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 with the following dialog:

Raj: Okay, well, let me just tell you, if we were having this argument in my native language, I’d be kicking your butt.

Sheldon: English is your native language.

Raj: Okay, you got me there.

I was wondering about the truth of this statement. Is English really a native language in India? 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. Feb 17, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 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, 2014 at 21:30
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    Please enjoy this relevant venn diagram. Sep 18, 2014 at 19:55

3 Answers 3


India is a huge country with over 20 (not exactly sure) vernaculars. The official language varies from state to state. Although Hindi is "used for official purposes" (according to Wikipedia), 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.

  • 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, 2014 at 20:15
  • @DavidM Any school in India teaches English as a second language even if the school's medium of instruction is not English Mar 13, 2016 at 8:24

The issues are official/government vs local business vs home, educated vs colloquial, first language vs street vs languages taught at school (and these issues have some overlap).

Indian English is a full fledged variety of English, whose differences are primarily in some vocabulary and turns of phrase and some pronunciation.

  • As far as official goes:

"English is one of the two official languages of the Union Government of India."

This means that government matters are written and conducted in English (along with Hindi). Each of the states of India (Punjab, Gujarat, Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, etc) have their own official languages usually the main local language (eg Gujarati in Gujarat), and maybe English and maybe Hindi.

  • as to native language,

"...only a few hundred thousand Indians, or less than 0.1% of the total population, have English as their first language."

First language is what you learn from one of your parents at home from birth

  • Knowing English at all, whether at home, school, fluent, or just barely getting by:

"12.6% of Indians know English"

This does not seem like much, but it is spread out throughout the country, so as a traveller, you can get by very well conversing with English.

  • As to perspective, English is more for the educated:

"While there is an assumption that English is readily available in India, available studies show that its usage is actually restricted to the elite, because of inadequate education to large parts of the Indian population."

English is the most popular foreign language taught in schools, and fluent English is a requirement for acceptance into Indian universities.

To your explicit questions, there is a very very tiny set of people who learn English as a first language (but that is probably in a bilingual situation with another Indian language, rather than having two parents that speak only English. So it is barely noticeable as a language learned at home from birth.

But English is heavily spoken, especially in the university and in government, by the richer, more educated set. For most of this set, they are fluent bilingual speakers of English given constant schooling starting early. And anyway, the great majority of the population is very familiar with English.

And for the TV quote:

  • As an educated Indian, Rajesh is fully fluent in English, or rather, educated Indian English, probably started learning very early, maybe even as a second language at home before he started school.

  • Sheldon's use of 'native' does sound a little weird. Fluent totally, but 'native'? It's arguable (with good cases for both sides).

  • Frankly, Rajesh's command of the concepts and language that they are discussing is far better in English than in his other language.

I think the writers are just trying to make it known that Rajesh actually probably as good at English as Sheldon. To your point, I don't think the dialog is great at managing all the nuances.

  • Sheldon was echoing Rajesh's "native language", he was the first to say it. Was he making a subtle jab?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 6, 2018 at 14:06
  • @Mari-LouA This is fiction (someone is writing what they think other people might say), so there are multiple levels of judgment on top of what real people might say. Assuming these are real people talking, Rajesh assumes that everyone is aware that he is from a foreign country and presumably speaks -natively- something other than English (and externally, this is very much mostly the case).
    – Mitch
    Apr 6, 2018 at 14:12
  • @Mari-LouA But Rajesh does speak English fluently/bilingually, even if he didn't speak it somewhere before teenage years. And Sheldon used 'native' for this situation, and I think that is not the best word for it. It points to the fact that Rajesh is not say German (which has very good language instruction but not nearly as good an environment for encouraging fluency in English as India), but I think 'native' is not the most accurate word here.
    – Mitch
    Apr 6, 2018 at 14:15
  • I think you misunderstood my point. It is Rajesh who first says if we were having this argument in my native language and Sheldon echoes this usage, one which, it seems you find a bit odd.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Apr 6, 2018 at 16:59
  • @Mari-LouA When Rajesh uses 'native', it most likely means Hindai, Gujarati, Mayalam, etc. When Sheldon uses it, he's applying it to English. It's the use of 'native' to English which sounds problematic to me and the OP and which I try to support.
    – Mitch
    Apr 6, 2018 at 17:30

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.

  • 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, 2014 at 5:59
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    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). Feb 22, 2014 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. Feb 22, 2014 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. Feb 27, 2014 at 14:06
  • And even for non speakers, English vocabulary is the integral part of Indian culture such that some people might not know the words are English. Mar 13, 2016 at 8:28

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