Before this story, I never knew of clubs which had regular meetings in languages other English, apart from the occasional special meeting. I had vaguely heard of clubs abroad conducting meetings in other languages, but it always seemed like a foreign concept to me-too removed from the format I had grown used to.
Therefore, it took me by surprise when I discovered there were two clubs in India which held meetings in a dedicated bilingual format! What started as a simple information gathering exercise soon became a richer learning experience filled with interesting stories and insights into the culture, language and history of people. It was truly a fascinating journey. I hope that it inspires you all and sparks the inception of more such clubs.
Jinsei Dojo Toastmasters Club, Bangalore, District 92 (Japanese-English bilingual club)
(Jinsei = life; Dojo = place where you improve on something)
TM Appu Geetha Byju, founder and Past President of India's first bilingual Toastmasters club, had the idea of starting a Japanese community club in 2013 when he realised there wasn't a platform to practise the Japanese he spoke. He sought help from leaders in District 76 (Toastmasters District of Japan) and started handing out fliers at the annual Indo-Japan cultural festival, Japan Habba. Eventually, he built a mailing list and got people on board.
They faced several challenges getting the club started. They weren't entirely sure if the concept of a foreign language club would work in India, especially a niche language like Japanese, which is difficult to learn and not taken up by many. It took one year for the first meeting to finally materialize, and an additional six months to charter. Acquiring patient mentors was difficult too but today, mentors provide their expertise remotely from Japan, via posts on their Facebook group, email, Skype, or video chat. This has helped improve the language skills and grammar of the members, which is further facilitated by regularly bringing in external speakers to give educational sessions on various aspects of Japanese.
Although the Japanese members prefer using Japanese manuals and vice versa, the club truly embodies the bilingual spirit, by having the Indians in the club speak in Japanese and the Japanese in English, thus avoiding a disconnect between members and encouraging them to learn the language with humility and mutual support.
In addition, each meeting generally has 2 grammarians (one in each language) and the General Evaluator's comments also include alternate word choices. Lately, the meetings have had speeches mainly in Japanese, (as there are fewer Japanese members), but bilingualism is still incorporated by having meeting roles in alternating languages. (E.g. - SAA in English, Presidential Address in Japanese, TMOD in English, speeches in Japanese and so on).
The club members consist mainly of young college goers currently learning the language and teachers at Japanese schools. The younger members use the club to practise their Japanese and it has made them confident enough to talk to people and give interviews, thus enabling them to find jobs and shift to Japan.
The club also utilizes several unique avenues for marketing and community outreach. Outside of Toastmasters, the Japan Foundation organises an annual International Speech Contest in Japanese. Members of the club emerge winners at various levels of this contest every year due to the extensive practice they acquire. Prior to the contest, all the participants are invited to the club to practice and get help from experienced members. This atmosphere of acceptance has encouraged many of those participants to join the club.
Secondly, the club's long-term collaboration with Japan Habba has helped it become an official sponsor of the festival. In addition to the stall they have at the event every year, members of the club also participate as MC's of the festival.
Members also sport their club T-shirt when they give the Japanese proficiency test held in Bangalore or attend public events in groups, which helps provide visibility to the club and generates interest among people.
"We have witnessed some truly amazing speeches over the years", remarks TM Appu. "We have achieved 3 CCs, but no ACs and no one has taken District officeyet, so now our challenge is getting people to move from the club out into the District."
Considering the many challenges they have overcome so far and the extensive progress they have made, it's only a matter of time before they see this one through too.
Tamizhootru Chennai Solvendhargal Mandram, Chennai, District 82 (Tamil-English bilingual club)
(Tamizhootru = bountiful flow of language; Solvendhargal = Toastmaster (in Tamil); Mandram = Club)
Chartered on 25th June 2017, Tamil Nadu's first bilingual club sees participation from two kinds of members: the first are people who aren't fluent in English but are keen on developing their communication skills in their mother tongue, Tamil. The second are people who have finished their Toastmasters journey in English but want to become more fluent in their mother tongue. Though members may be of either category, all of them are united in their sense of pride for the ancient language which is what served as the motivation for them to start the club.
I spoke with former Division Governor and current Vice-President Education of the club, DTM Rahul Shankar, who informed me that Tamil is one of the oldest languages in the world and its many speakers are spread across the globe. On asking him why that was the case, he narrated to me a fascinating piece of history.
"The Tamil diaspora has been living around the world from the ancient times due to conquest, trade, employment, education, colonial rule and globalization." This piece of history is definitely reflected in the fact that Singapore, Malaysia, the middle east, and even Canada and Australia have a flourishing community of Tamil Toastmasters clubs.
Despite the irony of the situation, they faced no trouble finding enough members to charter. On questioning whether they faced any other challenges in the beginning, I was surprised to hear that there weren't that many. They simply faced an initial challenge in preparing scripts for all the meeting roles but then reached out to friends from Tamil clubs in Singapore and Malaysia for help in preparing them.
"A lot of people aren't aware that TI allows bilingual clubs and that members can officially use manuals in other languages or give a speech in any language they want, as long as they use the official manuals provided by TI." Hearing this left me quite amazed as I wasn't aware of this myself and could only begin to imagine the possibilities that would open up were more people to know about the concept.
As far as meetings go, the club strives to be a faithful bilingual forum and members are given the freedom to choose the language they want to speak in. Should a member choose to give a speech in Tamil, both the speech and the evaluation are arranged to be given in Tamil. Since TI hasn't released a Tamil manual yet, members follow the directions of the manual in English but give their speeches in Tamil. The role players encourage members to develop their Tamil vocabulary too. For example, if people intersperse English words in their speech, the grammarian helps them become more fluent by providing alternative word choices.
Apart from regular meetings, the club is also striving to incorporate learning experiences in other ways. A Storytelling Contest in Tamil was held on 14th January to commemorate the harvest festival of Pongal in a unique way. Any member of any club could participate by delivering a speech with the objective of reducing the number of English words used. Recently, the club released its first bilingual newsletter in Tamil and English.
"Overall, people have a lot of interest. They want to come to this club specifically to give speeches in Tamil." TI has said they will provide Tamil manuals soon and they hope to have the complete set by 2019. "The latest TI Contest rulebook also mentions that Districts can hold contests in other languages as well - so we hope to see a competitive speech contest in Tamil and perhaps many more languages soon!" I definitely hope to witness such a contest soon too.
This experience has made me realise that tapping into multilingualism, an essential characteristic of a country like ours, can give much more access to the educational benefits of Toastmasters and help spread the movement further. After all, language shouldn't become a hindrance to developing one's skills as a communicator and leader when it can, in fact, be used to unite many more in this mission.
- Edited and compiled by Ruchika
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