Talking Tamil, Talking Saivism: Language practices in a Tamil Hindu temple in Australia


Nirukshi Perera

PhD defended at: 

Monash University


This research is a response to an increased interest in the role of religion for recent migrants in Australia and is the first in-depth sociolinguistic study of Hinduism in the country. The thesis investigates the interaction between language and religion in a particular migrant religious institution and for a particular ethnoreligious group, namely, Sri Lankan Tamil Hindus. It is the result of an 18-month linguistic ethnography in a Tamil Hindu temple, making it the first ethnographic study to be located in a non-Christian religious institution in Australia.

The study investigates the role of the Tamil language in the temple, the nature of language practices in the space, and the relevance of the Tamil language and Hindu religion in the lives of the second-generation devotees. It provides an insight into how such migrant youth skilfully use both their heritage language and English in communication and how they index their hybrid identifications as they grow up in what is both an Anglo-dominant and multicultural society. It also places a spotlight on the significant role played by the temple in supporting these young migrants. This is salient given the migration trajectories of many Sri Lankan Tamils who have left Sri Lanka due to civil war, caused in part, by a harmful national language policy.

At a macro-level, the study shows how the temple, as a diaspora religious institution, not only provides a space for Hindu worship, but one for socialising, cultural identification and the transmission of language. In Sri Lanka the Tamil language is seen as inextricably linked to the religion and this strong language-religion ideology is reflected in the language policies of the Australian temple. However, in Australia, the temple faces sociocultural change, in particular, an increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse congregation and a disengaged second generation. This evokes a tension between the extent to which the temple remains linked to its Tamil identity and to which it must change its policies to accommodate those who do not speak Tamil.

On the micro-level, as an insight into language practices for the second generation, the thesis focuses on one class in the temple’s Tamil-medium religious school. Naturalistic linguistic data collected from a small class of teenage devotees reveals that translanguaging is the usual interactional code. Additionally, approximately 30 per cent of the students’ classroom speech contains Tamil features, evidencing some transmission of the language-religion ideology from the first generation. Through translanguaging, the students and teacher create a safe space where they can use their individual semiotic repertoires to explore their beliefs and positions in terms of their heritage culture and religion.

Although pure Tamil maintenance is not achieved in the classroom, the ways in which Tamil features are adopted, to signal a connection to Tamil culture and the ethnoreligious community and to perform a Tamil Hindu identity, are highly significant. The findings contribute to a picture of a group of second-generation migrants who can practice their heritage language, religion and culture with confidence in Australian society, and at the same time, bring their strong competence in English into these expressions of heritage, identity and faith.