There are 22 official languages in India at the federal level, which include: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri , Marathi, Nepali, Odia ,Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santhali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu and Urdu.
There are also hundreds of other, less prominent languages such as Tulu, Bhojpuri and Ladakhi, which are the main language in some places.
A good, if not foolproof, rule of thumb is to assume that each Indian state has a different local language.
Hindi, spoken by about 40 % of the population, is the mother tongue of people from the “Hindi belt” in northern India, which includes the capital Delhi, and the main working language of the Union government. Many more speak it as a second language. Although there are many dialects of Hindi, the prestige dialect of Hindi used in the media and education is based on the dialect of the Delhi area and is understood by most Hindi speakers. If you can only afford one phrasebook, go for the Hindi phrasebook as it will help you get around in most parts of India.
Sanskrit was the language of the Aryan invaders who arrived around 1500 BC, and is the language in which much of ancient Indian literature and religious texts are written. Today, Sanskrit survives as a liturgical language and has a status similar to Latin in Europe: few, if any, speak Sanskrit as a mother tongue, but quite a few scholars know it. Many modern Indian languages are descended from Sanskrit, and languages not related to Sanskrit have also been strongly influenced by it.
While most North Indian languages, including Hindi, are descended from Sanskrit, the major languages of the South – Telugu, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam – belong to an entirely different group called Dravidian; they are thought to be descended from the languages of the peoples who inhabited the region before the Aryan invasion. Nevertheless, due to the influence of Hinduism, they too contain many loanwords from Sanskrit.
The central government has tried to establish Hindi as the national language, but this has not been entirely successful; especially in areas where local languages are not related to Hindi, it faces considerable resistance. Avoid speaking Hindi in areas such as Tamil Nadu and the Northeast, where Hindi is opposed by many locals. Also, do not refer to the other languages as dialects of Hindi; they are separate languages, mostly mutually unintelligible with different writing systems, and some (like the Dravidian languages) are completely unrelated to Hindi.
Proficiency in English varies greatly by level of education, occupation, age and region. English is compulsory in all schools and is widely spoken among the affluent classes in major cities and near most tourist spots, as well as in most police stations and government offices, and serves as a lingua franca among educated Indians. However, if possible, it is better to pick up as many words as you can in the local language of the place you are visiting – people are proud of the culture and language of their state (or region) and will appreciate it if an outsider tries to communicate in that language. Code-switching between English and the local language is common among youth in urban areas, although most educated people would speak Standard English (British) when talking to foreigners.
In many Indian languages there is no word for “please”, just as in Scandinavian languages. Instead, verbs have many forms that indicate the degree of politeness and formality. Since there is no such distinction in English, Indians can also appear commanding to a Westerner. You may hear expressions like “come here” that can sound commanding to Anglophones from Western cultures, but it is not meant to be rude.
There are many English language TV shows that air in India (without dubbing) on Zee Cafe, FX, Star World, BBC Entertainment, AXN, Warner Bros and BIG CBS Prime. However, with the exception of BIG CBS Prime, the shows are usually a season behind. Almost all shows are American (with the exception of those on BBC Entertainment). There are many other English-language television channels; in fact, there are more English-language television channels than in any other Indian language. English-language films in cinemas are usually shown in their original language with subtitles in the local language. Cartoon Network, Pogo, Nat Geo and Discovery can be dubbed in Hindi, Telugu or Tamil in their respective territories. But this can be changed to English by modifying the audio settings.
Non-verbal communication is also important. There has been a lot of talk about the confusing Indian head nod for yes and no, but it is just important to understand that Indians have different nods for yes, ok and no.
- When they nod their head up and down, they mean “yes” or “I agree”, as in a standard nod.
- If they shake their head in a tilting motion from right to left and back, it means: I understand or I have understood what you have said.
- If they shake their head sideways (from left to right to left), they mean no.
- There are variations in the way these characters are used in North and South India. Moving back and forth means “yes” in northern India and a strong left-right shift means “no”, although the latter can be interpreted as “yes” in southern states like Tamilnadu. Look for verbal cues accompanying these sounds (such as “aaan” for yes) in southern India to get the correct meaning.