The Language Barrier


There are over 7,000 different languages in the world. Accounting for the 7 billion population of the world, even considering an equal distribution, it leads to considerable linguistic diversity.  But actually, more than 50% of the world’s languages are located in just eight countries – (denoted in red on the map), India, Brazil, Mexico, Australia, Indonesia, Nigeria, Papua New Guinea, and Cameroon – making some regions vastly linguistically varied while some plain boring!

Papua New Guinea has the most linguistic diversity, as it boasts of no less than 840 different living languages! It has a Linguistic Diversity Index (LDI)score of .990 (a score of 0 on the LDI means that everyone has the same mother tongue and the theoretical maximum score of 1 means that no two people have the same mother tongue). India, with an LDI score of .930, doesn’t lag much behind Papua New Guinea as there are some 447 living languages which are spoken throughout the country. To supplement this there are close to 1,300 dialects, which are also spoken in the country, albeit by a smaller populace (less than 10,000 people each). If simply, the no. of people that speak a given language is considered, most of the Indian dialects would stand to be above many of the languages of the world.

The Great Indian Language Barrier?

To someone uninitiated about India, the numbers may sound staggering. However, in effect, maneuvering the language landscape of the country may not be considered as a tall order. Arguably, Hindi and English combined are the lingua franca and can get one through ‘virtually’ most of the country. But an objective inspection shows that knowing only Hindi and English can help in conversing with around 40% of the country’s population.

I, for one, can converse in five of the 447 living languages – Hindi, English, Bengali, Bhojpuri and Awadhi. This helps me eliminate the language barrier between me and approximately 49% of my fellow countrymen. Exclude English, a non-Indian language, and the figure falls down substantially. Here’s an example – during college I shared a duplex with 4 of my classmates. In between the five of us, we could speak 7 different languages (excluding English) – Hindi, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Awadhi, Marathi, Malayalam, and Tamil. Still, it was only English that was common amongst all of us and thus the language of communication.

Different but Same!

Languages of India belong to several language families, ‘Indo-Aryan’, ‘Dravidian’ and ‘Sino-Tibetan’ being the major ones. Both ‘Indo-Aryan’ and ‘Dravidian’ languages share their etymology from Sanskrit, thus, there’s always an overlap of certain words even between two languages from different language families while, languages from the same family are, in many cases, very similar. For example, Odiya and Bengali or Bengali and Maithili are vastly similar, so much so that speaker of one language, if not fully understand the other language, can pick up words and largely appreciate what is being conveyed. Likewise, Magahi, Awadhi, Braj and Bhojpuri along with all of their dialects (variations in dialects can be observed as frequently as one progresses from one district to the other in the same region) being similar to each other, are also similar to Hindi, thus, they can largely be understood by speakers of one of the languages.

The Learning Curve

Although my mother tongue is Bhojpuri, we have transitioned to being a Hindi-speaking family. This is common for most Bihari families, as Bhojpuri acquired an image of being crass, tacky and regressive, people shifted to modern standard Hindi, while English became the language of aspiration. But the elderly of the family had held on to Bhojpuri, and they made sure that we learnt it.

For me, the fluency remained sketchy up until a few years ago, but it has improved since then when love for mother tongue was rekindled. There’s no specific reason why, but after around High School, I began conversing more and more in Bhojpuri, also channeling the inner monologue in the language of forefathers. The Bhojpuri spoken in my native village is varied from the one that has come to be popular. Though, I have picked up that and other forms of Bhojpuri and also Awadhi from the people around me.

While being a resident of Bengal, conversing in Bengali came naturally, being able to read it was a result of school education. But that wasn’t the case with English. More than school education, Cartoon Network and Star Movies helped in learning the language of aspiration. I picked up small phrases that, still, constitute most of my vocabulary. Although I hadn’t read an English book, cover to cover, before college, the daily habit of reading English newspapers also helped massively.

Unity in Diversity!

As per the last count, I have been to 14 of 29 Indian states that account for approximately 67% of the country’s population, and I have never faced a language barrier. Although all these states have predominant languages that belong to the Indo-Aryan language family, it still wouldn’t be an overstatement to repeat the old cliché about India – Unity in Diversity!

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