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Linguistic Populism in India

Updated: Apr 16, 2020

K.V.S. Prasad | 24 February 2020

The tragedy of India and its languages comes from shortsighted populist politics (majoritarian imposition and neglect of excellence) and popular responses (othering, fascist thuggeryand shortsighted “solutions”).

The linguistic situation in India

India has no national language but uses Hindi and English as official languages. About 25% of Indians are native Hindi speakers; by including languages like Bhojpuri as “dialects” [1], the percentage of “Hindi” speakers can be inflated to 43. There are 22 official regional languages, the largest several spoken by about 10% of Indians. The label “regional” makes Hindi “national” by contrast, though it too is localised, to north-central India. Even as a lingua franca, Hindi has poor coverage in south and north-east India. Indian languages are used for everyday speech, film, news, songs, entertainment and religion, but not for science, technology and business: here, India uses Indian English instead.

Consequence: Science = English

Only about 10% of Indians can digest a college-level English text, so science is for the few [2]. Even science-trained IL speakers use English technical words for all technical matter. These words make all scientific issues “foreign” (Sanskrit words don’t do this).

Proficiency in (Indian) English means access to higher levels of education and better jobs. It is a higher lingua franca, uniformly spread over India. The best written Indian English is excellent English, but spoken Indian English has largely the prosody of Indian Languages [3] and locks Indians out of English song and poetry. This difference in prosody can limit Indian English as a medium of thought for some purposes, and it may be that Indians who wish to work in these fields should learn native English as well as Indian English.

“English Medium” = the medium of instruction will usually be substandard Indian English.

Several groups associate all Indian language and texts with oppression and see “English” as the neutral outsider that also promises economic benefits. Globalisation strengthens this view, so even the poorest now want their children educated in the “English medium”, and states have started converting schools accordingly. In impoverished and rural schools, the few teachers who speak (Indian) English do so very badly, so the results will be devastating [4]. Children might learn neither language nor content, while [5] reveals how frighteningly bad the schools already are. Substandard Indian English already fails many at university or in the job hunt.

Poor language skills.

Some Indians speak good Indian English (prose only), but their Indian language skills can be poor. Most Indians speak their first languages well but rarely take them seriously. The prestige of English leads them to unnecessarily replace basic Indian language words with English ones. This does not help the speaker learn English, but does impoverish Indian language vocabulary and hinder word games and songs.

The three-language formula followed since the 1960s has meant local language + English + Hindi for most people. The latter two are typically poorly learned, and at best come up to lingua franca level. But many Indians have to work in these, leading to shoddy, uninspired work. Neighbours no longer learn each other’s languages, and instead communicate in bad English or bad Hindi, the hallmarks of India today.

Racism and xenophobia.

The central government relentlessly imposes Hindi, making it the de-facto national language. It supports no other language. The Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology works almost exclusively on Hindi [6]. A few translators could easily correct this and address the devastating consequences. For example, instructions on Indian oral rehydration solution packets are written exclusively in Hindi and English [5]. A few translators could easily correct this, and also, for example, the outrage that instructions on Indian oral rehydration solution packets are written exclusively in Hindi and English [5], thus saying to parents who cannot read either of these languages that their children might as well die.

Othering is widespread. People sing Hindi songs in “national” competitions where their pronunciation is mocked. Hindi films get laughs by merely showing a caricatured “South Indian”. Tarun Vijay of the BJP in 2017 stated, “If we (Indians) were racist, why would we ... live with South Indians? We have blacks…all around us”. Such patterns are repeated at the state level where powerless non- locals are othered.

How did India sink so low, and how can it rise?

Indian language policy has always meant what to impose, not how to enable. Hindi was chosen over Sanskrit as a de-facto national language to “help common people”. Unfortunately, it has only helped some common people, to the serious disadvantage of everyone else.

India does not need a national language. Instead, as in Europe, even the smallest state should use its own language at all levels. Most people will only need to understand English, while a few will need to speak and write it. To communicate within India, languages of learning (Sanskrit, Tamil, Urdu, ...), can be used. Languages like English and Sanskrit are seen by some as linked to oppression but offer much more than the oppressors’ views [7].

As in Europe, people can have the pleasure of hearing a well-spoken or sung regional language, instead of bad English or Hindi. Excellence is usually only possible in a first language, not in a lingua franca. Translation can be offered as needed and will provide welcome employment. A useful language attracts people, so the options suggested here should not be imposed, only offered.

Until the 1990s, the central government had a monopoly on large-scale broadcasts. Most programming, even entertainment, was “national” (read Hindi), with a few hours of local programming per day. Cable TV lifted these limitations, and most people now subscribe to local language channels, proving that Hindi was, indeed, imposed. Similarly, globalisation has made English valuable and shown that Hindi is unnecessary in areas of India that do not speak it. Reality has been wiser than bad planning.

Like Indonesia [8], India can choose languages that favour no one. Indonesia had to invent many words for Bhasa, but Sanskrit already has those words, embedded in every Indian language. Sanskrit is seen as restricted to Hindu liturgy; it should be restored to its status of a language of learning, as Latin was in Europe. Hebrew, and Tamil to some extent, show how to adapt a classical language to modern times.



[1] Vasudevan Sridharan. How does the world’s second most populous nation speak? Deutsche Welle, 2018.

[2] K. Vijay Raghavan (Principal Scientific Adviser Govt. of India). Science education in English is exclusionary. The Hindu, 21 April 2018.

[3] Pramod Pandey. Indian English Prosody. In Gerhard Leitner, Azirah Hashim, and Hans-Georg Wolf, editors, Communicating with Asia. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015.

[4] Anjali Mody. Lost for words: Why Tamil Nadu’s shift to English medium instruction is not helping children., 17 Aug 2017.

[5] ASER. Annual Status of Education Report, 2017.

[6] CSTT. Commission for Scientific and Technical Terminology, Main Page, 2018.

[7] E. D. Hirsch. Cultural Literacy. Houghton Miflin, 1987.

[8] S. Paauw. One land, one nation, one language: An analysis of Indonesia’s national language policy. University of Rochester Working Papers in the Language Sciences, 5(1):2–16, 2009.


K.V.S. Prasad is Associate Professor of Functional Programming at the Department of Computer Science, Chalmers University, Gothenburg, Sweden.


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