Shame seemed to fill my body when I said, “No, I didn’t learn Tamil in school at all. I learned to write the alphabet in college though!” It felt like I had dropped the conversational porcelain vase on the floor in this silent, semi-attached Eelam Tamil couple’s house. I had always been ashamed of admitting that having lived in Tamil Nadu all my life, I had not sat in a single Tamil class in school.

“So you probably did not grow up in Tamil Nadu?” Moorthy uncle asked me, hoping to hear a "no”, attempting to mend the broken vase. “I’ve never lived outside of Tamil Nadu my whole life” I clarified, shattering the broken vase further, rendering it irreparable. “Oh!” Mangai Aunty exhaled her disappointment. Sitting inches away from this old couple who fought for their language in their country, my fumbled attempts at Tamil felt like a child trying to wield a giant's sword - unwieldy and inadequate. I switched to English. “I learned Hindi and Sanskrit in school, I speak good English. I’ve tried learning Tamil properly…” I was desperate for them to like me. I had to find a cheaper place to live in London and they were looking for someone to occupy their daughter’s room that is now vacant. I HAD to impress them!

This moment took me back to 2019 in Chennai, when I taught in an under-resourced government school. It reminded me of my students in their Tamil class, a lot of them finding it difficult to read Tamil, the teacher consistently chastising, “Why do you struggle to read your own language?”. Every uncomprehended word, every fumbled sentence, must have felt like a spotlight on their inadequacies. We seem to know that shame is not a very good motivator of learning but when it comes to learning one’s own language, it is unfortunately a very commonly used technique. Shame had successfully stifled my attempts at learning Tamil but this seems to be bigger than my personal experience.

A recent report revealed statistics about Tamil language proficiency. Only 9% of students exceeded global standards, while a staggering 48% fell below even the partial proficiency level. This data covered in an article was shared in a WhatsApp group, with a very simple caption - "This is a shame!", simultaneously undermining teachers’ and students’ efforts to produce learning outcomes throughout the year. Shame, it seemed, was woven into the fabric of Tamil language learning for both children and teachers! How does learning flourish under the constantly looming shadow of shame?

I have found my answer in relationships. My initially sceptical landlords, surprisingly, became my gateway to learning Tamil. After the initial awkwardness, they seemed to understand myr predicament - the desire to learn my mother tongue, crippled by the fear of failure and the resulting shame. Many dinner conversations later, with Moorthy uncle peppering his questions with playful Tamil puns (no one escapes dad humour!), I started making my own Tamil puns. I failed (miserably) but you’d be surprised to learn I’m now a certified Tamil Dad Jokes Expert!

Research suggests that positive teacher-student relationships can significantly boost engagement and learning, and my experience with Moorthy uncle is testament to that.

In 2017, Daniel Quin reviewed 46 studies that examined Teacher Student Relationships (TSRs). To no one’s surprise, TSRs are associated with higher psychological engagement, academic achievement, attendance and lower misbehaviour and dropout rates in the classroom. 13 longitudinal studies showed TSRs predict engagement; this means having a good relationship with a teacher isn't just a coincidence that comes with being a good student, but it might actually make someone a more successful student. These associations held even when controlling for individual, peer and school factors, showing TSRs uniquely contribute to engagement.

Moorthy Uncle patiently corrected my grammar, replacing English phrases with their Tamil equivalents. He'd chuckle at my fumbling attempts now and then or make jokes about my Indian Tamil but his gentle encouragement, devoid of shame, ignited a spark within me. The joy of framing a sentence without fumbling for an English translation one night was such a victory, it warranted us busting open a box of Celebrations to treat ourselves with chocolate. Moorthy Uncle is not a psychologist in any right but he seemed to understand the tenets of learning based on relationships.

In 2014, Sara E. Rimm-Kaufman and team found that higher quality teacher-student interactions (this includes emotional support from teachers) were positively associated with student-reported engagement, but not observed or teacher-reported engagement. When students felt their teachers were supportive and interacted well with them, they were more likely to report feeling engaged in the learning process. Even if a teacher doesn't perceive a student as engaged in learning, the student's own feeling of emotional support from the teacher can contribute to their intrinsic motivation and engagement in learning.

Recent findings in neuroscience also show that social interactions trigger epigenetic changes. These changes affect gene expression, ultimately influencing how our brains develop and are wired. This means that our interactions with others are crucial in how our brains develop and learn. This can influence our social-emotional skills, cognitive abilities, motivation, and learning potential.

Now I live with my landlords/teachers and every night, we discuss our days in Tamil. Uncle gently pushes me to find Tamil substitutes for the English words I use. Possibly because of the missing pressures of classroom outcomes, Moorthy uncle embodies with ease, the kind of teacher my friends reminisce about - the ones who ignited their passion for Tamil by fostering a playful and exploratory learning environment. We have now started reading Puyalile Oru Thoni by Pa. Singaram, one of aunty’s favourite books. I have made it past two chapters without an audiobook narration conveniently filling my reading gaps- a personal best. Empathy and understanding have paved the way for me to learn a language the way that shame could never. I know children of Tamil Nadu learning Tamil deserve the same.