Depending how speaking ability is defined, India is the world’s largest English-speaking country or the second largest after the United States. A subsidiary official language, English is taught in schools and widely spoken, giving India an edge in an increasingly English-speaking globalized world. The English spoken in India tends to be more British-style than American-style but in many cases it is its own style.

Only around three to five percent of the population is truly fluent in both English and an Indian language. But English-speakers include nearly all the educated elite and people who come in contact with tourists although knowledge of English varies widely from fluency to knowledge of just a few words. While English is relegated to the status of subsidiary official language it is the most important language for national, political, and commercial communication.

English is arguably the most important thing the British left behind in India. English helped unify the Indian subcontinent by providing a common language for a region with a multitude of languages and dialects. It also provided a common tongue for administration and education. The Indian constitution and Indian legal code are written in English and the famous speech delivered by Nehru after India became independent was in English.

English is especially popular among the affluent middle class. As was true in the colonial era, English is a prerequisite to getting ahead, especially in the outsourcing and technology world. English is more widely spoken in southern India than northern India in part because southerners loath to use Hindi.

The way English is spoken varies a great deal from place to place and with levels of fluency and wealth. It is commonly said that there are at least 15 different kinds of English, one to go with each of the each of the official languages.

How Many People Speak English in India?

There is little information on the extent of knowledge of English in India. Books and articles abound on the place of English in the Indian education system, job competition, and culture; and on its sociolinguistic aspects, pronunciation and grammar, its effect on Indian languages, and Indian literature in English. Little information is available, however, on the number of people who "know" English and the extent of their knowledge, or even how many people study English in school. In the 1981 census, 202,400 persons (0.3 percent of the population) gave English as their first language. Fewer than 1 percent gave English as their second language while 14 percent were reported as bilingual in two of India's many languages. However, the census did not allow for recording more than one second language and is suspected of having significantly under-represented bilingualism and multilingualism. [Source: Library of Congress, 1995 *]

The 1981 census reported 13.3 percent of the population as bilingual. The People of India project of the Anthropological Survey of India, which assembled statistics on communities rather than on individuals, found that only 34 percent of communities reported themselves as monolingual. An Assamese who also knew Bengali, or someone from a Marathi-speaking family living in Delhi who attended a Hindi-medium school, might give Bengali or Hindi as his or her second language but also know English from formal school instruction or picking it up on the street. It is suspected that many people identify language with literacy and hence will not describe themselves as knowing a language unless they can read it and, conversely, may say they know a language if they can make out its alphabet. Thus people who speak English but are unable to read or write it may say they do not know the language.*

English-language daily newspapers had a circulation of 3.1 million copies per day in the 1990s, but each copy was probably read by several people. There are estimates of about 3 percent for the number of literates in English, but even if this percentage is valid, the number of people with a speaking knowledge is certainly higher than of those who read it. And, the figure of 3 percent for English literacy may be low. According to one set of figures, 17.6 million people were enrolled in English classes in 1977, which would be 3.2 percent of the population of India according to the 1971 census. Taking the most conservative evaluation of how much of the instruction would "stick," this still leaves a larger part of the population than 3 percent with some English literacy.*

English in Schools

The teaching of Hindi and English is compulsory in most states and union territories. Some idea of the possibilities of studying English can be found in the 1992 Fifth All-India Education Survey. According to the survey, only 1.3 percent of primary schools, 3.4 percent of upper primary schools, 3.9 percent of middle schools, and 13.2 percent of high schools use English as a medium of instruction. Schools treating English as the first language (requiring ten years of study) are only 0.6 percent of rural primary schools, 2.8 percent of rural high schools, and 9.9 percent of urban high schools. English is offered as a second language (six years of study) in 51 percent of rural primary schools, 55 percent of urban primary schools, 57 percent of rural high schools, and 51 percent of urban high schools. As a third language (three years of study), English is offered in 5 percent of rural primary schools, 21 percent of urban primary schools, 44 percent of rural high schools, and 41 percent of urban high schools. These statistics show a considerable desire to study English among people receiving a mostly vernacular education, even in the countryside.*

In higher education, English continues to be the premier prestige language. Careers in business and commerce, government positions of high rank (regardless of stated policy), and science and technology (attracting many of the brightest) continue to require fluency in English. It is also necessary for the many students who contemplate study overseas.*

English as a prestige language and the tongue of first choice continues to serve as the medium of instruction in elite schools at every level without apology. All large cities and many smaller cities have private, English-language middle schools and high schools. Even government schools run for the benefit of senior civil service officers are conducted in English because only that language is an acceptable medium of communication throughout the nation.*

Working-class parents, themselves rural-urban migrants and perhaps bilingual in their village dialect and the regional standard language, perceive English as the tool their children need in order to advance. Schools in which English is the medium of instruction are a "growth industry." Facility in English enhances a young woman's chances in the marriage market — no small advantage in the often protracted marriage negotiations between families. The English speaker also encounters more courteous responses in some situations than does a speaker of an indigenous language.*

See Education

Hindi Verus English: the Right Lingua Franca for India

For the speakers of the country's myriad tongues to function within a single administrative unit requires some medium of common communication. The choice of this tongue, known in India as the "link" language, has been a point of significant controversy since independence. Central government policy on the question has been necessarily equivocal. The vested interests proposing a number of language policies have made a decisive resolution of the "language question" all but impossible. [Source: Library of Congress *]

The central issue in the link-language controversy has been and remains whether Hindi should replace English. Proponents of Hindi as the link language assert that English is a foreign tongue left over from the British Raj . English is used fluently only by a small, privileged segment of the population; the role of English in public life and governmental affairs constitutes an effective bar to social mobility and further democratization. Hindi, in this view, is not only already spoken by a sizable minority of all Indians but also would be easier to spread because it would be more congenial to the cultural habits of the people. *

On the other hand, Dravidian-speaking southerners in particular feel that a switch to Hindi in the well-paid, nationwide bureaucracies, such as the Indian Administrative Service, the military, and other forms of national service would give northerners an unfair advantage in gov-ernment examinations. If the learning of English is burdensome, they argue, at least the burden weighs equally on Indians from all parts of the country. In the meantime, an increasing percentage of Indians send their children to private English-medium schools, to help assure their offspring a chance at high-privilege positions in business, education, the professions, and government.*

Since independence, under pressure from Hindu extremisst, efforts were made to "purify" Hindi. Foreign words were expunged and replaced with Sanskrit-descended words. In some cases English words were replaced with ridiculously long Sanskrit-derived words. "Station" for example was replaced with "”agnirathyantraviramsha”, which literally means "resting place for a chariot run by fire."

As drafted, the constitution provided that Hindi and English were to be the languages of communication for the central government until 1965, when the switch to Hindi was mandated. The Official Languages Act of 1963, pursuing this mandate, said that Hindi would become the sole official national language in 1965. English, however, would continue as an "associate additional official language." After ten years, a parliamentary committee was to consider the situation and whether the status of English should continue if the knowledge of Hindi among peoples of other native languages had not progressed sufficiently. The act, however, was ambiguous about whether Hindi could be imposed on unwilling states by 1975. In 1964 the Ministry of Home Affairs requested all central ministries to state their progress on the switch to Hindi and their plans for the period after the transition date in 1965. The news of this directive led to massive riots and self-immolations in Tamil Nadu in late 1964 and early 1965, leading the central government, then run by the Congress , to back away from its stand. *

English continues to serve as the language of prestige. Efforts to switch to Hindi or other regional tongues encounter stiff opposition both from those who know English well and whose privileged position requires proficiency in that tongue and from those who see it as a means of upward mobility. Partisans of English also maintain it is useful and indeed necessary as a link to the rest of the world, that India is lucky that the colonial period left a language that is now the world's predominant international language in the fields of culture, science, technology, and commerce. They hold, too, that widespread knowledge of English is necessary for technological and economic progress and that reducing its role would leave India a backwater in world affairs.*

Criticism of the Use of English in India

Many Indians complain that the English language stifles their Indian-ness and expands the gap between classes. In 1998, Defense Minister Mulayam Singh Yadav called for Indians to stop speaking English and use their mother tongues only and also urged them to stop playing cricket. He said he "will not rest until English is driven out of the country...English should not dominate the country's linguistic map."

Many Indian nationalists originally intended that Hindi would replace English—the language of British rule—as a medium of common communication. Both Hindi and English are extensively used, and each has its own supporters. Native speakers of Hindi, who are concentrated in North India, contend that English, as a relic from the colonial past and spoken by only a small fraction of the population, is hopelessly elitist and unsuitable as the nation's official language. Proponents of English argue, in contrast, that the use of Hindi is unfair because it is a liability for those Indians who do not speak it as their native tongue. English, they say, at least represents an equal handicap for Indians of every region. [Source: Library of Congress *]

One Indian navy captain told National Geographic that knowing English "allows a fellow like me to read the Guardian Weekly. It let's someone in Bengal read the books of R.K Narayan." But then complained, "It means that to come to notice here you have to speak a foreign tongue. A Polish woman won the Nobel prize for literature. There is pride in Poland for Polish, as there should be. But do you think any Indian who writes in anything other than English stands a chance." The captain the aid, "If I hire someone to work for me. I'm frankly much more likely to be impressed than by his intelligence. He can be a genius of a mathematician but if has poor English—I'll give the job to someone far less well educated, far less clever, who speaks English."

English Words from India

Indian words that found there way into the English language include bungalow, khaki. cashmere, shampoo, jungle, juggernaut, cosmos, curry, cot, veranda, punch, cummerbund, dungarees, gymkhana, goon, thug, loot, Brahman, maharajah, and pajamas.

The word "pundit" (a political commentator) comes from the Sanskrit word for a learned Brahman. "Shampoo" comes from Hindi word “champo”, meaning "to massage" or "to knead." "Cummerbund" is derived from the Hindi word “kamarband”, meaning "loin band". It describes a wide sash worn around the waist. “Cosmos” in a Sanskrit word for "justice."

Early English settlers in Bengal adapted the local one-story cottages to their own needs. In 1676 the called them “banga” ("belonging to Bengal). Later they became known as bungalows. The word "jungle" comes from the Hindi word for wasteland. In 1783, Edmund Burke wrote of a land, "almost thoughtout a dreary desert, covered with rushes, and briers, and jungles full of wild beasts."

The Malayalam language of Kerala has given English the words atoll and teak. Lord Jagannath, an incarnation of Vishnu created by a celestial carpenter from a miraculous log, is the source of the word juggernaut (a force so powerful it destroys anything int way). Cities were renamed by the British because the colonizers could not pronounce the local names correctly. They couldn't say Kolkata so the city was called Calcutta.

Funny and Turgid Indian English

The choice of English words and idiosyncratic accents used in India are amusing to some Westerners. India cities are filled with humorous English signs. One on the back of a rickshaw read: "Horn please—keep distance." Sign warning of impending road construction say: "Inconvenience regretted". In Varanasi you learn: "Spitting in Public is Injurious to Health." In Kashmir “Ticketless Travel is a Social Evil.”

Among the amusing product slogans are "Buy Chilly cockroach traps", "Pik-up, the Perky Cola" and "Drink Hello mineral water." A sign outside a tourist hotel in Pushkar read: "A Stay of Class in Peace: Cheapest and Topest in Town." A sign elsewhere read: "BEWARE! Elephant driving school nearby. No thoroughfare allowed." Then there are the near pidgin-English signs such as the one in southern India that read "Hear katin salun."

Insurance policies in India usually begin with the same 191-word sentence. There is also a fondness for phrases such as “begging the favor of your esteemed perusal." Martin Cutts, a dispenser of awards for bad writing, who was hired by the British Council to help reform the English language in India, told Newsweek: "It's the reverence for the heavy style that is puzzling to me. One day the people here are going to say they are too busy to read these turgid documents written by some self-important ninny."

Some amusing road signs messages in India: 1) "Life is a journey complete it." 2) "Speed Thrills But Kills." 3) "Be Gentle on My Curves." 4) "Better to Be Mister Late than the Late Mister." 5) Safety First, Speed next, Do Not Halt at Corners." 6) “Discipline Makes a Nation Great: The Nation is on the Move." 7) “After whisky, driving risky.” 8) “Don’t race, don’t rally, enjoy beauty of the valley.”

Hinglish and Inglish

"Hinglish" is a mix of Hindi and English, often Hindi words used in sentences that otherwise are in English. Hinglish words found in English newspapers include “bandhs” ("a general strikes") and “gheraos” ("sit-ins").

"Inglish" refers to the unique set of English words that Indians have conjured up. People "felicitate" each other on their birthdays. "Intimate" means inform. "Eve-teasing” means flirting. A “four twenty” is a corrupt businessman (derived from Section 420 of the India's Criminal procedure code). The standard reply for a government official who is unavailable is: "Sorry, he is not in his seat...May I request your good name."

Inglish if filled with euphemisms and double speak. Famines are referred to as "scarcity." Terrorists re called "extremists." Muslims are called a "minority." A "number two" is a special account for undisclosed earnings. In matrimonial announcements "homely" means a good housemaker; an "innocent divorcee" is someone from an unconsummated marriage. “Do the needful” means to do what is proper and right” (Example: “I’m sure he will do the needful”). “Prepone” is the opposite of postpone.

Indians say things like “good wishes and salutations” and “hoopla.” In their written pieces they use a lot of cliches like “blew his top.” Newspapers are filled with criminals who "spill the beans" and get "nabbed" and police who "apprehend absconding miscreants." Police "rush" to the scene of a crime even when the don’t show up for three days.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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