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Languages

July 21, 2011

One of the most interesting things about India is their language and so I want to educate you about its importance and implications if I can with my still limited knowledge.

One of the reasons I felt comfortable coming to India was because I would be able to converse in English.  Only about 12% of Indians speak English, but that puts them as the second largest English speaking population in the world.  English is the second official language of India and is universally really the language of business, so I have had no problems whatsoever at work.  I have had a few problems outside of work, such as when getting an auto rickshaw(taxi) and not being able to communicate the name of the place I want to go (hand signals and pointing are very useful though).

The first official language of India is Hindi.  It is the most widely known language and virtually everyone in North India can speak it, but according to some estimates only about 25% can speak it in the South, which is why English is still one of the official languages (it was supposed to be an official language for only fifteen years after India’s independence).  I don’t think English will be going away very soon, it is one of the main reasons for India’s booming economy.  When you think about Indian businesses, you think IT and call centers.  Well, the call centers were made possible only because of India’s English speaking ability, and now so many businesses are integrated with Indian ones that speaking English really is a top priority if you want to go far in Indian business.  However, there are those, especially the yogis and babas, who feel the English language is a legacy of colonialism and that it may “Americanize” Indians and therefore possibly lose their own culture.

India also has a few other languages:  according to the 2001 census India has 29 languages spoken by more than a million native speakers and 122 by more than 10,000–that’s a lot and to me thinking about the US and Spanish or other countries, like the Baltics, I would think it would be an extremely divisive characteristic and sometimes it is.  The people of Tamil Nadu (a state I visited actually) attempted independence, but the movement wasn’t widespread.   On India’s currency there are 17 of the 22 languages are listed, a picture is below showing the official languages(English and Hindi) on the front saying it’s legal tender, and on the back left are the other 15 accepted regional languages.  

Why is having all these languages not a divisive influence?

I think the first reason is that most are determined from a single source–Sanskrit.  It is very similar to Latin in that many languages are derived from it, it is basically a dead language, and the holy book (The Vedas) is written in it.  So while there may be hundreds of different languages, they really are close to each other and even overlap with the same words sometimes, but not enough to be a unifying language.

The second reason is every Indian knows 2 or 3 or 6 or 10 languages.  RR, the person who takes me to work is a classic example.  He speaks Hindi, English, Kannada( the state language of Karnataka), Tulu, Tamil, another language from his village that I can’t remember, and Arabic (which is more unusual, but he lived over there for a year or two).  Knowing that many languages is extremely common and most feel that it is important and that the many languages are part of the cultural heritage of India.

The last thing is that it may be divisive, even though most Indians will tell you it is not.  One thing I’ve learned here is that many have a culture of elitism.  They feel they know how to do things best, and take offense if you mention otherwise.  This permeates within their state and within their language.  They believe whatever language they speak is the purest, or sweetest, or simply best.  There especially is a division between North and South, i.e. because the universal language in the North is Hindi, and in the South is English.  This affects business deals between North and South, traveling between North and South, and idea transfers.  Anyways, just a few thoughts, mainly that language is very important.

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