Recently, I had to speak to a person (an Indian) in Tamil over the phone---he spoke very little English and he needed help for his son who was coming to Singapore to study in a school here. I had no problem speaking and counselling him and he was happy that he could speak in his native language to a person in a foreign land.
In Kuantan, Malaysia when I was discussing this language issue with a Tamil speaking volunteer, she admitted to me that she wasn't confident in speaking in Tamil, although her entire primary school was in Tamil-medium. She said that in social settings, she speaks Malay, and since that language was the dominant language, the Tamil she spoke also had a number of Malay words. She said even her Tamil friends and relatives spoke a language mixed with Tamil and Malay.
Yesterday I met a Singaporean Tamil friend and what he said was even more interesting. He said he could read and write Tamil very well, but had trouble speaking--both formally and informally. The fact that this friend learned Tamil in school explained his proficiency in reading and writing.
My reading and writing of Tamil is not very good while my informal spoken Tamil is reasonably good. I say reasonable because I do find it difficult to keep out English words for coming into the conversations I have with people.
At home I do make it a point to speak to my husband in Tamil. However, when I really want to convey something important I switch to English. I speak to my girls in Tamil as well, but they usually respond to me in English. Needless to say the girls do not speak very well and have trouble understanding at times, and I have always been accused of not really teaching them their native language.
In recent years I have been putting in efforts to learn to read and write in Tamil. While I have improved a great deal, its not yet at the stage I would like it to be.
However, it always seems intriguing to me that English, which is actually a foreign language, is actually the language I can speak, read & write and teach. While I struggle with Tamil. All to do with education? with writing and passing exams? How are we expected to learn our native language when we don't learn it in school?
I learn by reading and with a dictionary and now through the internet. Its slow, but I know I am learning and improving little by little.