Inside India Part 1 - A Mosaic of Languages

In recent decades, India’s economy has surged to the point where it is one of the world’s largest. This has attracted the interest of entrepreneurs wishing to take advantage of its vast market and resources in human capital. One of the selling points for business people is that “Indians speak English”. But how true is that statement? In fact, India is one of the most linguistically complicated places on earth, with a population of 1.2 billion, 22 officially recognized languages, and a 2011 Indian census recognizing a remarkable 1635 “mother tongues”. 

Learn more about the languages of India and what it’s like to “be on the ground” in India by clicking
Inside India Part1 A Mosaic of Languages

 In fact, India is one of the most linguistically complicated places on earth. With a population of over 1.2 billion people, it has more people than any other country except China. Of India’s 28 states, some of them have a larger population than any country in the European Union or any state of the US. This huge population communicates using a vast number of languages and dialects, some official, some not.

The question of what languages are officially recognized is complicated in itself. India has two official languages at the “Union Government” level, while the Constitution recognizes 22 “scheduled” languages, including such important regional ones as Bengali, Tamil, and Gujarati. However, beyond this, nobody really knows how many languages are spoken in India. As different sources may use different means of classification, the results can vary greatly. Thus the 2011 Indian census recognizes a stunning 1635 “mother tongues”, while an anthropological survey reports a more modest 325 languages.

Broadly speaking, Indian languages can be divided into two groups. Most of Northern India speaks Indo-Aryan languages. These languages belong to the Eastern branch of the Indo-European language family, which means they are related (however distantly) to English, Spanish and other European languages. The most widely spoken Indian language - Hindi, with over 400 million native speakers - belongs to this group. Though separated by great distances of space and time in their historical evolution, English and Hindi share a common origin, as such Hindi words as mata (mother), naam (name), and do (two) attest.

Southern India speaks languages of the Dravidian family, such as Tamil and Telugu. This is a completely different group of languages, with no proven genetic link to Indo-European. In addition to these two big families, other language families make smaller contributions to the overall picture. There are even “isolates” - languages with no proven relation to any other - such as Burushaski.

Finally, there are two official languages that deserve a separate mention. The first is English, a legacy of British rule, which is spoken by practically all educated Indians. Statistics show that about 20% of the Indian population speaks it, though obtaining an exact figure is probably impossible. It is the language most Indians use to communicate with the outside world. The other is Sanskrit: one of the oldest of Indo-European languages, the vehicle of a vast ancient literature, and a language with few speakers today. These two cases could be said to represent, respectively, the practical and the cultural aspects of India’s language laws.

But what’s it like on the ground in India? You will probably find a lot of compartmentalization. Street signs are likely to be in the local (state-level) language, as well as in English. You will find mass media in all major Indian languages and in English. Television reports may be narrated in Hindi or Punjabi but be interrupted by an interview in English, presented without translation. A businessman in a major city like Mumbai (the former Bombay) may switch between Gujarati and English at work, depending on the situation, and watch Hindi-language movies in the evening. India’s film industry - the world’s largest - makes almost all of its films in Indian languages (although there is a growing trend toward inclusion of English dialogue and titles).

But for business people and other foreign visitors to India, the one language they really need to know is English. However, before you assume that you’ll have no problem communicating, be aware that Indian English has evolved into a distinctive dialect of its own. In the next essay, we’ll look at some of the things that make Indian English different.

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