31 May 2016

A Look at India’s Amazing Linguistic Diversity

India is a big country and it packs in an astonishing array of languages. Over 1600 languages are thought to be spoken in the subcontinent and it’s unlikely that any other country in the world matches India for linguistic diversity.

But what’s the practical impact of this linguistic richness?

India doesn’t recognise a single national language as its official one (neither does the UK or US) but Hindi is used as the language of government. The question of whether to recognise a single language as the country’s official language still remains in active debate in the country.

Part of the problem is that Hindi, or any other language for that matter, isn’t even spoken by a majority of the population. Whilst Hindi is spoken widely across a central clump of states (sometimes called ‘the Hindi belt’) this isn’t the case for border states or those in the south, who have historically put up resistance to any proposals to incorporate it as the dominant national language.

Whilst Hindi and English tend to be used at national level for the business of government and the judiciary, 22 languages are recognised as ‘scheduled’ languages, receiving status and official sanction.

India’s state boundaries were partially determined along linguistic divides, something that occurred after Independence. States have the power to set their own languages, which is often one or two of these 22 official languages. For example, the state of Gujarat uses Gujarati as an official language, but the state of Assam has Assamese as its first official language and also recognises Bengali as an additional state language.

Other languages are recognised as ‘regional’ ones, meaning they are not widely spoken across the subcontinent but have a regional base, and often a moderate-sized population of speakers. Examples include Rajastani, Bhili, and Tulu. Less widely spoken languages are generally called ‘minority languages’, some of them in fragile states of survival.

India’s government also recognises so-called classical languages such as Sanskrit, Telugu, and Odia, some having thousands of years of history.

Whilst Sanskrit has had a classical influence on modern Indian languages (in the same way classic languages such as Greek and Latin influenced modern European languages such as Italian), it is only really spoken in a single village and is often considered functionally ‘dead’. It is however held in high regard across India and is important in the religious sphere.

This means that, although only a tiny minority speak Sanskrit, it couldn’t really be described as endangered or lacking influence.

Different language families

India covers a huge array of languages, but these languages also draw on many different alphabets and 4 (arguably 5) different language groups. Indian languages come from the Indo-Aryan, Dravidian, Sino-Tibetan and Afro-Asiatic linguistic families. The endangered languages of the Andaman Islands seem to fit into an additional language group of their own.

Not only is India home to some of the world’s rarest and most endangered languages, it also contains some of the biggest language groups on the planet.

Bengali has over 200 million speakers, or 250 million if you also include non-native speakers who have it as a second, third or fourth language. Hindi is spoken by around half a billion people as a first tongue – by nearly a billion people as a non-native language. It’s one of the world’s most spoken languages.

English, another of the world’s most spoken languages, is one of India’s official languages. With close to 2 billion speakers globally, it’s commonly used in India for official purposes. However, it remains a minority native language with only a tiny fraction of the population having it as a first language. It’s widely spoken as an additional language though. In fact, around 5% of Indian men are considered to be fluent (2005 India Human Development Study) and over a quarter speak at least some English.

India’s disappearing languages

Although India is rich in languages, sadly not all of them seem destined to survive.

The Andaman Islands, falling under the governance of India, is home to some of the few uncontacted peoples on earth. As a consequence of this lack of contact with the outside world, the language that’s generally called Sentinelese is mostly unknown to outsiders. A 2011 Indian census identified only 15 people in this tribe, implying it may be one of the most critically endangered languages in the world.

But it isn’t India’s only vulnerable language. Many dozens of languages spoken on the subcontinent are either critically endangered or vulnerable, including Birhor and Toto.

In fact, India is losing languages faster than any other nation on earth, with up to 30% under real threat.

These two particular languages face the challenges of a language population illiterate in its mother tongue and a dominant majority language in which all business outside the home is conducted. These forces combine to threaten the languages’ long-term survival.

It’s difficult to manage a country with such an array of languages and language issues have historically been deeply political ones. A recent decision by the government to replace German with Sanskrit (closely linked to the Hindi language and Hindu religious scripture) was seen a political move to favor Hindi and Hindu nationalism.

The rise and fall of different ruling factions is often reflected by the rise and fall of the languages they are associated with. These days English tends to be spoken by elite Indians and there’s a real problem of exclusion for Indians who don’t speak it. Curiously, it’s tech companies that are helping challenge this by enabling resources in local languages. For example, Samsung is making phones available in peoples’ own languages.

Whilst questions of what language to communicate in remains a challenge for businesses entering India, the size of India’s market often means that even so-called ‘minority’ languages are spoken by a sizeable market.

Enter India with a business that uses English and you’ll probably be able to reach a sizeable elite right across the sub continent.

But engaging with a minority language that’s geographically concentrated may advantage your supply chain and give you access to the local population.

It’s a fallacy to think that English is always the best approach. Well-informed companies may find that their choice of language is a key part of their Indian market strategy. 


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