deeper than passing along a means of communication.
"There is a saying: If you kill a language, you kill that culture," said parent Uma Balakrishnan. "It is our passion — we want our mother tongue to be continued and we are building that passion for our children because we do not want our future generations to lose the culture."
To speak Tamil is to, at least in some respects, relate to Tamil culture, an identity that can be lost stateside.
"Identity crisis is huge here, especially for us immigrants who come here and establish our life," Balakrishnan said. "After time, kids are confused because at home, you're Indian. At school, you're not. Who are you? And we are telling them, 'Hey, you are [an] Indian who speaks Tamil.'"
In the beginning, the school started with around 30 kids. Now, organizers say they average around 60-70 students each school year, although there are about 80 of them this year.
The education can start when children are as young as preschoolers and continues to the eighth grade. The materials come from the International Tamil Academy in California, which is accredited by the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.
This is intentional: When determining how best to set up the school, Balakrishnan said organizers observed others near Chicago that had created their own syllabi. The challenges that came with that were training new volunteers, or bringing in new students at different levels of proficiency.
"Where we are very successful is with this affiliation," she said. "We are not struggling for volunteers. Even if we were to have 100 more kids, we could seamlessly bring them in."
Plus, the curriculum AKTP uses includes tests — something Balakrishnan said she feels more positively about than her daughter, a student at the school, does.
"My daughter was very upset — she said, 'Why did you have to choose this system?'" Balakrishnan remembered with a laugh. "I feel there is some seriousness with a test. Otherwise you just read and go on, but the test puts a check on you and the parents."
Perhaps this sounds like an awful lot of extra learning for kids after a full week of school.
Even though the classes at AKTP last about 90 minutes, there's still the getting-up-and-getting-there part of going to school.
Kavya Saravana Babu, a volunteer teacher, said she loves that part.
"Every week, whatever might be the situation, I just rush to the Tamil school — I want to see all of the kids," she said. "As soon as you enter the school, it seems like a good environment. Looking at the kids makes me [feel] so bright."
Her son, however, has questioned the need to get up on Saturday mornings and put in the work at Tamil school.
"He says, 'Why should I learn Tamil?' I said, 'You have to feel proud saying I'm a Tamil and I know [the] Tamil language.' I keep telling him," she said.
Janakiraman's daughter feels oppositely: She is young, in the preschool group of learners, but already she senses the potential in learning Tamil.
"She is now very eager to visit India," Janakiraman said. "She very excitedly asks whether everyone around us will speak Tamil. That is a great change I am seeing in her."
ATKP is not the only organized effort passing along a Dravidian language in Bloomington-Normal.
There are at least two, with another serving as a branch of SiliconAndhra ManaBadi, teaching Telugu to its students.
Like the International Tamil Academy, this school, too, has roots in California. And like ATKP, this local school was born out of a desire of parents to teach children about themselves — not just a language.
"I was the parent of two kids who were struggling to, from a language perspective, communicate back to grandparents and relatives back home in India," said school coordinator Jay Tummala. "They don't have any issues with English because that's what they live and breathe in this country. But when it came to their identity as an Indian, Telugu kid, they were not able to identify that."
And that's how the Telugu language school emerged in Bloomington-Normal about 10 years ago. Like ATKP, it started with about 30 kids before peaking pre-COVID to 100.
"Obviously, a lot of people don't realize the importance of passing on the legacy called your mother tongue. I think that is the best gift you can give your kids, apart from your last name."Jay Tummala of Normal
It also runs entirely on volunteers, mostly parents who want their children to not only gain a skill, but solidify a sense of identity.
"Indians — most of them, but not all — have been divided based on the language they have spoken and language is your identity," Tummala said. "So if you come out here and you say, 'I'm from India, I'm a Telugu,' but you are not able to speak Telugu, then who are you really?"
Still, not everyone is convinced the investment is worth it — especially when most people are busy flying from children's event to children's event.
"We have huge potential in town because there are so many Telugu families that could make use of this," Tummala said. "But I think the biggest thing anyone would ask is, 'How is this going to help our kids?' Obviously, a lot of people don't realize the importance of passing on the legacy called your mother tongue. I think that is the best gift you can give your kids, apart from your last name."
Tummala said organizers at the Telugu school would like to see Unit 5 — the district he said contains the most Telugu families — recognize Telugu as a foreign language, so that students could receive credit for their work done at a high school level.
"There are some school districts in Chicago who recognize Telugu as a foreign language credit and they work with the local [teaching] centers," he said. "We are hoping to be able to do a similar thing locally. If we ever get to do that, it would be a win-win, because we could reach more families that way. But we need some luck on that front."
Balakrishnan, of AKTP, said those with Tamil school, too, would like to see its reach increase beyond what it has already accomplished.
"It's all because of the love of the language. We want everyone to know that we have a school here that teaches children — not just Indian children, but anyone who wants to learn a language that's recognized in Dubai, Singapore, other places. We are running it out of a love for the language and we want our children to continue this for generations," she said.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Why we did it
Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.
How we did it
Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.
We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.