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Explained: The languages India speaks

Hindi is the mother tongue of 44% of Indians in Census 2011; the rest speak 120 other languages

Written by Kabir Firaque | New Delhi |
Updated: April 28, 2022 4:53:41 pm
The 2011 linguistic census accounts for 121 mother tongues, including 22 languages listed in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. (File)

Last week, Home Minister Amit Shah suggested that states should communicate with each other in Hindi rather than English, while stressing that Hindi should not be an alternative to local languages. “When citizens of states who speak other languages communicate with each other, it should be in the language of India,” Shah was quoted by the Home Ministry as having said at the meeting of the Parliamentary Official Language Committee.

Opposition parties have criticised this as “Hindi imposition”. In the Northeast, organisations such as the Asam Sahitya Sabha and the North East Students’ Organisation have protested against Shah’s statement that the states of the region would make Hindi compulsory up to class 10 in schools.

How widely is Hindi spoken in India?

The 2011 linguistic census accounts for 121 mother tongues, including 22 languages listed in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution. Hindi is the most widely spoken, with 52.8 crore individuals, or 43.6% of the population, declaring it as their mother tongue. The next highest is Bengali, mother tongue for 9.7 crores (8%) — less than one-fifth of Hindi’s count (Chart 2).

In terms of the number of people who know Hindi, the count crosses more than half the country. Nearly 13.9 crore (over 11%) reported Hindi as their second language, which makes it either the mother tongue or second language for nearly 55% of the population.

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Source: Census of India data

Has it always been this widespread?

Hindi has been India’s predominant mother tongue over the decades, its share in the population rising in every succeeding census. In 1971, 37% Indians had reported Hindi as their mother tongue, a share that has grown over the next four censuses to 38.7%, 39.2%, 41% and 43.6% at last count (Chart 1).

This begs the question as to which mother tongues have declined as Hindi’s share has risen. A number of mother tongues other than Hindi have faced a decline in terms of share, although the dip has been marginal in many cases. For example, Bengali’s share in the population declined by just 0.14 percentage points from 1971 (8.17%) to 2011 (8.03%). In comparison, Malayalam (1.12 percentage points) and Urdu (1.03 points) had higher declines among the mother tongues with at least 1 crore speakers in 2011. Punjabi’s share, on the other hand, rose from 2.57% to 2.74%.

Perhaps absolute numbers can present a better picture of Hindi’s growth. Between 1971 and 2011, the number of individuals who declared their mother tongue as Hindi multiplied 2.6 times, from 20.2 crore to 52.8 crore. The numbers more than doubled for Punjabi, Maithili, Bengali, Gujarati, and Kannada, and almost doubled for Marathi.

At the other end of the scale (among the 22 languages listed in the 8th Schedule of the Constitution) were Malayalam, whose numbers rose by under 59% in four decades, and Assamese, rising just over 71% (Chart 3).

What explains Hindi’s high numbers?

One obvious explanation is that Hindi is the predominant language in some of India’s most populous states, including Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Another reason is that a number of languages are bracketed under Hindi by census enumerators, according to Dr Ganesh Devy, chairman of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, a ongoing project to map the languages of the country.

“In 2011, there were 1,383 mother tongues reported by people, and hundreds were knocked out. These mother tongues were then grouped into languages. You will find that under Hindi, they have listed nearly 65 mother tongues. Among them is Bhojpuri, and 5 crore people have reported Bhojpuri as their mother tongue, but the census has decided that Bhojpuri is Hindi,” he said.

Citing other examples, he said, “If one were to knock out the other languages merged with Hindi, the total figure goes down to 38 crore.”

And how widely is English spoken?

Although English, alongside Hindi, is one of the two official languages of the central government, it is not among the 22 languages in the 8th Schedule; it is one of the 99 non-scheduled languages. In terms of mother tongue, India had just 2.6 lakh English speakers in 2011 — a tiny fraction of the 121 crore people counted in that census.

That does not reflect the extent to which English is spoken. It was the second language of 8.3 crore respondents in 2011, second only to Hindi’s 13.9 crore. If third language is added, then English was spoken — as mother tongue, second language or third language — by over 10% of the population in 2011, behind only Hindi’s 57%. Bengali was third at about 9%.

Dr Devy felt the count should be higher. “Can you believe that in India, only 2.6 lakh speak English as their primary language? You take a very rapid census of Delhi or Kolkata or Chennai, for families who have moved in for white-collar jobs. You’ll notice that English is their language for day-to-day affairs. Yet it is still seen in the eyes of the government as a foreign language. It is still not a scheduled language in India, when it should be,” he said.

Where is English most prevalent?

As mother tongue, Maharashtra accounted for over 1 lakh of the 2.6 lakh English speakers. As second language, English is preferred over Hindi in parts of the Northeast. Among the 17.6 lakh with Manipuri (an 8th Schedule language) as their mother tongue in 2011, 4.8 lakh declared their second language as English, compared to 1.8 lakh for Hindi.

Among the non-scheduled languages spoken in the Northeast, Khasi, predominant in Meghalaya, was the mother tongue of 14.3 lakh, of whom 2.4 lakh declared their second language as English, and 54,000 as Hindi. The trends were similar for Mizo, and for various languages spoken in Nagaland, including Ao, Angami and Rengma. Beyond the Northeastern languages, among 68 lakh with Kashmiri as their mother tongue, 2.8 lakh declared their second language as English, compared to 2.2 lakh who declared Hindi.

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