THE BLOG

Understanding India's Deep Linguistic Divisions

06/02/2014 12:21 GMT | Updated 07/04/2014 10:59 BST

You'd think from popular portrayals of India's rise as a global outsourcing power on the basis of its citizens' English-speaking abilities, that the language would be a common denominator in uniting a country of over 1.2 billion people.

If anything, English--which is spoken by just 10 percent of the population--symbolizes how it's become a default substitute to tide over deep linguistic divisions in a country that has 22 languages recognized by the constitution, and over 122 in a census carried out by the government.

India speaks in many voices and that's both a challenge and an opportunity.

Heartburn over Hindi

So what of the Rashtra Bhasha (National Language), Hindi? Like with English, there's more to it than meets the eye.

Hindi, for one, is spoken by just under 50 percent of the population. Only 40 percent or so of Indians list it as their primary language. For many it is the second or third language, adopted by them with a degree of resistance and resentment.

These bad vibes are most acutely felt in southern India. "Imposition of Hindi" has been a political rallying cry there since the country's independence. With four fully developed languages manifesting themselves in a rich tradition of literature, poetry, and modern art such as cinema, any move to Hindi would have been both incongruent and unintelligent.

India's founding fathers, therefore, were only too eager to allow English to continue as both a pragmatic and face saving option--the usual benefits from a status quo.

The First Language

The colonial compromise, however, ignored an undercurrent of Indian society. English was far from being a lowest common denominator; if anything using it fluently was a sign of being a "brown saheb" (Brown Englishman), a first among India's teeming millions.

Those who had access to schools run by missionaries or clones of such schools founded by the newly emerged brown sahebs could wax eloquent in the Queen's English and avail of the best educational and job opportunities. The rest would just have to fend for themselves.

And aspirational India did just that. The 1980s in particular saw an explosion of "English-medium" schools, some literally operating from a hole in the wall, as well as a self-learning book for English that became a household Indian name.

Those who did get left behind collectively constituted the vernacular audience. They may be each speaking a different vernacular, but they shared a common bond--no one in the English speaking world was interested in them as a market.

Would the Internet be this white knight?

New Tech Meets Old Tech

Before jumping on the Internet bandwagon though, it is essential to understand how technology has transformed India's old media, and the vernacular debate since the turn of the millennium.

Today, of the over 800 registered publications in the country, 46% are in vernacular languages, 44 percent in Hindi, and only 10 percent in English. Media baron Rupert Murdoch's flagship STAR satellite TV group today operates channels in major Indian vernaculars such as Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, and Marathi.

They aren't just making up the numbers either--STAR's revenues from vernacular channels account for 27% of the total. For homegrown-competitor Zee, that figure is 30%. Southern Indian supremo SUN TV only broadcasts vernacular content across its portfolio of 15 channels, not that its owners aren't adept at political wheeling and dealing to sustain their rise.

New Media though is where all the action is, and how could India remain indifferent?

The Foreign Hand

The success of homegrown Internet websites and social networks in China and Japan stands out in stark contrast to the anemic performance of their Indian counterparts. The argument goes that the Googles and Facebooks of the world don't face the language obstacle in India because of the use of English.

This conveniently ignores the fact that Facebook is available in five other vernaculars apart from Hindi and that Twitter is available in both Hindi and Urdu. Google, which has been public about its plans to grow on the basis of vernacular languages, is today accessible in nine Indian languages. A more self-confident Indian is no longer shy about expressing itself in their tongue of birth and global digital brands are queuing up to give them voice.

Every aspect of the digital ecosystem seems to be working to this plan. India's vernacular speakers are mostly concentrated in the rural hinterland where the mobile phone is their primary mode of communication, including increasingly to access the Internet. This is why players such as Samsung are taking the lead in vernacular support in their products.

While the next generation of technology may bring another unique twist to the tale of different tongues, we can all agree that a Star Trek-like universal translator is still some way off. It would also be presumptuous to think that the political and societal implications of India's language divide are largely a thing of the past.

As the critically acclaimed "Bollywood" movieEnglish Vinglish brought out so poignantly, the language of India's erstwhile overlords still sparks off some deep-seated fears and insecurities in Indians who grew up in the past millennium.

Unfortunately, past assertions of vernacular independence against both English and Hindi have degenerated into political posturing, sometimes violent. The introduction of both technology and commerce into the vernacular issue will hopefully now make for a strong and compelling argument which should be easy to understand in any language.