Language of India
One of the reasons that travelers fall in love with India is its incredible diversity of religions, people, cultures, and languages. India is one of the most linguistically diverse countries in the world with 22 languages officially recognized by the government and hundreds of dialects and languages that are spoken.
The most widely-spoken languages in India are Hindi and English, but almost every state in the county has its own dialect or regional language.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about the languages of India including the most spoken languages, where they are spoken, the ancient languages of India, whether or not you should learn some Hindi Before your trip, and some useful travel phrases.
Languages of India
So now you may be wondering, what is the official language of India?
While the question seems easy to answer, in India's case it is not so straightforward. Every state in India has its own language and while Hindi is the most widely spoken, it is only natively spoken by 9 of the 29 states of India.
To make communication and legislation easier, the Indian government has chosen Hindi and English to be the official languages used in anything relating to government affairs.
However, according to the eighth schedule of the Indian constitution, every state is allowed to choose its own official language. Today Indian has 22 official languages which are commonly called "scheduled languages".
Because of this linguistic diversity, India has no national language. When the country became independent in 1949, there were attempts to make Hindi the national language, but this spurred protests in South India where the languages that are spoken are from an entirely different language family.
Check out the map below to see what regions of India speak which languages.
Top 10 Most Spoken Languages in India
There are over 780 languages spoken in India including the scheduled languages, their dialects, and the local languages of minority peoples. Below we have listed the top 10 most spoken languages in India as well as where they are primarily spoken.
To help you understand the differences between these languages, we'll show the translation for the word 'red' in each one.
Speakers: 551 million
Where: Delhi, Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Chattisgarh speak Hindi as their first language.
Hindi is an Indo-Aryan language that stems from ancient Sanskrit and is natively spoken by about 41% of the people in India. Hindi is the primary language of North India and around 60% of Indians can understand and speak Hindi.
In North India, people from states that do not speak Hindi as their first language will still understand Hindi. Most Indians in North India learn Hindi in school along with English and the scheduled language of their state.
Some states where Hindi is not natively spoken but is widely understood include West Bengal, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Jammu and Kashmir.
Red in Hindi:
Speakers: 83 million
Where: West Bengal and Assam
Bengali is a North Indian language originating from the state of West Bengal. Bengali and Hindi are both entirely different languages but both originate from Sanskrit so some words and grammar structures are similar across the two languages.
Bengali is considered to be a very poetic language and the national anthem of India was originally written in Bengali.
Bengali is also the official language of Bangladesh as India's West Bengal and the country of Bangladesh were once one cultural region until they were separated during the partition of India in 1949.
Red in Bengali:
Speakers: 72 million
Where: Maharashtra and its neighboring states
Marathi is the official language of the state of Maharashtra which is located on the eastern coast of India and contains the booming city of Mumbai. Marathi is closely related to Hindi and is also spoken in Goa.
Records have shown that Marathi is over 1500 years old. Along with Bengali.
Red in Marathi:
Speakers: 71 million
Where: Andhra Pradesh, Telangana
Telugu is a South Indian language that belongs to the Dravidian language family. Out of all the South Indian languages, Telugu has the most speakers worldwide.
Red in Telugu:
Speakers: 67 million
Where: Tamil Nadu
Tamil is the primary language of the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu and is one of the Dravidian languages. Tamil is widely considered to be the oldest language in the world that is still actively spoken today and is one of the classical languages of India along with Sanskrit.
Tamil is also spoken in Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia.
Red in Tamil:
Speakers: 55 million
Gujarati is a North Indian language that is related to Hindi and derived from Sanskrit. Gujarati is the language of the people of Gujarat who are widely considered to be great entrepreneurs and merchants.
Mahatma Gandhi was a native Gujarati speaker and helped to create a resurgence of Gujarati literature in India.
Red in Gujarati:
Speakers: 51 million
Where: Jammu and Kashmir
Urdu is a North Indian language that is a sister language to Hindi. Hindi speakers often use many words from Urdu and most people who speak Hindi can understand those that speak Urdu and vice versa.
Urdu is the official language of Pakistan. Much of North Indian poetry and music is written in Urdu and it is widely considered to be a beautiful and poetic language in India.
Red in Urdu:
سرخ — Laal
Speakers: 44 million
Like Tamil, Kannada is a South Indian Dravidian language and is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world. Kannada is the major language in the state of Karnataka and has over 20 different dialects.
Red in Kannada:
9. Odia or Oriya
Speakers: 38 million
Odia or Oriya is the official language of the coastal state of Odisha and is one of the North Indian languages and comes from Sanskrit. Odia is also spoken by small communities in the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, and Andhra Pradesh.
Red in Odia:
Speakers: 35 million
Malayalam is the official language of the state of Kerala and is also spoken by some minority groups in neighboring states. The Malayalis, or speakers of Malayalam, are one of the only groups in India with a 100% literacy rate.
Malayalam is an offshoot of the Old Tamil language and is thought to have separated from Tamil in the 7th century.
Red in Malayalam:
ചുവപ്പ് — Cuvapp
Other Scheduled Languages
Some of the other important official languages of India include Punjabi, Assamese, Konkani, Khasi, Mizo, Kashmiri, Nepali, Manipuri, and Sanskrit.
English Language in India
So if all these languages are spoken in India, how do Indians communicate?
The answer is that they will often use English.
English was brought to India by the British and has been widely used as the one language that almost everyone has in common in India. In large cities, all children are taught how to speak English in school and English is often used in the central government, on countrywide news channels, and in business.
Indian languages and English have a long history of exchanging words and many Indians today will use certain English phrases such as 'hi', 'bye', and 'cheers' instead of saying them in their native language.
When traveling in India, it is very normal to hear locals speaking a mixture of English and their native Indian language. In North India, many people speak Hinglish and will carry on conversations while unpredictably switching between English and Hindi within the same sentence.
Foreigners who are exploring Indian cities and developed tourist areas should have no problem getting around by just speaking English. However, if you are traveling to rural areas in India it is less likely that the locals will understand English and it will be necessary to bring a guide who speaks the local language.
What Language Should You Learn Before Traveling to India?
You do not have to learn a new language before traveling to India because English is understood almost everywhere. However, learning a few phrases in the local language is a good way to impress locals and make them act more warmly towards you.
Which language you should learn depends on where you want to travel to in India. Most first-time visitors to India explore the Golden Triangle cities of North India which include Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra. All three of these places speak Hindi as their first language.
If you are spending most of your time in North India, then your best bet is to learn a few phrases in Hindi because they will be understood by most people.
If you are spending a considerable amount of time in South India, you can consider picking up some phrases in Tamil, Kannada, or Tegulu.
How Hard is it to Learn Hindi?
Learning a new language is always difficult and it is especially daunting when that language is very different from your native language. If you grew up speaking English, then the languages of India will look and sound very foreign to you.
The two major aspects of Hindi that foreigners can find a little frustrating to understand when learning Hindi are the pronunciation and honorifics.
One of the best parts of learning Hindi is that, unlike English, everything in Hindi is pronounced as it is written and once you know all the sounds learning new words is easy.
However, the downside of Hindi is that it includes sounds that do not exist in English and are difficult for native English speakers to pronounce.
In Hindi, there are three R sounds and two T sounds. These different sounds don't exist in English and many English speakers will have a hard time differentiating between them and pronouncing them.
Hindi also includes many consonants that are immediately followed by a ha sound which don’t exist in English. For example, in Hindi, there is a consonant that sounds like da and another that sounds like dha. There is also a ka and a kha.
Depending on which one you use you can say a completely different word. For example, khaana means 'food' or 'to eat' whereas kaana means 'one-eyed'.
Although pronouncing words in Hindi can be difficult for foreigners, even if you get the pronunciation wrong it is likely that the people you are speaking to will still understand what you want to say and just be happy that you are trying to learn their language.
Formality and Honorifics
One of the major differences between Hindi and English is the use of honorifics. In Indian culture, respect for age and social position are both very important and this is strongly reflected in their languages.
In India, it is seen as impolite to call someone who is older than you or of a higher social standing by their first name. Instead, there are many honorifics (respectful titles) that should be used.
The Indian honorifics system is quite complicated but in most of India, if you are referring to someone who is older than you, you can call them auntie if they are a woman or uncle if they are a man.
In Hindi, you can also sound respectful and polite by using the word ji (pronounced like the letter G). Ji is similar to the Japanese word san and is an honorific that can be added to the end of a person's name to show respect.
For example, if you are talking to another person who is named Deepak and you want to be respectful you can call them Deepakji (pronounced like Dee-pak-gee).
Useful Hindi Travel Phrases
For more Hindi travel phrases check out our complete guide to How to Say Hello in Hindi.
Visit India with Asia Highlights
Want to learn more about the rich culture and heritage of India? At Asia Highlights we can help you plan a tailor-made trip to see the vast lingual, cultural, and religious diversity of India. Our travel advisors will help you decide which cities to visit as well as which attractions and activities you'll like the most so that you can have the trip of a lifetime.