Language in India

I was watching the movie Chak De! India this weekend. It features characters from every state in India meeting in New Delhi to form a field hockey team.

The dialogue of the movie was Hindi (please correct me if I’m wrong) with English subtitles. In the movie they did address that some of the characters couldn’t speak Hindi because that’s not what is spoken where they’re from (such as the girl from Jharkhand, which is “the jungle”).

Some of the field hockey terms were clearly English loan words.

However, there is a scene with two 20-something people, a man and a woman, speaking to each other in a hotel room very casually. They speak Hindi then clearly switch to English for some sentences - not sentences about sports - and then back to Hindi.

This happens in a few other conversations in the movie. A quick transition to English and then back to Hindi.

My question is…what’s up with that?


You’re not wrong; it’s a Hindi-language film. Indians quite commonly switch between Hindi and English when discussing certain topics, and to a lesser extent between regional languages.

I have a young friend from Delhi and when I hear her on the phone to her friends I understand about 30% of what they’re talking about. Young middle-class Indians seem to go into English for entire sentences then switch back to their own language (e.g. she speaks Hindi, Punjabi, English and Urdu).

Interestingly - and try to get your head round this - in my observation of Facebook they also use romanized transliteration to express borrowed words from English. I.e. the word has gone from English into their own dialect, then they romanize that. Most obvious example is “fren” for “friend”.

I just c&Ped this from her wall re her visiting me (hope I’m not compromising her privacy): Thanks Bhai, yeah had a good trip but abhi main apni pics daali nahi hai bas mere fren ne upload kari hai apni. Wait for more :). Anyhow, how are you doing?

(Is she saying I didn’t upload her pictures? If so it’s a lie!)

Wow that’s awesome! Can’t believe I’ve never heard of this before. Language is so fascinating :slight_smile:

I have not uploaded my own pictures yet, my friend has uploaded his.

I have been part of conversations where they have spoken in three or four languages including English.
This is a South Asia wide phenomena and cuts across classes. English is the official language after all.

Keep in mind that English is one of the official languages of India.

and it’s not restricted to India - I was in a restaurant in Ottawa a while ago, in a group with unilingual anglos, bilingual anglos, and bilingual francos. When I was talking with the francophones, we all kept switching back and forth between English and French, as seemed convenient.

This is true. Filipinos do this all the time. Pilipino, English, Pilipino, English all in the same sentence. Sometimes when I listen to my wife talk to her relatives I think I can understand Pilipino till I realize they’re doing the back and forth thing.

The other thing to keep in mind that is that not only does India have lots of different languages spoken inside her borders, but some are not even in the same language family as the others. Tamil, spoken largely in the south is not an Indo-European language.

It’s like having a country where people speak English, Dutch, German and French in one part, and Japanese in other parts.

Much of the prestige schooling is taught in English, too.

Not with English, but it’s been done by Basque speakers with whatever the other dominant local language is since at least Roman times; it’s common among bilingual people in general. I’ve done it with EN-ES and CAT-ES… nothing special about it, sometimes a language will be briefer than the other, or has a better word for the concept you’re trying to express; sometimes you can remember the right word in one language but not in the other.

It’s a worldwide multilingual phenomenon.

I was in a vanpool to work where I was the only Anglo, with 6 Indians. It was fascinating – I think the 6 had 4 different native languages.

Just to confirm the above, Hindi and English are used to bridge the communication gaps; it appears that many (especially well-traveled) Indians are bi-, tri- or more lingual. One of the vanpoolers said that he could look through the work phone directory, and based on someone’s last name he knew what Indian state they were from, and therefore what language he should speak.

And it also appears that there is a big divide between north and south – linguistically, religiously, culturally, gastronomically. One trip home included a heated discussion on Hindu theology between one northerner and one southerner.

It’s possible for an American to get the idea that bilingualism is rare and that changing languages in mid-conversation is extremely rare. It’s possible for an American to get the idea that learning more than one language in childhood takes a particularly intelligent child. Far from it. I’ve seen an estimate that more than half of the world’s population speaks more than one language natively (i.e., since childhood). Changing languages in mid-sentence is quite common. Bilingualism and trilingualism just aren’t that big a deal.

In India and Pakistan, most people are Trilingual. They can speak their own regional tongue, Hindi(India), Urdu(Pakistan) as well as English. Its not uncommon to know one or more other regional languages as well.

Also, English is not a “prestige” language, it the language of the Courts, the Government, most business, Contracts, quite a bit of entertainment, almost all higher education etc etc. Knowing English is essential.

Happens at my office in the lunchroom all the time; many of my co-workers are born to Mexican parents and grew up speaking both English and Spanish. Sometimes we get Polish/English hybrids too. And then there was the one paralegal who was a native Polish speaker who also spoke Spanish…

My (Salvadoran-American) college roomie and I used to have fun trying to outwit her parents. They spoke English fairly fluently, but not as idiomatically as we did. So we’d do things like literal translations of slang into Spanish so we could tell secrets in full earshot without her parents understanding.

Yep. Common here with for instance Algerians who are typically fully bilingual in Arabic or Berber and French. When I was a kid in southern French countryside, people would similarly freely switch from Occitan to French.

Yep, grew up in a Polish family here, and we do this all the time. I don’t speak Polish as much as I used to, so I generally stay in English, but my folks will speak Polish, go into English, and I’ll take the occasional dip into Polish, too. I don’t even realize it’s being done; I’ve often turned to my wife asking her for input on the conversation, and she turns to me and she says “You realize I don’t speak Polish, right?” :smack: She basically just hears my half of the conversation.

Another thing common to Americans is the belief that English is only spoken in north America and by a few people on a small island off the coast of Europe.

I’ve had occasion before to say that Commonwealth English is a better term than “British” English, as it’s spoken, to a greater or lesser extent, by about a third of the world’s population.

US English is the minority dialect, not Commonwealth English.

Hindi is widely spoken in Jharkand. As a general rule, the North of India speaks Hindi (along with the local language, and to a lesser extent English) and the South prefers not to (preferring the local language or English instead).

Language switching is very common in India, sometimes using even 3 or 4 languages in a regular conversation. What’s interesting to note is that the switching occurs even when speaking to the same person or persons (as opposed to speaking to different people in the group using their preferred language of communication). Additionally, using a few English words in a predominantly Hindi conversation (or vice versa) is also very common, although these are usually the same words (as you probably noticed in the movie; I haven’t seen it). There is no general rule that determines which sentences/topics are spoken in one language versus another; it all just seems very natural and fluid to the speakers.