Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Indian breakfast

In the middle of Madhya Pradesh (2)

Certainly one of the things that surprised me the most when I arrived in India was to realize how little Indians actually speak English. Probably deceived by the fact that India has been for long time a British colony, and that English is one of the two official languages of the Republic (the other being Hindi), I expected Indians to be fluent in English.

However, this has soon proved to be a false myth. It’s true, educated Indians can be extremely articulated and refined in English. But the majority of Indians do not speak (or speak very poorly) English. And I am not (only) talking about the taxi driver, the petrol station attendant, or the shopkeeper in Old Delhi. I am also talking about several middle-management Government officials, hotel owners, and other categories of people you would expect must speak English for their day-to-day business.

One of the questions I always had thinking to the fact that English is the official language in India was how it was possible that in a country so rich culturally and linguistically, and at the same time so nationalist, a foreign language (the language of the colonizers!) became the official language. Interestingly enough, it was exactly because of such richness, diversity, and nationalist pride that English became (or, better, remained) India's official language.

In 1950 in fact, after the independence, the Indian Constitution declared Hindi, widely spoken in the Northern part of India, to be the official language of the Republic, and envisaged the gradual phasing-out of English (which was still used for most official purposes) over a fifteen-year period. However, towards the end of this interim period, several non-Hindi-speaking states, particularly from the South, strongly opposed to the end of the use of English. Basically, these states feared that the consequent adoption of Hindi as sole official language would have sanctioned the political supremacy of the North over the South, and progressively undermined their cultures and autonomy. As a result, the central Government decided that the use of English as official language of the Republic would have continued, and at the same time it allowed each state government to choose its own official language(s).

Today there are 22 'official' languages in use in the 35 states and territories. English has remained one of the two official languages of the Republic, mainly for political reasons, even if it is not one of the 22 official languages used in the Indian states, and even if no-one (or just a minority) actually speaks it.



  1. Ti conviene rimanere in India. Fra pochi anni, col federalismo, in Italia, ci saranno 20 lingue regionali + il tedesco in Alto Adige e il francese in Val D'Aosta, qualche migliaio di dialetti provinciali e comunali: tutti ufficiali. Non si sa se l'italiano rimarrĂ  lingua ufficiale

  2. e io che nemmeno parlo il milanese!