8 Facts Businesses Need to Know About Languages in India

Earlier this week, on the 15th of August, India celebrated its Independence Day.  In the 70 years since it was founded, India has made itself into one of the world’s largest and fastest-growing economies. To celebrate, let’s take a look at 8 things businesses need to know about languages in India.

English is an official language in India . . .  but that doesn’t mean your organization can get away without translation services.

English and Hindi are the two main languages used by the Central Government. But even when you include people who speak English as a second language, only 12% of India’s population speaks it. So, if you want to reach more than just a small percentage of the people there, you’ll need to translate into some local languages, too.

Hindi is the most commonly spoken language in India.

With as many as 551 million total speakers, Hindi is the most common language in India. It’s also the 4th most common language in the world in terms of native speakers. Even so, translating your content into Hindi will only make it accessible to 53% of the population.

That’s because . . .

India has 122 major languages and up to 1599 other languages.

India is a vast country, and it contains multitudes, of both people and languages. According to the 2001 Indian Census, there are 122 “major languages” spoken by more than 10,000 people.

That said, some of these languages are more commonly spoken than others.

India has 22 “scheduled” languages.

Obviously, different languages predominate in different regions. So, while Hindi and English are the languages used by the central government, the states also have the power to set their own official languages.

The Indian Constitution recognizes 22 of these languages as “scheduled languages”. These languages are used by state and local governments. Additionally, the Indian government is required to protect them and encourage their development.

The 22 scheduled languages are: Assamese, Bengali, Bodo, Dogri, Gujarati, Hindi, Kannada, Kashmiri, Konkani, Maithili, Malayalam, Manipuri, Marathi, Nepali, Odia, Punjabi, Sanskrit, Santali, Sindhi, Tamil, Telugu, and Urdu. Read more

Indian Beggars Become Multilingual

Are you more likely to give money to someone who asks you for it in your native language? According to this article from The Sun, beggars and street performers in New Delhi are becoming multilingual, hoping to increase their haul from foreign tourists during the Commonwealth Games next year. Although most of the tourists expected for the games will probably speak English, beggars are adding languages like French and Spanish to their repertoire as well.

Many of the beggars are children who were born into families of beggars. Although most of these children will never receive formal schooling, the beggars of New Delhi have set up “language schools” of their own.

Classes usually take place at night, and consist of learning helpful phrases in other languages, such as “I am an orphan.” Beggars are also trained to recognize foreign currency and determine its value.

Begging is actually an organized occupation in New Delhi, with an estimated 100,000 beggars in the city. Beggars are assigned specific places and times to beg, and move around so that no one beggar is in the same place for too long.

The entire enterprise of begging is targeted to achieve the maximum amount of profit possible. Why learn to beg in more than one language? According to a beggar quoted in the Sun article, it adds a “personal touch” to begging. As businesses are learning the world over, it pays to speak to your customer in his or her native language!

Indian Children's Story Translation Project Unites Communities

India is an immense country, and its borders encompass many different cultures. According to Ethnologue, 452 individual languages are spoken there, which means that many communities are divided by language barriers. Now, a new translation project is using children’s stories to build bridges between the different language communities in the Northeast portion of the country.

According to the Indian Express, the project involves translating traditional children’s stories from six different languages:

  • Assamese, the official language of Assam.
  • Bodo, the language of Assam’s Bodo people.
  • Khasi , the language of the Khasi people, who live in the state of  Meghlaya, Assam and in Bangladesh.
  • Garo, spoken by the Garo tribe in Meghalaya.
  • Manipuri, the primary language spoken in the state of Manipur.
  • Mizo, the  language of the Mizo people of the state of Mizoram.

The project involves taking six stories from each of these languages,  translating them into English and then translating them into each of the other languages.  Then, published editions of the stories will be made available in each language so that children from the different regions can read each other’s stories. It’s a fun way to connect neighboring communities with different cultures.

Professor A C Bhagabati, the regional head of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, which underwrote the project, told the Indian Express that the project “is a massive initiative to promote inter-cultural and literary exchanges among the six languages. An effort of such a magnitude has never taken place in the country.”

Arup Kumar Dutta, a popular Indian children’s author who assisted with the project, called the project “a rediscovery of the colourful multi-ethnic heritage of the Northeastern region….And once these books are brought out in English (which is not included in the current project), the rest of the world will also get an interesting insight into the world of children literature in the region.”

We can’t wait to see the results!

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New Language Discovered in India, Race is On to Preserve It

A group of American linguists just announced the discovery of a new language in a remote region of India. The language, called Koro, was discovered during a 2008 expedition to Arunachal Pradesh, according to the Independent.

The interesting thing about the discovery of Koro is that it was “hiding in plain sight.” Koro speakers are part of the Aka culture, and live in villages where most of their neighbors speak Aka. While the two languages are in fact very different, Koro and Aka speakers consider themselves one people, and treat Koro as if it were a dialect of Aka, instead of a “distant sister,” as the linguists described it.

K. David Harrison, one of the linguists on the expedition, told the Telegraph that when it comes to the Koro speakers:

“There’s a sort of a cultural invisibility; they’re culturally identical in what they wear, what they eat, the houses they live in…. They just happen to have a different word for everything.”

It should be noted that there is some controversy over whether or not Koro is in fact a new discovery. According to the Telegraph, linguists from the Assam chapter of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage are claiming that Koro was known to Indian linguists before the  American linguists  documented it.

Whether it’s really a “new” language or not, Koro only has between 800 and 1,200 speakers, so now the race is on to try and preserve it, if possible. A language dies out about every two weeks, and language preservation expert Tabu Ram Taid told the Telegraph that:

“Koro might have met the same fate. But the point is now to preserve Koro. Apart from speaking, one must develop writing the language to prevent it from vanishing.”

British Diplomats To Learn "Hinglish"

British diplomats stationed in India are being strongly encouraged to learn “Hinglish,” a hybrid of English, Hindi and other South Asian languages that has caught fire over the past decade and is now widespread throughout the country.

In a 2004 article on the rise of Hinglish, the Christian Science Monitor called it “a bridge between two cultures that has become an island of its own, a distinct hybrid culture for people who aspire to make it rich abroad without sacrificing the sassiness of the mother tongue.”

Since then, it’s basically become India’s preferred method of communication. English words and syntax mix freely with that of Hindi (and other local languages), often even in the same sentence, as Indians switch back and forth to use the language they feel will best help them get their point across.

The International Business Times quotes Abha Sinha, a professor of informational technology at the University of Toledo in Ohio, who wrote that Hinglish is now more common than either Hindi or English:

“Hindi language magazines and periodicals are harder to come by in the U.S. and the Hindi film industry now uses ‘Hinglish’; an amalgamation of Hindi and English. Communications with friends and relatives too has become Hinglish-ized!”

British diplomats used to be able to get by just knowing English, which has been the language of the Indian elite since colonial days. But now, local languages are not stigmatized, and there’s no taboo against introducing them even into predominantly English settings. If you don’t know the local lingo, you can easily miss half the conversation.

In an article in the Telegraph, a British high commission spokesman explained:

“The Foreign Office is placing increasing importance on the ability to transact business in foreign languages. English news channels often have a portion where people choose to express themselves in Hindi because it captures what they’re trying to say better than the English equivalent, so it’s increasingly important for British diplomats to be able to appreciate the nuances.”

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Survey Says: Native Languages Best for Ads

Indian marketing firm Ozone Media has a message for companies doing business there: Translate your ads into local languages for best results. That’s the takeaway from a new survey the company just released that compares the response rates of online ads in English versus ads in local languages –  at least for most products and services.

The exception to this rule, oddly enough, was in the “matrimony” category. The study found that resident Indians, Indians still living and working in India, were more responsive to English-language ads for matchmaking services. Meanwhile, non-resident Indians, those living and working outside the country, were more responsive to ads in their local languages. Perhaps this is due to homesickness and nostalgia? Read more