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I was watching an rerun episode of the Big Bang Theory the other night. And, a character who is from India (Rajesh) is losing an argument, and says: You know if this argument were in my native language, I wouldn't be losing. (Note: Paraphrased from memory.)

His opponent in the argument (Sheldon) retorts: English is your native language!

I was wondering about the truth of this statement.

Do many/most Indian English speakers consider it to be their primary language? Or is it a heavily spoken second language because of its official status and commonality compared to the linguistic diversity within the sub-continent?

Are people in India largely true bi-linguals in the sense of having two native languages which occupy separate compartments within their consciousness. (Not to begin another topic of conversation, but people of this sort often make bad translators due to this compartmentalization.)

This question was brought to my consciousness again by the discussion section of another question I've posted.

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There are a lot of Indians. Most of them speak a little Indian English. Many of them speak a lot of Indian English. Many non-Indian English speakers find Indian English hard to understand, and vice versa; it's changed quite a lot from RP over the centuries. Many educated Indians can also speak other dialects, like RP or even American; but they rarely consider any English their native language, unless they were raised by at least one native speaker. –  John Lawler Feb 17 at 19:00
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Less than a quarter of Indians speak English at all - although given its size that's enough to make India the country with the second largest English speaking population, after the United States. –  phenry Feb 17 at 19:12
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@phenry By that count it gives India the largest English speaking population. But what is India? It was once said that the only thing that united the sub-continent into a political entity was the English language. Across Asia generally, English is the language of the bourgeois classes and critically the language of business. Overseas Indians, with their stress on education, are powerful ambassadors of the English language in other parts of Asia. –  WS2 Feb 17 at 19:58
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@WS2: re 'the only thing that united the sub-continent' reminds me of a quip "Why do the grandparents and the grandchildren get along so well? A common enemy." –  Mitch Feb 17 at 21:30
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Please enjoy this relevant venn diagram. –  Tyler James Young Sep 18 at 19:55

2 Answers 2

up vote 3 down vote accepted

India is a huge country with over 20 (not exactly sure) vernaculars. The official language varies from state to state. Although Hindi is considered the national language, not all people from all states speak Hindi.

English is widely spoken, and most schools in urban India use English as the medium of instruction.

I would say Indians are multi-lingual rather than bilingual. To be precise, English is not the native language, but if you know English and land in India you will not be lost. More than half the population can speak/understand English.

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Thanks. So, you would say that most learn it at a later age, not say from birth. Making it a true second language. –  David M Feb 17 at 20:15

I helped open a tech call center in India years ago and got to know a lot of the people and culture. First there hundreds of languages in India. Maybe thousands because there are offshoot languages that might be spoken in certain villages.

Just given this fact, it shows that the people of India overall have great abilities to pick up languages. They have had to communicate with all of these languages for hundreds of years. It is really cool when you think about it that there are still sanitized languages still out there.

I don't know if you could get anyone in India to say that English is their primary language but it is the one common language that people speak if they come from distinctly different parts of India. It is very common for a child there to learn 2-3 local languages and usually around 9-10 they get a heavy dose of English - this might be dated and wouldn't be surprised if it is much earlier now.

When I left India they were already trying to get English introduced earlier so that the children would have less of an accent when speaking.

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Yeah. I figured that to be true. But, as I stated above, television made me challenge my assumptions. That's what I get for watching the boobtube. Thanks! –  David M Feb 22 at 5:59
    
cc: @DavidM I'm Indian, and I guess I'd say English is my primary language. Not my native one or anything, but the one I'm most fluent in. There are a number of people I know who are more fluent in English than any other Indian language, but I guess that's because it's just my peer-group. It'd be wrong to say that most people are in the same situation, because the majority here would be most comfortable speaking Hindi or some other regional language. These would be the people who've grown up speaking that language at home and learnt English through schools (as a 2nd or 3rd language). –  mikhailcazi Feb 22 at 7:21
    
@mikhailcazi - when does English first get taught in schools now? I've noticed a dramatic change in the accents in the past 10 years and wonder your take on that. –  RyeɃreḁd Feb 22 at 17:50
    
@RyeBread Well, I live in Mumbai so what I've experienced is obviously a very urban view of what's happening now. Many schools over here are English-medium, so English is the primary mode of teaching since kindergarten itself, I guess. These kids obviously know English beforehand. However, in the other (Hindi/Marathi-medium) schools idrk at what age kids are taught English. Perhaps they're taught from scratch in the 1st grade. In some rural areas maybe they don't even teach English. –  mikhailcazi Feb 27 at 14:06

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