Illustration by Zemir Bermeo.
The first thing you need to know about India’s linguistic landscape is that it’s impossible to speak about an ‘Indian language’ as if there were only one. Did you know that if two unknown Indians met randomly on the street, there would only be a 36% chance that they would understand each other? Of course, that 36% depends a lot on their ethnicity and place of origin.
For years, classifying the languages spoken in India has been a very complicated task since experts have to differentiate between dialects and mother tongues that share many similarities. This isn’t exactly surprising considering that:
- India is the seventh largest country in the world
- Over 1.3 billion people live in India
- The distance between northern India and southern India is similar to the distance between Canada and Mexico
A census conducted in 2011 showed that India has about 19,569 languages and dialects, of which almost 1,369 are considered dialects and only 121 are recognized as languages (the acceptance criterion being that the language has 10,000 or more speakers). The languages spoken in India belong mainly to two big linguistic families: the Indo-European and the Dravidian; others come mainly from the Austro-Asian and Tibetan-Burman linguistic families.
‘The Indian Language’ Is Actually 22 Separate Official Languages
The Indian constitution recognizes 22 official languages: Bengali, Hindi, Maithili, Nepalese, Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, Assamese, Dogri, Kannada, Gujarati, Bodo, Manipur (also known as Meitei), Oriya, Marathi, Santali, Telugu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Malayalam, Konkani and Kashmiri. Tamil and Sanskrit (considered by some academics as a lingua franca in India) are the only two official classical languages.
The states of India were organized based on the common language spoken in each region, and while Hindi is the official language of the central government in India along with English, individual state legislatures can adopt any regional language as the official language of their state.
Many children in India grow up in a bilingual environment, either because their parents speak different languages or because they’re surrounded by a community that originates from another part of the country. The literacy rate in India is 71.2% and most private schools strive to motivate children to learn several languages, sometimes beginning in primary school. Public schools (generally attended by working-class children) teach in the vernacular, but there has been an effort to incorporate more English classes throughout the years.
The ‘Hindi Belt’
The Hindi Belt, or Desh Hindi, refers to the areas of India, mostly in the north, where Hindi is the official language:
- Himachal Pradesh
- Uttar Pradesh
- Madhya Pradesh
The Persian-speaking Turks who invaded the plains of the Gangj and Punjab in the early 11th century named the language spoken there Hindi, the Persian word for “the language of the land of the Indus River.” Hindi is the fourth most natively-spoken language in the world. Almost 425 million people speak Hindi as a first language, and although only 12% of Hindi natives are multilingual, about 120 million people in India speak it as a second language.
From a linguistic point of view, Hindi belongs to the huge family of Indo-European languages, particularly to the Indo-Aryan branch. It stems from Sanskrit, which is written from left to right (like English) and most of its words are pronounced as they’re written.
The Use Of English In India
Although for many English is still a symbol of the British Raj, others enjoy its continued use as an official language in India, especially because it’s (unofficially) recognized as the language of business. Many tourists say that the better your English is, the more money you have in the eyes of Indian merchants.
That said, English doesn’t have a strong presence in the general social life of India, except in the upper classes. For many people in India, English is no longer a foreign language because, after almost 100 years of colonization, Indians made it their own. For cultural and linguistic reasons, Indian English is very different from Standard English, and is best known as “Hinglish.”
One of the most impressive engines of English in India is Bollywood, the mega movie industry. Many movies mix some English into their titles or popular songs. As mentioned above, it’s also used as the language of business, especially in very lucrative sectors such as technology and customer service (like the infamous call centers).
So if you’re planning to travel to India, you can probably get by in most big cities with English — but that’s not guaranteed in rural areas. But what kind of authentic travel experience would it be, anyway, if you didn’t have any linguistic challenges?