The languages of India

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At several stations on the commute from Swarthmore to University City station, around half of the people who get on the train are Indians.  Usually they are happily conversing with each other in one or another South Asian language.

Today the train was packed, and I was sitting on the aisle seat next to four Indian men who were talking to each other in Tamil.  I asked them, "When you meet other Indians, how do you know which language to speak to them?"

They all said, almost with one voice, "We start out talking in English."

I asked, "Not Hindi?"

Short reply, "No."

I mentioned that India has so many languages.  Again, almost with one voice, they said, "Yes, 22!"

I replied, "Probably a lot more than that".

They seemed very happy that I recognized their language and was willing to engage them on the linguistic situation in India.  And I would have been very happy to continue the conversation, but I had to get off at University City station.


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 7, 2017 @ 8:58 am

    Tamil speakers, in particular, have been known to riot in order to preserve their right to speak English rather than Hindi to other Indians whose L1 is not Tamil.

    FWIW, a Bengali-American friend once told me that he didn't think L1 Bengali-speakers were necessarily any more enthusiastic than Tamil-speakers about the notion of Hindi replacing English as a default or mandatory L2, but there had been so much political unrest in Calcutta back in the '60's over so many different issues it was difficult to tease out anti-Hindi feeling as opposed to any of a dozen other controversies as the primary cause of any particular riot.

  2. daud ali said,

    April 7, 2017 @ 4:09 pm

    As the saying goes in Tamil Nadu
    'English Ever, Hindi Never'.

    Anti-Hindi sentiments indeed have a long history in Tamil Nadu.

  3. turang said,

    April 7, 2017 @ 4:10 pm

    This may be different in Bombay, where a form of simplified Hindi would be the language of first choice among strangers.

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 7, 2017 @ 4:14 pm

    From Arvind:

    They all said, almost with one voice, "We start out talking in English."
    True in the US. In India it is common to start conversations with a query on what language the other person speaks in one's own language. Regardless of whether the other person understands the question or not, the questioner can expect some sort of answer informing that he or she does not speak the language.

    Reminds me one time I was in Netherlands and approached someone for directions in English and was told "Ich Spreche Espanol." I thought that was interesting that so many language groups were involved. An Indian language (as I was involved), English, Dutch (since it was Netherlands), German and Spanish!

  5. Pushkar Sohoni said,

    April 7, 2017 @ 10:05 pm

    I agree with all contributors that there is a history of resistance to Hindi, particularly in Tamil Nadu. But even among those willing to speak Hindi, English is also a prestige language, particularly when one is abroad, and therefore not just neutral but also a statement of having arrived. Hindi by comparison is a language of comfort and familiarity. And, of course, the accents of English or Hindi spoken usually give away the speakers' mother-tongues or at least home regions.

  6. Surendra Gambhir said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 6:34 am

    A few years ago, my wife and I were in Tamilnadu. We were visiting the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai (the heartland of Tamil culture) where we were greeted at the gate by a temple guide. It seemed that he had sensed our background and had offered to take us around to explain the history and various parts of the temple in English or Hindi. We chose Hindi as an exercise in our sociolinguistic excursion to find out if he could really speak Hindi well. He took us around the temple for almost an hour or so and explained every relevant aspect of the temple history and culture in reasonably good Hindi. During our conversation, we found out that his proficiency in Hindi was better in what he was supposed to do, but it had dropped in conversing about other topics (which was expected). We later found out from him that he spoke many languages. He had learned them obviously for his livelihood.

    After the temple visit, we visited a silk fabric store in the city and the salesperson there welcomed us in Hindi. I asked him how he had learned Hindi. He said that he had learned a couple of different languages from his customers like us over the years.

    In Tamilnadu, Hindi is not taught in government schools as Tamilnadu refused to implement the Three Language Formula. However, many private schools, which are not bound by all the rules of the state government, have been including Hindi in their curriculum over the years. Furthermore, no politician from Tamilnadu, or for that matter from any other state, has ever actively participated and succeeded on the national political stage without knowing Hindi and English. Both Hindi and English are link languages in India and one needs to know both to succeed nationally.

  7. Thorin said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 10:08 am

    This reminds me of something a friend of my wife once said. He was talking about the Indian Parliament, and how it is common for fights to break out and confusion to run rampant because so many languages are spoken and no one can understand each other.

    My first thought was, "Well, that's an awfully simplistic and racially tinged perception of the government of a major nation and world player." Then it got me wondering about the Hindi and English requirements for serving in the national parliament. Turns out they use (correct me if I'm wrong) a complex system of simultaneous interpretation through headset.

  8. R Bremner said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 11:19 am

    Hindi is regarded in the south, as commenters above have mentioned, as an intrusive invention of those interferin' northerners.

    And why shouldn't it be, say the southerners, since Tamil and Telugu have been spoken continuously in those lands for millennia? Whereas English puts the whole subcontinent on an equal footing. In fact, I doubt the Raj was ever quite as much resented as is the Delhi government when it meddles in local affairs.

    A commenter above noticed that Indian accents in English can be differentiated according to mother-tongue. Have any studies been done of the regional accents in English, or are there any notable particulars? Anecdotally, I can distinguish an Indian from a Ceylonese accent, but cannot distinguish the various Indian accents.

  9. Vasu Renganathan said,

    April 8, 2017 @ 4:41 pm

    I think it should not be viewed as "Anti-Hindi" sentiment, rather a case of linguistic privilege! Tamils are always of the opinion that other languages are imposed upon them by forcing them to study Hindi in schools, fill-out forms in Hindi, read signs in Hindi and so on so forth. The slogans, such as "Being an Indian means a Hindi speaker", "Hindi is India" etc., do not hold any compelling merits in Indian context. Truly speaking, Tamils have undergone similar imposition from medieval period onward through Sanskrit and almost half of the vocabulary of Tamil is Sanskrit now. For that matter all of the Indian languages were influenced heavily by Sanskrit. The Tamil purism movement that emerged during the nineteenth century did stop Tamil becoming a Manipravala style of language, like its other Dravidian counterparts such as Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam, which are nothing but a Manipravala language with abundant code mixing of Sanskrit vocabulary. Tamils' resistance to Hindi was primarily because of such consequences and nothing else! I don't think Tamils ever had any historically motivated grudges with the people of other regions, nor were the people from the other regions with the South. Many people of the north are very successful business entrepreneurs in Tamil Nadu in the fields of textile industry, jewelry shops, money lending and so on for decades. Statements such as "no politician from Tamilnadu, or for that matter from any other state, has ever actively participated and succeeded on the national political stage without knowing Hindi and English." is not true at all. Kamaraj was the leader of the Congress party of India once and he never spoke a word either in Hindi or English. Abdul Kalam, Chidambaram, R.Venkatraman, C. Subramaniam, R.K. Manon(Kerala) and so on have played significant roles in the national political stage and their knowledge of Hindi was either none or very little. Thanks to Nehru's three language policy that promotes mother tongue and English besides another regional language, irrespective of Hindi.

    The other reason why Tamils do not want other languages to be imposed upon them was to retain their literary heritage of Sangam era. Influence of Sanskrit did disturb the flow of indigenous literary developments from Sangam period, when enormous amount of classical form of Tamil literary works were produced in almost all the aspects of life. This indeed was affected from the medieval period when the kings started to patronize the Sanskrit language more than Tamil and began to adopt other religious sentiments. Thus, there is much more to the reason why the Tamils tend to try to retain their linguistic heritage.


  10. John Rohsenow said,

    April 10, 2017 @ 1:21 am

    Many, many years ago, when I was a TA in an English Dept in Poona/Pune,inland from Bombay, I was traveling in S. India ( I forget where) and somehow ended up translating for a north Indian from Hindi into English,which as noted, was much more common in the south than Hindi. After it was over, the northerner thanked me and then remarked somewhat shamefacedly that he was embarrassed having to have an American translate for him in "his own country".

  11. Daisy said,

    April 21, 2017 @ 4:40 am

    The passage talks about the author's experience on his commute to University City station. He starts his conversation with several Indians on India's diverse languages. They are pleased for the author's familiarity of Indian language and welcomed further discusion with it.
    Faced with strangers, Indians talk first in English for being afraid of poor communication. After further acquaintance,knowing that they come from the same place, they communicate with others in their native language. Maybe India is a nation with little exclusiveness. They not only talk with people capable of their native language, but also prepare themselves to talk with foerigner. News comes that India is a country of inequality. But they do pursue equity and try not make a difference between natives and foerigners.
    Indians are proud of their culture and various languages. When the author mentions that India has more than 22 languages, they are happy about his recognization of their languages and feel proud of the profound culture they have.
    As I have mentioned above, India is a nation of little exclusiveness. Maybe it is because of it that Indians are glad to promote cultural exchange with other countries and disseminate their culture. They are willing to engage them on the linguistic situation in India and exchange ideas with the author.
    Perhaps it is time we reacquaint India from different perspective.

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