Strength for Today and Bright Hope for Tomorrow

Volume 1: 8 December 2001
Editor: M. S. Thirumalai, Ph.D.
Associate Editor: B. Mallikarjun, Ph.D.

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J. C. Sharma, Ph.D.


Indian multilingualism dates back historically to ancient times when ethnic groups and races came in contact with one another through migration from one region to another. Although political compulsions and social re-structuring might have contributed a little to its growth, multilingualism in India was largely a product of close contact between the four language families from the earliest recorded history. This contact had resulted in the growth of India as a linguistic area with certain common features.

Co-existence of many languages, races, cultures, and religions has been the essence of Indian heritage. In contrast to this, language uniformity is considered necessary for the economic development in the West. To dissolve the linguistic diversities in the melting pot, and accepting exclusively the dominant language for all purposes such as education, law, administration, and mass communication, is not truly an Indian model.


Sir G. A. Grierson carried out the Linguistic Survey of India (LSI) between 1866 and 1927. This survey identified 179 languages and 544 dialects. The 1951 Census, the first census after India attained its independence, listed 845 languages including dialects, out of which more than 100,000 persons spoke 60 languages/dialects.

A comprehensive account of the multiplicity of languages was presented in the 1961 census. This census adopted as its main reference the language classification of the Linguistic Survey of India. The 1961 Census returned 1652 mother tongues and classified them under 193 languages. These languages were identified as belonging to four different language families, namely, the Austric (20 languages), Dravidian (20 languages), Tibeto-Burman (98 languages), and Indo-Aryan (54) languages, and one return with a doubtful affiliation.

In the 1961 Census, 91% of the population spoke one of the fifteen scheduled languages and this number rose to 95.58% in the 1981 Census. In the 1991 Census, the returns of the mother tongues came to 10,400. These 10,400 raw returns were subjected to thorough scrutiny. This resulted in 1576 rationalized mother tongues, and 1796 names, which were treated as unclassified and relegated to the other mother tongues category. The 1576 rationalized mother tongues were regrouped following the linguistic methods under 114 languages (18 languages that are included in the VIII Schedule of the Constitution of India, and 96 other languages). 96.29% of the total population of India has one of the Schedule VIII languages as their "mother tongue" and the rest (3.71%) speak the languages not listed in the Schedule VIII of the Constitution of India. 85 mother tongues are grouped under the Schedule VIII languages, and 131 mother tongues are grouped under the other 96 non-scheduled languages. As per the Third All India Education Survey, 58 languages find a place in the school curricula and 47 are used in public administration at one level or another. Newspapers are published in 87 languages and there are radio broadcasts in 91 languages.


Indian literary history shows that people used to switch between Pali and Sanskrit, Tamil and Sanskrit, and Ardhmagadhi and Sanskrit with ease. During the Mogul period, there were many scholars had mastered both Sanskrit and Persian/Arabic. Tulsidas, Vidyapati, and authors of Apabhramsa of the North, and the Azhwars and Nayanmars of the South emphasized the importance of the language styles spoken by the ordinary people, even as they used the language of high literature. Indian classical drama used dialects and 'standard' languages. Writers used Magadhi, Shaurseni, Prakrit, and Apabhramsa, even as they excelled in the use of Sanskrit. The pattern of language use seemed to be flexible depending upon what roles the individual was playing.

India is a pluralistic nation, in terms of ethnicity, culture, language and religion. India continues to manifest a high degree of multilingualism. The 1961 Census showed 9.5% of the incidence of bilingualism in the country. But this figure did not really portray the actual situation. It is not just the educated Indians who practice bilingualism. Semi-literate and the illiterate people also practice bilingualism. Bilingualism is not a recent phenomenon but it is attested throughout the Indian history. When we study the language returns in the Census, we find that a sizeable population of the people in each State speaks the dominant language of the neighboring State. This sizeable population is often bilingual and they continue to use their mother tongue while they learn and use the dominant language of the State in which they are settled. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, Telugu is the dominant State language, but we see a sizeable population of Kannada speakers (519,507), Marathi speakers (503,609), Oriya speakers (259, 947), and Tamil speakers (753,484). Similarly Telugu speakers are found in good number in Karnataka (3,325,062), Maharashtra (1,122,332), Orissa (665001), and Tamil Nadu (3,975,561).


Another significant feature of Indian bilingualism is that it is complementary. Thus, an individual may use a particular language at home, another in the neighborhood and the bazaar, and still another in certain formal domains such as education, administration, and the like. This is not only true of an individual but such patterns of selection of different languages for day to day use are revealed by the groups of populations as well. An individual usually has some mastery of his home language, and the regional/state language (when the home language is different from the regional/state language). In addition the languages of national and international communication, Hindi and English, are also part of the linguistic repertoire of a sizeable number of Indians. In India, linguistic diversity is not by accident, but it is inherited in the process of acquiring the composite culture of the nation. It is an integral part of the Indian composite culture.


In Indian history, bilingualism has never been regarded as a social or individual deficiency. On the contrary, it has always been respected with great appreciation. Bilinguals were always respected as persons with superior qualifications. They were respected because they were supposed to communicate with speakers of two or more languages to transmit their thoughts. Bilingualism and multilingualism is recognized as a social need. In the past bilingualism and multilingualism helped people to propagate their faiths and religious practices. For example, Siddharth stressed the importance of Pali and Ardhmagadhi to nullify the importance of the Brahmanical concepts and their linguistic counterparts expressed mainly through the Sanskrit language. Since the concepts elaborated by Siddharth were within the Indian context, and in this context Sanskrit had a pre-eminent position as the medium of expression, the followers of Buddha could not avoid mixing Pali, Ardhmagadhi and Sanskrit in their actual communication. This resulted in a new style of Sanskrit called Buddhist Sanskrit, a style that was understood by both the common people and the elites of the time. Bilingualism and multilingualism, thus, evolved as a unique product of the genius of the Indian people.

People have been using more than one language simultaneously and the influence of one language on the other could be seen in almost all the languages in the form of loan words. We find that the States in India have never been linguistically homogeneous. There has been always some form of multilingualism, between languages or dialects or both. At present there is not a single State or Union Territory that is monolingual. Take, for example, the state of Haryana. This state may be divided into six or more linguistic or dialectal regions. Braj is spoken in Faridabad, Mewati is spoken in Gurgaon, Bagri is spoken in Hissar and Sirsa, Bangru is spoken in Rohtak, Bhiwani, and Jind, and Khari Boli is spoken in Ambala and Yamuna Nagar. Amidst all this dialectal diversity, there is an accepted standard dialect of Hindi that is recognized and used as the official language of the state. Thus, in India, each state is multilingual and the linguistic majority of one state may be a linguistic minority in another state.


Usually each State recognizes one state language for official purposes, and this position is, indeed, contrary to the multilingual nature of the states. However, in reality, most of the states have accepted more than one language for official purposes to meet the aspirations of their linguistic minorities. But the use of the minority languages is usually restricted to a particular district or districts within the state. There are safeguards provided to the linguistic minorities in the Constitution of India. A Commission for the Linguistic Minorities has been constituted under the provisions of the Constitution. The Constitution makes provisions for the use of the minority languages at the district level and blow, like the Municipalities, Tehsils, etc. where a linguistic minority constitutes 15 to 20% of the total population of the district. Important government notices, rules and other publications should be published in the minority languages.

According to the Kerala Official Language Act, 1969, Malayalam and English are treated as the official languages of the state without prejudice to the Articles 345 and 347 of the Constitution of India. The Tamil and Kannada minorities of the state may use their respective languages for their correspondence with the state government in the Secretariat and with the head of the departments. The replies to such correspondence shall be sent in the respective minority language. There is a language cell in the state that is responsible for translating the state laws, ordinances, bills, statutory notifications and other important documents in Malayalam as well as in the minority languages of the state. Besides English, Hindi, Urdu, and Malayalam, these minority languages are also used as media of instruction as well as first language in the school system.

In Andhra Pradesh, Telugu is the official language and the state translation department has six language sections, namely, Telugu, Urdu, Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, and Tamil. Translations of important acts, rules, regulations, notifications, representations are undertaken in the six languages. Similarly most of the states have provisions for translation into minority languages from the dominant languages of the states and vice versa. Through such administrative machinery, efforts are made to ensure that the minorities are not at a disadvantage vis--vis the people who speak and use the dominant language of the state. Whenever the minorities felt discriminated against, they raise their voice through legal and political means, taking recourse to the safeguards under Article 16 (1) of the constitution.

There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in matters relating to employment or appointment to any office under the state. The leaders of the linguistic minorities all over the country have, time and again, argued that the imposition of any language qualification in the dominant language as a pre-requisite for public employment is unlawful and illegal. One could also argue that such an imposition works against the freedom of movement of citizens under Article 19 (1). There have been certain decisions of the Supreme Court that largely support the views of the linguistic minorities. Presently, the trend is not to impose a specific language requirement as a pre-requisite for employment, but to train the officials compulsorily in the official language of the state once the candidates are recruited to the jobs under the government.

In essence, the language policies in the states of the Indian Union certainly protect the rights of the linguistic minorities. However, it is important for the minorities that they learn the dominant language of their state for their own social and career benefits. Unfortunately, many minority communities tend to narrow their choice of languages at the school level to English, Hindi, Sanskrit, and/or French, ignoring the dominant language of the state. They seem to be concerned more about the instrumental values that a language may have beyond the horizon of the State, in which they live, seek and enjoy the educational facilities. Because of this change in attitude (noticed simultaneously also among the people who speak the dominant language of the state as their mother tongue), the contours of Indian multilingualism are fast changing. There is a lack of genuine desire to learn other Indian languages. While the laws and constitutional safeguards for the linguistic minorities are rather very effective in protecting the rights of the minorities, and in maintaining the linguistic identities of the minorities, the linguistic minorities themselves need to develop a better understanding of the overall needs of their communities.


The Indian education system is truly multilingual in its character. The Bombay Municipal Corporation runs primary schools in nine languages. The Karnataka State runs primary schools in eight languages. The secondary schools in West Bengal give their students the option to choose from 14 languages. The three-language formula widely in the country aims at developing and strengthening the multilingual character of our educational system.

There are many problems in implementing the three-language formula. For example, there is no reference to the mother tongue or home language in the formula. There is no reference to the classical languages and foreign languages. Tamilnadu teaches only Tamil and English, and Gujarat follows it with Gujarati and Hindi. Many Hindi states substitute Sanskrit, a classical language for a modern Indian language. With the expanded version of the eighth schedule of the constitution, more languages are added to the mix, but there is hardly any improvement in the situation.

There are 500 Central Schools with the bilingual medium consisting of English and Hindi. There is also a compulsory language, Sanskrit, in addition. There are 500 Navodaya Vidyalayas where some competence is English and Hindi is imparted simultaneously. But the students who graduate from these schools go to the English medium colleges, because there is no college in the country that offers a bilingual medium of instruction. The Indian education system blocks multilingualism as one moves into higher education.

Srivastava (1994) writes about the Hindi region in India,

This region attests two types of bilingualism, where literacy and fluency in both languages are aimed at, but wherein first language is restricted to the topics related to the social sciences and the second language to the science subjects. (Mono-literate form of bilingualism) is confined primarily to the preschool children of village school, the partial type of bilingual education has been the general norm of pre-university education system. (At the university level) a partial type of bilingualism (is practiced), where in the second language replaces the first language in all subjects of formal teaching programs.

The picture given in the above statement is true for all Indian languages, with some small changes here and there.


I wrote in an earlier section of this paper that the constitutional provisions have helped the maintenance of the minority languages in the country. But this is true only to a certain extent. Some damaging pictures have begun to emerge in recent years, especially with regard to the use of the minority languages in the school system. There is not a single state that does not have linguistic minorities, but not all the minority languages are offered in schools as media of instruction or as first language. When we compare the findings of the educational surveys conducted by the NCERT and other agencies with the number of speakers of the minority languages in various states, it becomes obvious that there are many minority languages with substantial populations that are not made available as the medium of instruction or as first language. For example, in Delhi, only English, Hindi, Urdu, Bengali, Tamil, and Gujarati were taught as first language as per the Third Educational Survey, but some of these are not taught as first language according to the Sixth Educational Survey. There are several languages in Delhi with substantial population that do not find any place at all in the school system. The situation in the other states is not encouraging either.

Neither the school authorities nor the state governments should bear the blame exclusively for this state of affairs. The attitude of the speakers of the minority languages is also responsible for this condition. The speakers of the minority languages seem to prefer English to their own languages. And in this they join the mainstream of the country! In addition, there have been well established traditions in the country that encourage people to learn the dominant language for purposes outside their homes and use the mother tongue in their home domain. In the states like Arunachal Pradesh, Goa, Jammu and Kashmir, Meghalaya, Nagaland, and Sikkim, mother tongue is the medium of instruction in less than 50% of the schools. Consider these figures: Sikkim 1.95%, Arunachal Pradesh 2.89%, Goa 14%, Jammu and Kashmir 19.45%, Meghalaya 42.03%, and Nagaland 43% used mother tongue as media of instruction at the upper primary stage. Major languages such as English and Hindi and the other Scheduled VIII languages occupy a place of importance even in the states where the speakers of the non-scheduled language are in a majority.

Does it mean that these minority languages are dying out? Not certainly. Or, perhaps, to some extent. It appears that the speakers of minority languages seem to have arrived at the conclusion that for maintaining their language, and their language and ethnic identity, it is not necessary for them to use their as the medium of instruction or to learn it as first language in the school system. Time alone will tell us whether such an attitude is going to help them maintain their languages in the long run.

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Srivastava, R. N. 1984. Linguistic Minorities and National Language. In F. Coulmas (ed.), Linguistic Minorities and Literacy. The Hague: Mouton.

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J. C. Sharma, Ph.D.
Central Institute of Indian Languages
Mysore 570006, India