L is for languages

According to the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, 780 languages are spoken across the Indian subcontinent. The count includes many dialects spoken by less than 10,000 people. By comparison, the United States has 337 languages spoken within its borders. Yet, while the US has no official language, India has two official languages: Hindi and English.

Background

According to Article XVII of the Constitution, promulgated in 1950, Hindi was made the official language of the Central government. Yet, English would

continue to be used for all the official purposes of the Union for which it was being used immediately before such commencement

Even in 1950, English remained the official language of the Indian High Courts. As the Indian legal system is based on the British system and laws, keeping judicial tasks in English eased the logistical transition after independence. The Constitution stated that within 15 years, the legislature had to decide whether to continue the use of English in official situations.

In 1963, the Official Languages Act was promulgated to codify English’s status as a language used to conduct official state business. Among other instances outlined, the law states that English can be used when a state that does not have Hindi as an official language needs to communicate with another state or the Central government. This rule frequently applies to South Indian states such as Kerala, where Hindi is rarely seen.

A street artist in Cochin near the fishing nets asks for people to help him in Malayalam and English.

A street artist in Cochin near the fishing nets asks for people to help him in Malayalam and English.

Door to a police station in Kerala. Notice this official sign is in Malayalam with English below it.

Door to a police station in Cochin, Kerala. Notice this official sign is in Malayalam with English below it.

India has a Department of Official Languages under the Ministry of Home Affairs. The department’s purpose is to promote the use of the Hindi language, especially in official Central government correspondence. The department conducts training in Hindi for civil service employees, provides translations for official documents, and generally promotes  Hindi in official state usage. The department’s website appears in both languages, with Hindi at the top, and English underneath.

The home page of the Department of Official Languages. Notice that Hindi in Devanagari script appears above the English translation.

The home page of the Department of Official Languages. Notice that Hindi in Devanagari script appears above the English translation.

Polyglots at home and at work

While fewer than 2,50,000 people in India list English as their native language, more than 125 million list English as their second or third language. Yes, third language. Most Indians speak at least two, but more often three, languages in the home. For example, my next-door neighbors speak four: Bengali (the wife’s language), Hindi, Marathi (the husband’s language), and English (spoken at school and work).  That does not mean they are all equally fluent in each language. Usually, a speaker prefers one language over another. Nevertheless, Indians often slip in and out of multiple languages in the same sentence. For example, in conversation, a sentence will begin in English, contain a bit of Punjabi, Hindi, and then finally end in English.

Schools in Maharashtra offer instruction in three languages: Marathi, Hindi, and English. A school will offer instruction in one language only. So, you will see a Marathi medium school, a Hindi medium school, and an English medium school. The state schools, where the poorest children attend, offer instruction in Marathi and Hindi. The private schools, which are often sponsored by the Catholic Church, usually offer instruction in either Hindi or English. This linguistic separation of Marathi speakers from English speakers creates an unintentional tripartite caste system, with the most elite students taking instruction in English only. For example, IIT-Bombay, located in beautiful Powai, is considered the MIT of India. IIT-Bombay offers instruction in English only, making it inaccessible to students without English as a primary language.

In the corporate world, English is the primary language of communication.  Many multinational corporations (MNCs), like Microsoft and Google, have offices in India, so it seems obvious their employees would speak English at work to communicate with colleagues back in the US. Yet, even at India-based firms, English remains the primary language of communication. One foreigner was surprised when he passed a meeting room to discover that all the Indians were speaking in English, not Hindi. When he asked why, the response was simple:

It’s the only language we all know.

Impact on upcoming general elections

As Hindi is not spoken throughout India, national candidates must find a way to appeal to voters in their own languages. This appeal has proven especially difficult for candidates from Northern India who do not know languages spoken in South India, such as Tamil. These candidates find themselves communicating in English, a language that might not be the first language for either the candidate or potential voter. The Guardian wrote an insightful article titled,  “How to say ‘vote for me’ in India – 447 different ways,” which explains the challenges these candidates face.

The general election ballots are printed in the majority language of the constituency. For the postal ballots used for service members, that means Hindi and English, in that order. If you don’t read a majority language, then you must rely on the election symbol for the party of your choice. For illiterate voters, those symbols are critical in helping them choose between parties.

In alphabetical order, here are the three PM candidates’ symbols:

AAP

The broom is AAP's official symbol, meant to signify sweeping away corruption.

The broom is AAP’s official symbol, meant to signify sweeping away corruption.

BJP

The lotus is the official BJP symbol. The symbol represents the Hindu goddess Laxmi, who offers prosperity and wealth.

The lotus is the official BJP symbol. The symbol represents the Hindu goddess Laxmi, who offers prosperity and wealth.

INC

The hand is the Indian National Congress logo. The hand was chosen as the INC symbol for the 1980 elections. The hand symbolizes strength, energy, and unity.

The hand is the Indian National Congress logo. The hand was chosen as the INC symbol for the 1980 elections. The hand symbolizes strength, energy, and unity.

 

 

 

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