The Great Indian Language Barrier

Local is the New National Language?

Well, I love my country very much.  I mean to travel and work and live in all the states before I retire. I wish to be able to live for at least a year in every state before I finally decide where I wish to settle dwon, grow old and die.

However, to do that it looks like am going to have to learn all the 28 languages of my country. Just knowing English the lingua franca, or knowing the National language Hindi is not really  going to help.

All States have changed shop display boards, road signs, and boards at airports and railway stations to the local language. Every State insists that all public transaction be done in State Language.  Like writing an FIR or applying for an address proof or getting a house rent Agreement – it is all done in the local language.

All public utility signs have also been changed to local languages from Hindi, the common National language. Earlier all public signs used to be in Hindi all over India, or in English, so that anybody travelling from any part of India could easily find their way about in a different city, in a different State. Language was not a barrier.

However, the current scenario is that, the National language Hindi, is no longer used nationally. Local seems to be the new National Language now.

The three language formula was introduced in schools after Independence in order to make life easy for citizens functioning in a multi-language environment. It was understood that it is humanly not possible for everybody to learn all the languages to remain mobile and move from State to State.

Hence, a common language Hindi, was chosen and demarked as the National Language. And another – English – was universally recognized as the common official language for all – both Indian Nationals and Foreigners coming in.

Accordingly, Hindi was (and still is) compulsorily taught to every school going Indian child. Every Indian speaks at least three to four languages almost from birth – one is the mother tongue, the second is the local language of the place where the child might be growing up, and the third is Hindi, the Rashtra Bhasha, or the National Language. The fourth is English, a major subject in the school curriculum.

For example, I speak Bengali(mother tongue)- Assamese(grew up there) – Hindi (National Language) – English (School).

Somehow things changed in between, in the last five years. Language is no longer a tool to be used to make life easy, to build community, to forge ties or to transact. It has acquired a new status – albeit a very political one. Now Language is a matter of Identity. I speak Gujarati so am a true Gujarati. In order to be a true Marathi, I must speak Marathi. I cannot love my State enough if Ido not speak Bengali.

Love of one’s State is measured in terms of whether we speak the State language or not! Cultural awareness, participation in the developmental activities of that State no longer signifies ‘love’ for some strange reason. If I speak the State language, even while sucking it dry and funneling all its resources to my own, it is still alright!

The point of this post is to raise this question: if the National Language no longer serves to unite or help, why not do away with it?  Let’s give up Hindi, and make all 28 languages compulsory in the school curriculum. I know it is difficult – a child would end up learning only languages if it was done. But there the alternative is being rejected at every step!

If Language is such an important identity issue, let us do this systematically? Let us start with the National Anthem. Then let us take up National Language. Then let us fix the school curriculum. And then let us change boards in our states to our beloved local languages.

1) Let us have the National Anthem translated into all the 28 State languages, first.  Let us sing it in Gujarati in Gujarat, in Marathi in Marathawada, in pure Kannad in Karnataka and in Ahomiya in Assam and so on.

2) Then, let there be no National Language. I mean, if I have to write an FIR in Gujarati (I had to, when I had lost my PAN recently) when am in Gujarat, in Marathi when am in Mumbai, let us teach all languages in school as “compulsory”.

3) Let us amend the THREE LANGUAGE FORMULA in schools and make it COMPULSORY 28 for all.  So that when we grow up and travel for work, or for change, we are not lost in our own country.

Let us at least give people a chance, before we take drastic steps – like suddenly changing all signs in local language expecting 20 crore Bhartiyas – to know my State Language! And as soon as they enter my State too. I mean changing public signs like Bus routes, numbers etc implies that, doesn’t it? Since some people think it is humanly possible for everybody to know everything, let us at least do it systematically.

Since knowing Hindi and English, is not enough when am in Gujarat or Maharashtra – or in Karnataka, I think it is time we found a new solution for the GREAT INDIAN LANGUAGE BARRIER.

bus-stop-at-cgr-c vada-pao-sign-infront-of-national-handloom edtd-bus-stop-sign

PS: I am not saying let us have Hindi, am saying let us have one COMMON language. Or let us teach all 28 and then change signs and documents. The census report here shows, 41% of Indian population speak Hindi, Bengali, Telugu, Marathi come next in that order.

28 thoughts on “The Great Indian Language Barrier

  1. @ Rolling : Hindi is not acceptable. Sorry but that is how it is. It is also a threat to other Indian languages. It is also spoken by only around 27% or 28% of India. So it can not be the national language. In fact we should just do away with the national language mishegoss, many countries simply do not have a national language even the United States does not have one! Wherever possible signage can be in two languages if needed. Like I said in my previous post no one needs to learn 28 languages. I for example have never seen any part of India beyond Rajasthan in the southern direction and I do not intend to live in every part of India (it is impossible in one life time) long enough for language to matter. If I did move to another state I will spend time and energy to actually learn the local language. It is utterly disrespectful to earn one’s income from a place and not even known the local language.

  2. @ Odzer, you are right about Hindi. About the number of languages though here is what I read:

    The 1981 census–the last census to tabulate languages–reported 112 mother tongues with more than 10,000 speakers and almost 1 million people speaking other languages. The encyclopedic People of India series, published by the government’s Anthropological Survey of India in the 1980s and early 1990s, identified seventy-five “major languages” within a total of 325 languages used in Indian households. In the early 1990s, there were 32 languages with 1 million or more speakers…
    According to same census, only about 3% of India’s population speak English.
    Although, that 3% puts India among the top 4 countries in the world with the highest number of English speakers! 🙂

    You know, I wak into this new city, I want to be able to read the bus signs and navigate my way around town by myself. In America, majority speak English. But here each State is like another country!

  3. Greetings from London. I hope that you will allow me to comment on the world language in general”

    I live in London and if anyone says to me “everyone speaks English” my answer is “Listen and look around you”. If people in London do not speak English then the whole question of a global language is completely open.

    The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic. I say this as a native English speaker!

    Impractical because communication should be for all and not only for an educational or political elite. That is how English is used internationally at the moment.

    Undemocratic because minority languages are under attack worldwide due to the encroachment of majority ethnic languages. Even Mandarin Chinese is attempting to dominate as well. The long-term solution must be found and a non-national language, which places all ethnic languages on an equal footing is essential.

    An interesting video can be seen at Professor Piron was a former translator with the United Nations

    A glimpse of Esperanto can be seen at

  4. @ Rolling : Signage should be bilingual I agree. However it should be English/Local language to facilitate international and out of state visitors. The Airport can have more than 2 languages though and the railway station that is quite okay. The problem with Hindi is that it divides instead of unites because people have very strong feelings about that language. Actually even I do. Although I can read, write and speak it. I think Hindi needs to find a role though and a good role for it can be as the state language for mid and east Indian states. We need people to excel at local state languages and English though because that is a politically neutral language. It can perhaps play the same role that English has been playing in Malaysia or Singapore as a unifier of people.

    One other issue is migration. Demographics are changing due to that and basically some states are tired of mass migrations. In my own state we have a reducing population which is being replaced by outsiders. If these people will not learn our local language one day it might just die out. Whereas I am not fundamentally against people coming in they must prove that they want to be a part of Punjab or wherever they want to make their home. The onus will always lie on the outsiders.

  5. Rolling,
    Scenario is not worst and needs improvement. I remember, being Mumbai based I still speak a Hindi a lot. (Mumbai Hindi tough). There I interact with many people, and at end of day I find I have spoken more Hindi, then English and at last my mother tongue.

    Even though being a part of respected industry with adopted language as English, Hindi runs in a its blood. I would say a truly cosmopolitan cities like Mumbai, still runs on Hindi more. Even amidst chorus of regional and local language.

    Hindi Rocks!!!

  6. The issue you’ve raised is a brilliant one. I mean, putting up notice boards or signs in local languages only is forcing your own language upon others.

    Isn’t the very idea of India about unity in diversity?

    If a culture really wants to preserve it’s language, it can do so by promoting literature and art in that language. It can do so by promoting education in that language instead of completely abolishing the use of other languages.

    It’s like saying: You can’t play at my house unless you only play the games I want to play. In that way, nobody would want to play with you.

    This is just another example of the absolutist tendency of trying to preserve your culture by denying others. If your culture was so good in the first place, why would you have to force people to adopt it?

    If people don’t want to move on, they will remain stagnant and keep themselves in such egoless nonsense. If they were indeed proud of their culture, they wouldn’t have to worry about other cultures affecting them.

    Nice thought!

  7. Rolling, et. al.

    I just wanted to say, each state has local language, but lets make an attempt to have a platform of Hindi to communicate.
    If two person are gonna be admen on their local languages, and not going to communicate at all, then there is no need of language. as it just falsifies existence of language(language- communication by word of mouth).

  8. Brian, welcome and thanks for joining in 🙂

    “The promulgation of English as the world’s “lingua franca” is impractical and linguistically undemocratic”

    – I agree with this view. In the Indian context, however, Odzer might have a point when he says, English is NOW politically neutral, so a better option as ‘lingua franca’ with a teaching-learning process already built into the education system here.

    Odzer, yes, English, in fact any COMMON language would be such a help. Am having a real hard time making out what’s written in my house agreement which is written in Gujarati 🙂

    I don’t want any world language to die, but, preservation can be done through archiving and practising multi-lingual behaviour as we do in India?

    Teach children to speak the mother tongue and use it within the community but leave the others the freedom to choose the common language to communicate with me or others? Is that better, would you say?

    Punjabis moving to other places are carrying their language with them, so does it really get mitigated? It spreads rather, nai?

    Sunny, yes, Pune wasn’t as bad or difficult, at least, my house agreement there, and phone application was in English 🙂 Baki ka I had picked up enuf, to get along.

    Thanks, for sharing your experience here.

    Alok , thanks, knowing your age, I must say am impressed 🙂 you have put your view across very succinctly, am sure readers would agree with the logic in your comment.

  9. That also reminds me, reading that most of Indian languages have their origins common(sanskrit).

    Rolling, I am taking a bit of twist from original post, here-

    There is only thing that makes me sad when i come to Hindi. Hindi and Urdu are in fact somewhat diverse dialects of the similar language. Hindi vocabulary has been derived generally from Sanskrit language, and also Urdu incorporates several words of Persian and Arabic languages.
    while, Most of the Indian of the modern era is brightened due to the prevalence of numerous languages including thirty-five important languages. These are namely Marathi, Oriya, Punjabi, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Bihari, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam, Rajasthani, Tamil, and Telugu, have their origin with Sanskrit, Prakrit and Dravidian languages during 12 th century.

  10. well well well… no matter what u speak, u shud be able to communicate.

    I was in chennai for around a year, and communcated to non-english,no-hindi speaking people quite well 🙂 🙂

  11. Sharad, I didnt mean day to day ordinary communication that all street smart travellers like us are good at anyway, I meant navigating around the town becomes harder, if one cant read the boards and signs, also forms, official documnets like agreements. To speak is easy, baby language does work, but to learn the script takes time 🙂 should not the newcomer be excused until he has had that time to assimilate the new language? Why the need to have boards in local language?

  12. I dont know what the solution to this dilemma would be…but learning 28 languages…yikes!…hardly seems like a solution. While I am of the when in Rome, do as the Romans do philosophy, and definitely believe that people need to be open to learning new languages and new experiences when moving to a different part of the country or an entirely different country, I do think having one language as the national language would serve to unify the country as a whole. Having entire fragments of the country speak an entirely different language, to me, only serves to divide the nation. A state can still retain pride over its language without thrusting it down people’s throats. Maintain your own unique culture, speak your own mother tongue, be proud of it, but at the end of the day, for you to break out of your own bubble and conduct transactions with other people that live in the same India as you do, you need a universal language of communication. The dilemma still remains though over which language ought to be selected for use as the national language.

    Just my two cents of thought.

  13. Local language is fine but i guess the importance should be primarily be laid on Hindi. I stayed in Chennai for 2 yrs and everything over there was in Tamil…..I mean its so difficult for people like us who donot know the language. Worst difficulty I faced was locating bus numbers as I had to frequently travel in government busses. Autorickshaw drivers, even though understood Hindi, never interacted with outsiders in Hindi. National language has to be Hindi….We simply cannot do without it.

  14. Well, I know I am late for discussions but anyway will put my views across.

    First Trisha, I do not agree to all of what you have said though the main pt was to have a common language or not.

    e.g. Hindi was (and still is) compulsorily taught to every school going Indian child. … is wrong. In Maharashtra board Hindi is an optional while Marathi is compulsory for even ICSE schools !!

    2nd point… Hindi is NOT our national language. It is just an official language but yes, 10 states has decided to accept this as their official language. There are some more which I am ignoring because the pt raised by you is different. 😀

    I agree with Sunny and like minded. I think we should have 3 languages in every state.. 1 local for local people, 1 Hindi (because it is the most spoken and accepted by most states), we can try to make it a national language and 3 English (after all we have to interact with others as well).

  15. Rolling;
    Very interesting article. The primary purpose of language is communication and the better we are able to communicate, the smaller the likelihood of troubles and the greater the likelihood of peace. The historical evidence shows that the two most potent reasons for changing languages are the point of the sword as in army invasion and in pursuit of wealth as in expansion of trade. India is selling goods and servics across the globe in greater and greater quantities so I suspect the motivation for determining the direction of linguistic navigation lies squarely in the hands of India’s customers and markets.

  16. It sounds so confusing…!

    Thanks so much for your recent post on my book – I linked to you in my current post…

    Je parle Francais mais tres tres mal… ou… mauvais?? Je ne sais pas. J’oublie. Au revoir.

    I used to teach ESL too –

    Le Paul

  17. A debate may go-on which language should be the rashtra bhasa of India, though about 45% of Indian population can speak Hindi. There are 1652 different languages in India and 350 are as major languages, NOT 28 LANGUAGES. So far I traveled Kashmir to kanyakumari including few northeastern states, I never felt language is a barrier for communication .I think communication is an art, for that one should not know all the 1652 languages .I think its not a well thought comment that all our children should learn all state languages in school level, already they are over loaded with various subjects. When the child will grow up, necessity may compel him/her to learn additional languages. I personally can speak Bengali(mother tongue)- Hindi (National Language) – English (medium of learning in higher education)- Assamese(compelled to learn, when was in NE region) – Nepali(compelled to learn, when worked with them). I traveled many times in Tamilnadu, Andhra, Karnataka, Kerala but never felt much difficulty to communicate, though I don’t know Tamil, Telegu, kanara & Malayalam.
    Beside mother tongue if some one knows English, Hindi & the local language where he or she is staying to earn his or her bread is sufficient. It is impossible to learn all the 1652 different languages or the 350 major languages. I think its an exceptional case who likes to travel & work for at least one year in every state of India. In general the people like to travel once or twice in a year for few days in some tourist places in other part of India, for a change and rest of the days they work hard to earn their bread and to look after their families.
    we should little respect & love our beloved country, national anthem, national language & the neighbors, if some one is friendly with his/her neighbors, many problem can be solved easily. Democracy does not mean one can do anything. If we are moving in a busy road, we cant go as we like, we must obey the traffic rule. Like that there are some rules which we must obey as the responsible and disciplined citizen of the country at the same time the state govts & central govt should act in more responsible manner, as India is the part of global tourism, a foreign tourist should feel friendly with the bus numbers, name of the bus stops, route maps, enquiries, legal proceedings( if needed). But no need of translating national anthem in 1652 different languages or in 350 major languages, or in 28 languages. Nor our children should learn all state languages in school level.

  18. Orijit, “the state govts & central govt should act in a more responsible manner, as India is part of global tourism, a foreign tourist should feel (comfortable) with the bus numbers, name of the bus stops, route maps, inquiries, legal proceedings ( if needed)”
    Question is just not about foreign tourists, it is also about you and me.

    The National Anthem bit was sarcasm. If they are going to do “meri bhasha meri bhasha” like 3 yr old kids, I said, “thik hain bachhu beta, National Anthem se hi shuru karo” 🙂

    If I had turned back from Pune, not ventured deeper and deeper into the Western sector, never wd have known how parochial, how narrow minded, and closed it gets in these areas. That, despite of places like Jamnagar being Army and Airforce bases and oil ports!!

    Being a Bengali, you can NOT imagine how much prejudice there is here – subtly but surely.
    As this is my journal, I felt a deep need to record it and my public declaration is here, Guj and Maharashtra are MY States as much as it is any other Indian’s.I wd fight for my rights as an Indian National.

    That FIR shd have been in Hindi or English, a language I understand, and NOT in Gujarati.

    If that is Law, then it must change and we – you an academician, I, a citizen should raise our voice and claim our rights/ protest even if it s in a silly little blog..

  19. Geoffrey, you are right, Language is merely a tool, to communicate, and like any other tool eg a Mac or Linix OS program only the fittest and easiest to use and most widely used ought to remain, the others wd die a natura death like many languages in the world have earlier. That is life.

    And it isnt going to helpto cling in the name of preserving culture. Culture isnt a static. It is as dynamic as the people who practise it are.

    And those who are trying to start a civil war in this beautiful country in the name of language are as bad as those terrorists and ought to be jailed on insurgency charges.

    A common language that facillitates business and trade must exist in a country with thousands of languages.

    And yes, if what you are saying is right, that India, just by virtue of its sheer numbers and rising economy, is already emerging as a major market and consumer – and thus invested wth the power to negotiate language, that is already happening, if one studies the multinational ad campaigns or the way translation happens for intellectual material. Let things take its naturalcourse rather than forcing things down unsuspecting citizen’s throat.

    I was really pissed off this time when I was rendered so helpless at every step, in Gujarat.

    I have been to almost all States and never faced this kind of a situation before. English/Hindi works fine everywhere else.

    Diana, Vee thank God, you see the situation.

    Cuckoo yes, the three language formula you talk about was given to us by able Planners after Independence, is still in force in all central Govt enterprises.

    It is Maharashtra and Gujarat that is causing disruption, often violating it. That is the point am making.

    You didnt read my article carefully – Marathi would be compulsory in an ICSE school, bec that follows the Central Govt’s three language formula, which is the sensible thing to do in here

    You cant expect a day labourer to pick up English, or other Languages, but owing to Hindi films, it is easier and afordable for him to pick up Hindi and therefore, survive the multilingual environment.

    Paul its nice to see you here again, and yes it is confusing – India is so confusing – and to quote you, “wd be me until the unavoidable happens/Be the Hell-Fighter when in Hell” ..thank you, Paul, please take care of yourself, my prayers are with you. Nearly always.

  20. @ Rolling : I disagree once again, Hindi is killing Punjabi, the new generation of our children can hardly speak the language or write it. They prefer to take Hindi as a first language and some even speak that at home. It is cool to speak Hindi somehow but you are rustic, ignorant and not fashionable if you speak Punjabi. So indeed we have to stop with Hindi here just to make sure our language survives. Somehow English has less of that effect on local Indian languages. It is the similarity of Hindi with other North Indian languages that is killing them. I am glad at least South Indians have not given up. Kudos to them.

  21. Odzer, it depends on the family environment. As Teacher, I often hear proud parents declaring ignorantly, “My boy doesn’t know Hindi, he only speaks English.” We sensitize them, show them how, lack of proficiency in the mother tongue deters learning the foreign language, bec as second language, we pick up that other language on the basis of the first.

    So the first language that he hears at home and around has to be embedded well. Most people don’t understand the language acquisition process and we have a great battle in school all the time 🙂

    Children fail to learn the mother tongue when parents fail to discipline them to it. I grew up outside Bengal, studied other languages, but at home, my mother imported Bangla books, music, newspaper and made sure I learned it. She made sure I wrote Bijoya letters in Bangla to all our relatives, it used to be a custom among Bengalis to write letters to greet people after Dussera. I can not only write in English, my Bangla is pretty good too, thanks to my mother.

    In our family circle everybody studied in convents, in various parts of the country, outside Bengal, yet, if you tried jharoing Eng in a family gathering, you would be booed/teased as “tash”/”memsahib” (Anglo) or a “show-off”. So you see, I have reason to believe, it depends on the mother and the family environment, not on the State.

    Odzer, would you really say, culture can be preserved by Law?. I value your opinion and would like you to consider this point if you would, please.

    Even in the US, conscious parents make sure their children pick up Tamil and Kolam, isn’t it?

  22. Rolling, our country does not have a national language. Hindi and English are the official languages of the Union Government while states legislate their own official languages. I will let you think about the difference between an official and national language.

    And having everything in the local language is important because 95 % of the population speaks and understands the local language and needs to have access to the state and its resources.

    Also is the fact that Punjabi/Marathi/Assamese/Tamil identities have been developed over centuries, whereas the ‘Indian’ identity has only been invented about 60 years ago and is meant to be a political not a cultural identity.

  23. Vikram, welcome 🙂 appreciate your joining the discussion. Would look at the EC reports once again and get back to you on this.

    However, as a practising ICSE Teacher, what I do know is that all Central Govt Schools will feature the 3 Language Formula.

    You are right, the State Govt schools are in deplorable state is why well-to-do middle class people pay more, to be in ICSE Convents, Private and CBSE schools.

    Also, there is (or at least should be none) no debate about “having everything in the local language is important because 95 % of the population speaks and understands the local language and needs to have access to the state and its resources”.

    However, point is to have a Common Language, strive to keep it Common in all sphere of socio-political life in India. Protest when that is violated in the name of enforcing State Rule. The Three Language Formula was good. It HAS to STAY. We have to make sure it stays functional! When they made me write an FIR in Gujarat in a anguage I didnt read, that amounted to divesting ME of a basic right!!! It shoud have been in one of the official languages – namely Hindi/ English 🙂

    While taking care of a State, it would be well, to also safeguard the interest of the Pan Indian interest. And ALL citizens, irrespective of their State (how in fact, do you decide which one your State is? I wasn’t even born in the State that is assigned to me by virtue of my mother’s language 🙂 )

  24. This one is very nice post Rolling!!
    I always thought about this language issue.. but I couldn’t come up with any solutions.. See these politicians playing with the feelings of the people in language too. In Tamilnadu, there is no government school which will taught Hindi. Due to this we are not able to sustain in North India. We are not able to communicate. But one good thing in TN is in many of the offices, buses and trains here along with tamil, english is also used. But in Karnataka it is very terrible. Where the bus routes are given only in Kannada and we could do anything but to ask our co-passengers about whether we can get into this bus or not.. Languages must be preserved but not at the cost of people’s convenience.

    • Kanagu, hi, welcome 🙂 you have already said it :Languages must be preserved but not at the cost of people’s convenience.
      Amen to that. Have addressed this again, in my, Open Letter to Vikram. Thanks.

  25. there are hundred and ten thoughts came to my mind as i read this, some positive some negative… i would refrain from writing anything. There are reasons for that.

    I wish that one day at least INDIA prevail… hope you know what i mean.

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