Person of Color Column: The languages of my nation

Since coming to America, people often say to me, “Your English is excellent for a…” and then they trail off from there.

I have encountered this statement, or something along these lines, at least once every time I travel to the United States from India. It always leaves me wondering—I speak English well, but in comparison to what? Compared to someone who isn’t from an English-speaking nation?

What sets India apart from many other countries, in terms of linguistics, is that we are a multilingual populace and do not have one or two main languages. This causes another misguided question I hear often: “Do you speak Indian?” There is no such language as “Indian.” I do, however, speak three Indian languagesEnglish, Hindi and Gujarati.

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Comedians of Indian origin, like Youtuber Lilly Singh and Patriot Act host Hasan Minhaj, have joked about people asking them if they spoke Indian or Hindu in their acts. It has become a sort of running joke in the Indian community, and it irritates me that people still ask me this. It should not be my responsibility to tell people what I speak or how, on account of their own ignorance.

I’m astounded that once people learn I am from India, they actually cannot believe I could speak English just like them. I understand that people outside of India may not receive education on the customs of my country. I myself am not aware of the cultures and practices of all 197 countries in the world, but asking me why I know English is quite offensive. The reason Americans speak English is because of British colonization.

In America, people don’t feel weird when they hear previously colonized Australians, Canadians, and South Africans speak English. Yet, I always wonder why. The British colonized India for 200 years from 1757 to 1947. India only gained its independence 71 years ago. An awareness of India’s history would make it clear why many Indians speak English.

More English speakers live in India than Britain. According to a 2011 census of India, about 127 million English speakers reside in the country. The population of the United Kingdom is about 66 million, according to the United Kingdom 2017 census. According to the above numbers, India has the second highest number of English speakers in the world, behind the United States.

English is also an official language of India but not the official language, because India fosters 22 official languages. Even with 127 million English speakers, that only makes up about 10 percent of the population of the country. People may wonder why all of India doesn’t speak English—this is because the British never actually settled in India as they did in the other English-speaking countries. The British influenced Indian culture and language, but did not wipe it out as they did in Australia and North America. Colonization heavily influenced us, but we retained our traditions and population, unlike the aboriginals and Native Americans. The culture and languages of these places have been minimized and even lost, while our culture and languages stayed. By virtue of these, we have retained our original languages in addition to English. So not everyone speaks English unlike in North America and Australia where the majority of the population speaks English.

Another popular question is, “Do you speak Hindu?” I practice Hinduism but I speak Hindi, English, and Gujarati. The more culturally aware people often ask me, “Do you speak Hindi?”

The first question is offensive in many ways. You are asking someone if they speak a religion. It would be like me asking a Muslim, “Do you speak Islam?” I find it hard to believe that people are not aware of the Hindu religion—it is the third largest in the world. Most people in the western world know yoga and Ayurveda, one of the world’s oldest holistic healing practices, so it is unlikely that they don’t know that “Hindu” is a religious identity. By asking this, people minimize India to a Hindu nation. A common view in the western world is the generalized notion that Indians only practice Hinduism.

India’s preamble to the constitution starts with the declaration that India is a secular nation. While Hinduism is the dominant religion, Indians practice a multitude of faiths.   

Many people assume Hindi is India’s national language. I assumed that Hindi was our “Rashtra bhaasha,’’(राष्ट्र भाषा) meaning national language, for a long time, which trivialized those who did not speak Hindi. Large regions of India do not speak Hindi—most of South India does not.

My South Indian friend who studies in the United States was once asked if he spoke Hindi. He said no, he spoke Tamil, one of the 22 official languages, and the language of the state Tamil Nadu. The man asking him expressed shock. “How could an Indian not know Hindi?”

To top that off, politicians keep pushing Hindi to be the de-facto language of the country which is unfair to those who do not speak it. India represents a diverse land full of different languages. Every state operates with a different language or dialect. Further, state regions have different dialects of the same language. In total, there are 19,569 languages deliberated by the census if you count the different dialects, older languages, or those spoken by a very small population.

English and Hindustani, a term for the almost alike languages of Hindi and Urdu, are very widely spoken across states in India. While other languages are primarily spoken statewide, the census determines that these languages still have millions of speakers. An Indian may speak one of these, none of these, or few of these. But they are all equally Indian, and their languages are equally important.

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