India is the world's second most populous country and is also very culturally, religiously, and lingually diverse. With over 22 languages that are recognized by the government and hundreds of other languages that are spoken within the country, it can be difficult to know what language the local people will speak when you visit India and which language (if any) you should learn before you travel.
In this article, we will explain everything you need to know about different languages of India including where they are spoken, the writing system and alphabet, how Indian languages are different from English, and some useful travel phrases.
The Different Languages of India
The languages spoken in India have ancient roots and belong to two major languages families. The majority of Indian languages belong to the Indo-Aryan family which is derived from Sanskrit and influenced strongly by Persian and Arabic. Most of North India speaks Indo-Aryan languages such as Hindi, Punjabi, and Bengali.
In southern India, most languages are from the Dravidian language family. This language family includes languages such as Tamil and Malayalam. The Dravidian languages are completely different from the Indo-Aryan languages spoken in the rest of the country.
Within these two language groups, there are many different languages and dialects. Below we will explain some of the most widely spoken Indian languages.
National Languages of India
Despite what many people believe, India does not have an official national language. Although there is a lot of debate about what language (if any) should be the national language of India, the two most likely candidates are Hindi and English because they are the most widely spoken across the country.
Hindi: Hindi is natively spoken by about 41% of the people in India and is the primary language spoken in Northern India. Hindi is the first language of people living in the states of Delhi, Haryana, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, and Chattisgarh.
Although other states in northern India do not speak Hindi as their first language, the people there will be able to understand Hindi as most Indians learn Hindi in school. Some states where Hindi is not natively spoken but is widely understood include West Bengal, Punjab, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Kashmir, and Kammu.
English: English was brought to India during its colonization by the British and has remained within the country as the lingua franca that helps Indians of many different native languages communicate. English is often used in the central government, on countrywide news channels, and in business.
English is widely understood and spoken in India and foreigners who are exploring Indian cities should have few problems 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.
Regional Languages of India
Almost every state in India has its own language or dialect. Although there are over 780 languages spoken in India, 22 languages are recognized by the government and some of the most widely spoken of these 22 are explained below.
Bengali: Bengali is a North Indian language spoken in the state of West Bengal and is the second most widely spoken language in India with over 83 million speakers. Bengali is considered to be a very poetic language and the national anthem of India was originally written in Bengali.
Telugu: Telugu is a South Indian Dravidian language that is spoken by around 74 million people in India and across the states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Yanam.
Marathi: Marathi is an Indo-Aryan language that has around 72 million speakers and is the official language of some states in western India including Goa and Maharashtra.
Tamil: Tamil is a Dravidian language that is spoken in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. This language has around 67 million speakers and is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world.
Urdu: 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 spoken mostly in Jammu and Kashmir and has over 59 million speakers in India.
Kannada: Like Tamil, Kannada is a South Indian Dravidian language and is one of the oldest surviving languages in the world. Kannada is spoken by the people in the state of Karnataka and has over 20 different dialects. Around 50 million people in India speak Kannada.
Other Indian Languages: Other equally important but less widely spoken regional languages of India include Gujarati, Punjabi, Assamese, Oriya, Malayalam, Konkani, Manipuri, Khasi, and Mizo.
Lingual Divide between the North and South
In the 1960s, the Indian government tried to pass a law that would make Hindi the official language of India, but this received major backlash by Indians from regions in South India where people speak languages from the Dravidian family.
The Dravidian languages such as Tamil and Kannada are actually the indigenous languages of ancient India and hold a lot of culture and heritage for those who speak it.
Although Hindi will get you by in most of India, speaking Hindi in southern India especially in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka can be seen as insulting.
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What Language Should You Learn before visiting India?
When traveling to India, it is not necessary to learn a new language because the majority of Indians speak English well. In big cities, most foreigners will have no problems getting by with English and in rural areas, you can always travel with a guide.
However, if you want to learn some Indian phrases, you will be able to impress the locals with your interest in their culture and you may make some new friends during your travels.
If you are only visiting one region in India, then the best idea is to learn a few phrases in that region's local language. However, if you are traveling across many regions in India, the best language to learn is Hindi as it is the most widely understood.
Indian Script and Alphabet
Each language in India uses a slightly different script although from an outside perspective it may be difficult to tell the difference between them. Unlike Mandarin, Indian scripts operate off of an alphabet with many different letters each of which makes a different sound.
Hindi and other Indo-Aryan languages use the Devanagari script which was taken from ancient Sanskrit and has 47 primary letters including 14 vowels and 33 consonants.
In Hindi writing, the vowels and consonants of words merge together to form one flowing shape. Written Hindi is easily recognizable by the horizontal line the runs across the top of every word. For example, the word India in Hindi is written इंडिया.
Indian Languages from a Foreigner's Perspective
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.
In this section, we will talk about some of the major differences between Indian languages, such as Hindi, and English.
Formality and Honorifics
One of the major differences between Indian languages 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 or uncle depending on their gender.
In Hindi, you can also sound respectful and polite by using the word ji (pronounced like gee). 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).
Consonants and Pronunciation
One of the best parts of learning an Indian language is that, unlike English, everything in Hindi is pronounced exactly as it is written and once you know all the sounds learning new words is easy. However, the downside of many Indian languages is that they include sounds that do not exist in English and are difficult for native English speakers to pronounce.
In Hindi, there are three different "r" sounds and two different "t" sounds. These differences in sound don't exist in English and many English speakers will have a hard time differentiating the sounds as well as pronouncing them.
Hindi also includes many consonants that are immediately followed by an "h" sound which don't exist in English. For example, in Hindi, there is a da sound and a dha sound as well as a ka sound and a kha sound. Depending on which one you use you can say a completely different word.
Although pronouncing words in Indian languages can be difficult for foreigners, even if you do 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.
Influence of English
One aspect of Indian languages that makes them easier to learn is that the English language has had a large influence in India. 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 people speak in a mixture of English and their native Indian language. In northern India speaking in Hinglish is very common and people in cities will carry on conversations while unpredictably switching between English and Hindi within the same sentence. This means that although as travelers you might not understand a lot of the conversations around you, you can still guess and interpret generally what people are saying.
Useful Phrases in Hindi
As Hindi is the most widely spoken language in India, when traveling in India it's a good idea to know some basic phrases that you can practice with the locals.
The first important word to know is thank you which is Hindi is shukriya (pronounced like shoo-cree-ya). Shukriya is a great word to use whenever you buy something or when someone helps you during your travels.
When traveling in India, it is also a good idea to know the words for yes and no in Hindi. Although everyone in India will understand the words "yes" and "no" in English. They may answer your questions using the Hindi versions which are haa (pronounced like hah) for yes and nah hi or naa (pronounced like nah-hee and nah)
Lastly, because India is a country with a high population, when using public transportation or when visiting busy tourist attractions you may want to say excuse me. In Hindi, there is no direct translation for excuse me, but Indians will often say "I'm sorry" when brushing past people instead. I'm sorry in Hindi is maaf keejiye (pronounced like maf-kee-gee-yay).
For more Hindi travel phrases please check out the article How to Say Hello in Hindi.
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