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

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Version 3 2019-11-22, 03:11
Version 2 2017-06-12, 22:26
Version 1 2017-04-25, 23:45
posted on 2019-11-22, 03:11 authored by Nirukshi Perera
The role of religion for migrants in Australia has generated much interest in recent years. A growing area of scholarly inquiry is how religion can assist in migrant language maintenance. This thesis looks at the interaction between language and religion within the goal of heritage language maintenance and how this plays out 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 ethnographic study situated in a Tamil Hindu temple in Australia.

The study investigates the role of the Tamil language in the temple, the types of language practices that the second generation employ in the space, and the relevance of the Tamil language and Hindu religion in the lives of second-generation devotees. It provides an insight into how migrant youth skilfully use their heritage language and English to achieve communication and index their hybrid identifications as they grow up in Anglo-dominant, multicultural Australia. It also highlights the important role played by the temple in supporting these migrants.

At a macro-level, this study shows how the temple, as a religious institution, not only provides a space for Hindu worship, but one for socialising, cultural identification and the transmission of language, religion and culture. In Sri Lanka the Tamil language and Hindu religion are closely linked in a Tamil Hindu culture and this strong language-religion ideology is reflected in the language practices of the temple. However, in the Australian setting, the temple faces sociocultural change including an increasingly ethnically and linguistically diverse congregation and disengagement by the second generation. Therefore there is 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 code for interactions. While English is dominant in the students’ lives, practices in the classroom show that approximately 30 per cent of their speech contains Tamil, thus evidencing the language-religion ideology being transmitted to the next generation. English and Tamil features perform particular but also overlapping functions in the classroom. The students and teacher create a safe space where they can use their individual repertoires to explore and challenge their beliefs and positions in terms of their heritage culture and religion. Through the analysis of selected linguistic extracts, the multicompetence, creativity, criticality, cooperation and subversion of the students is evident in their language use.

While pure Tamil is not necessarily used in the class, the ways in which Tamil features are adopted to signal a connection to Tamil culture, the ethnoreligious community and to perform a Tamil Hindu identity are highly significant. It forms part of the 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 proficiency in English into these expressions of heritage, identity and faith.


Principal supervisor

Louisa Willoughby

Additional supervisor 1

Simon Musgrave

Year of Award


Department, School or Centre

Linguistics and Applied Linguistics


Doctor of Philosophy

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Faculty of Arts

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