BACK TO All Work

Tamil Class

A service design approach to language maintenance

MA 22/23
Quality Education, Literacy, Minority Rights, Identity Politics

The relationship between language and culture is subtle yet complex. Languages are a crucial source of culture and identity for individual communities and the larger societies that they are a part of, shaping how they think about ourselves and others.

Can service design address a problem that has been the concern of sociolinguists and educators? 


ardo is an independent type design practice fronted by its eponymous designer, Aadarsh Rajan. He studies and draws Tamil and Latin letters and often assists and is assisted by a fine cast of collaborators in his endeavour.

Our disciplines are shaped by our involvement with people (Tamil readers and writers, in this instance) - service design in process and type design in product. Our partnership is also an exercise on how both fields can inform each other as we design for language maintenance.


Singapore has 4 official languages - English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil, each used effectively to shape national and ethnocultural identities. The bilingual policy implemented in schools in 1966, was designed to ensure that Singaporeans could progress economically using English to connect with the world whilst remaining grounded to Asian values using their mother tongue. This prescriptive policy, however, yielded a complex system for Tamils to negotiate their language. Spoken by less than 3% of the local population (approx. 118, 000), Tamil language has been on the decline in Singapore despite the country's bilingual policies. The maintenance and shift of Tamil are affected by language diglossia and subtractive bilingualism. 

Who then still uses Tamil, who is forced to use Tamil and who qualifies as authority of Tamil in Singapore today?

scope of work

My project answers the above questions through:

  1. A review of Singapore's historical implications on Tamil
  2. Conversations with teachers, parents and people providing Tamil language services in Singapore

Although the work of language maintenance can be explained in brief sociolinguistic frameworks, what struck me the most were the shame, pride and anguish that many people expressed when talking about Tamil. Namely when recollecting experiences reading or writing in Tamil.

In order for a language to be kept alive, it requires readers and writers for the preservation of old knowledge and proliferation of new works.

Therefore, my project focuses its study on the formal, and informal, Tamil education system in Singapore.


  1. Finding affordable and quality Tamil learning material is challenging for parents as choices are limited.
  2. Compared to English content, everything is outdated, from literature to aesthetics, significantly reducing the relatability for parents.
  3. The fun of learning a language is quickly replaced with stress and anxiety when a child approaches national exams.

The above insights are currently being validated further through a series of concept testing and craft workshops online and in London. Do get in touch if you are interested in participating!


Though this project is presented as a wicked problem, it is also a deeply personal one. I grew up in Singapore, with English as my first language, Tamil & Malay as my home languages and Mandarin my ambient language. 

My research began with an autobiographical approach, as it tells stories of myself, my friends, family and ancestors. In the famous word of Lisa McGee, creator of Derry Girls, "in what we find in the specific, there is always a universal, always the ordinary and the extraordinary".

At the end of this 12-week project, I intend to demonstrate how I have made sense of service design tools by translating unique stories of Tamils in Singapore. I will consider the implications of intervening in an accountable manner, using Tamil language as material to connect with others.

If this speaks to you, then please reach out to me as I would love to hear your story too.


I would like to thank the following people and organisations for making this project possible with their unwavering support:

Richard Atkinson, Andrea Edmunds, Jaishree Jaybalan, Mdm Manimekalai, ardo & DesignSingapore.

Special thanks to Aadarsh Rajan for always being my calm in the storm.

No items found.