Saving a language, one lesson at a time

Three nights a week, Vidya Tandanki works at trying to save an ancient language perceived as threatened in some parts of the globe.

She hosts local children in her Irvine home, where she has converted her garage into a classroom. It is painted bright turquoise with colorful posters and paintings hanging on the walls and also has a computer station, white boards, supply cabinets and rugs covering the floors.

There she teaches them Telugu, the second-most-spoken language in India after Hindi and the children's mother tongue. On a recent Friday night, Tadanki, speaking English, asked her advanced students what they did over the holidays, and they responded easily in Telugu. After some translation exercises, the children, whose ages range from 9 to 14, sang songs and recited poetry.

Telugu is spoken by 75 million people worldwide, but it has become increasingly rare among second- and third-generation Indian Americans.

"For them, it's a foreign language even though it's their mother tongue," the teacher said.

So for the past 13 years, Tadanki has been running the popular language school Telugu Thota, serving hundreds of children in the local community.

"Our language is vulnerable; it's definitely endangered," she said. "Children no longer learn the language in the home. So after 40 or 50 years, what will happen?"

Tadanki started Telugu Thota — which means Telugu Garden — in 2003, a year after she and her family moved to Irvine.

She had been teaching the language to her own children for years, when they lived in New Jersey and San Jose. Not only was it a way for them to learn about their heritage, but it was also practical, since the family continued to visit India regularly.

"When my kids go back to Andhra Pradesh," she said of the southeastern state where she grew up, "they shouldn't feel like a fish out of water."

It was only after Tadanki moved to Irvine that someone suggested she formalize and expand her lessons to include other children in the community.

According to Bayapa Dadem, president of the Telugu Assn. of Southern California, about 5,000 Telugu families live between Los Angeles and San Diego, with Orange County being the biggest hub in the region. Orange County's Telugu population is the fourth- or fifth-largest in the country, he said, and it has been growing for the past decade.

Tadanki's first public class had seven students — her son and some of his friends — and it was held in an extra room in the family house.

"Within five minutes of that class starting, the kids were giggling, laughing, pretending to be an elephant," said Sravani Jandhyala, an Irvine resident whose children, then 4 and 6, were students in Tadanki's first class. "She was not communicating to them in English at all, yet they were completely engaged and no one asked when the class would end, even though it went well above an hour."

Although Tadanki had never taught Telugu before, she had experience with language instruction. Before moving to Irvine, Tadanki, who studied English literature in college, worked at a San Jose school district teaching English to non-native speakers.

"Teaching English to Spanish-speaking kids is the equivalent to teaching Telugu to American Indian kids who think, talk, read, write — everything — in English," she said.

This year, Tadanki is teaching five classes of fifth- through ninth-graders, three days a week.

After graduating from the program, the students are fluent; they can speak, read and write the language, Tadanki said.

"The first thing the parents say are, 'My kids are talking to their grandparents,'" Tadanki said. "Most of the grandparents can't speak English, so the parents are saying, 'Thanks to this, they're having phone calls with them and conversations on WhatsApp,'" a cross-platform mobile messaging app.

While other Telugu language classes exist in Orange County — mostly run out of Hindu temples or organizations such as the Telugu Assn. of Southern California — Tadanki's has gained widespread praise for her creative approach to teaching.

Since Telugu textbooks are rare, if nonexistent, in the United States, Tadanki developed her own based on the materials she used as an English language teacher in San Jose, and her students also wrote and illustrated several beginner-level storybooks, which Tadanki had published.

Homework often comes in the form of an audio file of her speaking in Telugu, which students then have to transcribe and translate into English.

Tadanki also has her students memorize classical Indian poetry and dramas — what she says would be similar to Shakespeare in the English language — religious hymns, songs and dances. At the end of the year, the students put on a show in Telugu, complete with elaborate costumes and set designs. She said up to 600 people attend.

For Tadanki, these classes and performances are critical to transmitting a language and culture to a generation born and raised in the U.S. with few ties to India.

"Ninety-nine percent of these kids are surrounded by their friends and peers who don't speak the language," she said. "Even if the grandparents speak, if the grandchildren don't speak, then it's likely to become extinct."

Karen Leonard, a historian and anthropologist at UC Irvine and author of the book "South Asian Americans," agreed.

"It's going to die out as a home language in this country by the third generation, probably," Leonard said. "Sometimes the kids marry within the community, but they may not, and since India has 19 or more vernacular languages, even if they marry another Indian, it might be a totally different language."

In addition to preserving the culture of her homeland, Tadanki is also creating something new in Orange County.

"Before her classes, there were many Telugu speaking people here, but we didn't identify much as a community," said Jandhyala, the Irvine mother whose children attended Tadanki's first lessons. But now they do. "Through the classes, while the kids were learning, the parents were hanging out and we became very close."

Parakash Kasturi, another Irvine resident whose two sons are currently enrolled in Telugu Thota, agreed, saying that part of his motivation for moving to Irvine from Rancho Santa Margarita was to be near Tadanki's classes and the community that had formed around her.

"One of my family friends told me, 'There's Telugu Thota here, Vidaya's here, the community is around Irvine," he said. "So my wife and I said, 'OK, we have to pick a house that's close by.'"

Kasturi said that in addition to culture and community, Telugu Thota has given his sons other important life skills, such as public speaking and leadership abilities, as well as confidence.

His 13-year-old son, Sreekar, an eighth-grader at Sierra Vista Middle School, said fluency in Telugu will also help him later in life as a professional.

"I want to be a doctor when I grow up," he said. "My grandma, whenever she goes to the doctor, can't speak proper English to express what's happening, so this language can help people like her."

For Tadanki, this is what Telugu Thota is about — preserving what she says is an endangered language in the U.S., according to UNESCO's definition.

"It's the only way the kids can learn about their culture," she said. "Otherwise, sitting here in America, how will they learn?"

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