Misconceptions about India’s multiple languages abound, ranging from the belief that the most widely spoken language in the country is called “Hindu,” to the idea that India’s hundreds of languages are all related, all the way to the assumption that there even is a majority language.
These are false. The most widely spoken language, Hindi, is in fact only spoken by a plurality, and it is more closely related to romance languages than to the languages of the south, such as Tamil or Telugu. We Hindi-trackers have better odds of understanding Spanish-trackers than we do of conversing with someone from Chennai in their native tongue.
So how do Indians comprehend themselves as a nation given this linguistic hodgepodge? If half of Indians cannot, without English, speak to each other, how do they come to see themselves as a common citizenry?
From Independence to today, fierce debate rages on the topic of national identity. Many celebrate such diversity as inherent to India’s unique identity. Others liken India more to a federation of states than a single unified nation-state. Still more advocate for a greater forging of common bonds through mass adoption of a single language, usually Hindi or English, which holds little cultural significance in and of itself, but, thanks to India’s colonial past, acts as a neutral common tongue. Indeed, English has become so interwoven into daily Indian life that few people speak pure Hindi, instead opting for a mixture of the two, Hinglish.
Within our stay thus far, the topic of language has been constantly in discussion. Our motivations for improving our command of the language vary person to person and so do our views on the role of Hindi in an India in transition – a country many say is split between the “India” of the modern elites and the “Bharat” of the rural poor. Cultural and linguistic diversity in India prompts us to consider other questions such as: does our education fit in with nationalist movements pushing for more adoption of Hindi in social, academic and professional situations where English has become the lingua franca? Or, do we see ourselves in the language of a plurality, albeit a much more scholarly version? And what is the future of Hindi in India?
Despite being clearly agreed in the desire to dramatically improve our Hindi for whatever reasons, we haven’t come to any conclusions yet on the questions above. Having joined a sixty-plus year old debate fairly recently, we’ll give it a little more time.
– Lauder Hindi Language and Culture Program, Class of 2017
Neha Goel, Manu Mohan, Nidhi Shah and Aroon Vijaykar