Why you should learn an Indian language


Photo Credit: Meena Kadri
Photo Credit: Meena Kadri


The most common misconception about language and India is that English will get you by. Yes, it makes it easier that English is widely spoken across India and often used by government, universities and businesses, but that is only one side to what is a very large and diverse country.

If you’re serious about engaging with India, learning an Indian language will allow you to engage much more deeply and broadly with India, its ways and its people. Being savvy with an Indian language will also open up more opportunities and help you get the most out of studying or working in India.

Here are the five big reasons why you should learn an Indian language.


The numbers

There are over one billion people in India – that’s a lot of people to talk to.

If that’s not enough, India’s Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs reports that the Indian Diaspora is the second largest in the world.

Of course, there is more than one language spoken in India. In fact, there are 22 official languages. Broadly speaking (excuse the pun!) Hindi is spoken in the north, Bengali in the east, Tamil in the south and Gujarati in the west, with Urdu and English used across the country.

Hindi is by far the most widely used – spoken by over 40 percent of the population. It is also closely related to many of the northern languages, which we’ll get to later. Hindi is one of the main languages used by the national Government and the language you’ll want to learn to get the most out of Bollywood.

Learning a regional language can be equally important. Many states have their own language and if you’re wanting to focus your Indian engagement with a particular city or state, a grasp of the local language will help you engage with the local people, the business community, government and culture.

On the other hand, while English is widely spoken in business, education and urban cities, McKinsey & Co report that only 12 percent of people in India speak English.


The rise of India

India’s rise has been proclaimed loud and clear. From Goldman Sachs’ inclusion of India in the BRICs economies (the top four emerging economies in the world) to the rush from world leaders (US President Barack Obama included) to embrace India’s newest Prime Minister, India is well and truly front of mind in international economics and international affairs.

India’s growth and potential is exciting. India may not be at the same stage as the US economy or the Chinese economy for that matter, but it is well and truly on its way. India’s economy has grown steadily since its large economic reforms in the early 1990s. From 2003, India’s GDP growth rate has been between 5-10 per cent. It dropped to the lower range in the last couple of years but the election of Narendra Modi as the new Prime Minister has transformed business confidence in the Indian economy.

There is a lot that India has to offer and history has shown that rapidly growing economies are often the most concentrated centers of innovation. In recent predictions from the IMF and World Bank, India is now expected to overtake China’s growth rate in only a few years.

Adding to India’s appeal is its rise on the international political and strategic stage. Countries are queuing up to be India’s ally and partner. Australia is among these countries and is engaging heavily with India on multiple levels. India is and will increasingly play a big role in Australia’s international outlook not only in high-level visits, migration and business ventures but also in education and cultural exchanges.


More than just a language

With all its contradictions and complexities, India has its own unique way of doing things. Whether it’s bargaining for that special something at the market, navigating the crazy traffic, engaging with the Government or trying to do business in India, there is never enough that you can learn about the country and its way of life.

Learning an Indian language is the perfect and most in-depth way to learn and (eventually) understand India. In the course of learning a language, you’ll be taken on a journey through India. You’ll have the chance to learn everything from the basics of how to address someone to the right names for those things that only exist in India. Learning an Indian language will also provide you with specific local content knowledge to help your studies or business.

More than this knowledge are the experiences you’ll gain. Learning an Indian language opens up the opportunity to go on exchange, do a course or live in India. Whether you’re a complete novice or a total pro, learning a language in India or practicing your language skills in India will give you the chance to experience the country first hand.

Inevitably you’ll also make valuable connections through the countless people you will meet – connections you will appreciate for more than just the time you are there.


Sankrantri 2012
Photo Credit: Rajesh Pamnani


It’s fun

Believe the hype. There’s a reason India has a reputation for big festivals, mouth-watering food, great story telling and vibrant fashion. And what better way to practice your language skills than getting amongst all of what India has to offer!

Practice your basic conversation skills with your fellow passengers on a train across India. Get ahead with your reading by deciphering the information signs while exploring the forts and palaces of Rajasthan. Or practice your writing skills while relaxing on the beaches of Kerala. Even attending your friend’s wedding or eating out at your favourite restaurant can count as essential language practice while learning an Indian language.

Language and culture are intertwined and in India, this is most visible in the thriving film industries: Bollywood, Tollywood and Mollywood to name a few. India produces one of the highest volumes of films a year and has the third largest box office revenues in Asia and sixth in the world. Watching one of these films is an experience in itself. While you’ll get the gist of things from the subtitles, only with an understanding of the language will you fully appreciate the intricate stories and feel the full emotions of the songs.


It’s easy

Don’t be fooled by the script, learning an Indian language is easy. Yes, like all languages you’ll need to practice, but with a country this fun it will be hard not to. It helps too to have a few structural things on your side when you first begin.

A common misconception about Indian languages is that they are character based and not phonetic. In reality, Indian languages use phonetic scripts, have no capital letters to contend with and spelling is phonetic, thus very straightforward. This makes learning the basics of reading and writing much easier and less of a daunting task.

There are also a number of similarities across many of the regional languages, which means if you learn one Indian language you could easily learn another. Generally speaking, most of the languages spoken in the north have a common thread, such as a shared script. The Devanagari script is used in Hindi, Marathi, with a minor variation in Gujarati and even in Nepali. Hindi and Urdu too share a large amount of vocabulary and grammar, simply using a different script. In the south, the main languages are also grouped together as Dravidian languages with varying similarities.


Photo Credit: Meena Kadri


So, what’s holding you back?

There is a lot to learn about India and a lot to learn from India, and there’s no better way of doing so than learning an Indian language.

Even just the experiences you gain, the people you meet and the connections you make through learning an Indian language will set you above the rest. Yet most importantly, with India’s vibrant culture and simple phonetic scripts, learning an Indian language is fun and easy!

Go to India Options’ Learning Hindi page for more tips and ideas on where to begin including:


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James Edwards

James is the founding India Editor of Asia Options and ongoing contributor. He works as an international policy adviser and has been to India many times for study and work - including for the Australia India Youth Dialogue and to study at the University of Delhi.

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