One of the more interesting experiences I have had in my time here in India has been to experience the reality of the multilingual environment. Many Americans when they think of India and languages (which they do rarely), their assumption likely will be that English is all you need to communicate effectively in that country. In fact, I have encountered that view when discussing with colleagues at VCU the decision to start teaching Hindi as part of our language program. The reality on the ground is quite different. I had a conversation yesterday with a colleague from the Indian Institute of Technology (Kharagpur), where I’m giving a series of lectures this week. She is from the north of India and grew up with Urdu, Hindi, and English (at a school run by an Irish nun). Now living in Kharagpur, she told me she had to learn Bengali in order to live here. In fact, she said that in her spare time she is also learning to read Bengali (which uses a different script from Hindi). She described her impression of speaking Bengali as speaking Sanskrit with your mouth full. Bengali is widely spoken in India and Bangladesh. In fact, it is the seventh most widely spoken language in the world (ahead of Russian, Japanese, German or French). When I was in Ahmedabad last week, I experienced a similar phenomenon, namely that everyone was not speaking either English or Hindi, India’s two lingua francas, but rather Gujarti. Gujarti was the mother tongue of Mahatma Gandhi. Both Bengali and Gujarti are Indo-European languages (Indo-Aryan branch), but other language families are represented as well among the 22 official (indigenous) languages of India: Dravidian, Austroasiatic, Tibeto-Burman, and a few minor language families and isolates.
In my experience here, English is in fact a language that lets you navigate everyday life, but it doesn’t allow you full access into Indian culture. That comes only through the local language, and to some extent, through Hindi. It’s also not the case that everyone in India actually speaks English. Even those who have learned it in school may not be proficient in spoken English. That includes Indians in service industries that cater to tourists. My difficulties undoubtedly derive not just from a lack of proficiency on the part of the Indians, but more from my lack of knowledge of the Indian cultural context. Not knowing how many things work in India, or what the expectations are for holding conversations are, means that often we are approaching a topic from widely different perspectives. Of course, sometimes, it comes down to differences in the meanings of common words in American and Indian English. When I arrived at the Ahmedabad airport, there was no taxi stand in front of the airport. After asking fruitlessly a number of by-standers (including a policeman) about taxis, I asked a young man running a small drink kiosk. He asked if I wanted him to get me an “auto”, which I was happy to accept. 45 minutes later (not the 10 minutes he had promised), what pulled up was in fact not a car, but a motorized rickshaw. In Indian English this is a autorickshaw or “auto” for short.