The Language of Bollywood: Multilingualism in India

India does not have a majority language. Hindi and English are specified as national languages of the Indian Union in the constitution and Hindi has the most native speakers (more than 422 million according to the Government Census of India 2001), but it is still below the 50 per cent mark. Beyond the figures given in the census, however, Hindi is also widespread as a second or third language. It is learnt in the schools, in the armed forces, at work, among friends and on the street, or simply through the mass media. In all, 22 of the Indian languages recognised in the constitution are spoken by about 98% of the population. Following independence in 1947, the establishment of numerous states of the Indian Union according to linguistic criteria gave official recognition to and enhanced the identity-creating potential of these constitutional languages. With their elevation to national and administrative languages, they became a factor of delimitation in relation to political competitors from other regions. The official status not only gave them in a new position, but also successively changed their quality. By building up in a deliberate fashion vocabulary and registers of the national languages, for example for school education, technology transfer, administration and, not least, for the purpose of consolidating the respective state-supporting medium, the dichotomy between a ‘developed’, standardised, written official code and a highly diverse ‘common language’ has been intensified. At the same time the differences and boundaries between the various national languages have come more to the fore.

Bollywood film, music and dance productions, on the other hand, appear as a popular medium in which a linguistic continuum between sharply delineated individual languages in India is successfully projected, even though the performers’ underlying Hindi/Urdu testifies to roots in the family of Indo-European languages, and Bengal and South India have their own flourishing film industry in Bengali and Dravidic respectively. The traditional porosity linguists find in the language boundaries in India is also characteristic of the use of language in the Bollywood films. The attitude that individuals of differing regional, cultural and social origin may speak in different ways, but do not therefore necessarily communicate in a foreign language, meaning that one is operating in a linguistic continuum, is based more on a feeling than on a clear awareness of fluid boundaries. Just as English changed in the course of its “indianisation”, so Indian national and regional languages do not emerge in the standardised form of a written language, but as variants according to the communicative, economic, religious or cultural contexts. Such flexibility is the characteristic feature of the language of Bollywood. The underlying Hindi acts as an adaptable carrier language which can absorb not only different modes of speech of native speakers, but which can also and effortlessly insert elements from other Indian languages.

With the popularity of the film productions, which has now extended way beyond the sub-continent, Hindi has also achieved a greater spread and acceptance and is at the same time held in higher regard. Campaigns on the part of the Indian government to promote Hindi as a national language, a heavily sanskritised Hindi as used previously in the state media or the Hindi ordered as mandatory in the schools, have not only experienced little success, but have often even been counterproductive: alongside the suspicion that the language was being used to establish a hegemony of the North Indian elite, Hindi was also seen as imposed, sterile and conservative and the instruction in schools often stifled the little natural affinity and enthusiasm still remaining.

As Bollywood films show, the example of India can provide interesting insights into how to handle multilingualism. Here another language is not necessarily seen as a foreign language which can only be learnt with great effort in educational institutions. In particular the life in large Indian cities, and not only there, demonstrates that multilingualism acquired by formal or informal means can be completely normal. Most people in India grow up in a multilingual environment, and they know and use more than one language. Without an adequate communicative competency in different languages, it is difficult to survive in the day-to-day social and occupational routine. Instead of a binary relationship between a native and a foreign tongue, as is common in monolingual European societies, a functional multilingualism is frequently cultivated. Although it should be said that often not all the components of the linguistic repertoire are equally well formed, which means that a switching between different languages is necessary according to the subject, situation and partners involved. The aim is not perfection and purity, but the ability to engage in mutual communication.

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20140704_234022English language learning must go hand in hand with multilingualism


I shall, in the first instance, acknowledge the importance of the widespread desire for English in India, Second, I shall argue that this desire, traditionally seen as antagonistic to the interests of indigenous languages and literatures, need not be so if we were to frame the debate differently, (our postcolonial location offers such a possibility!) and finally, I shall suggest that new techniques and practices must be found urgently to combine English language learning with multilingualism.

The globalisation of the Indian economy in the 1990s seemed to signal the need for a globalised workforce. Academic and ideologue Kancha Illiah notes that since the backward class people of India “had no entry to the colonial English world,” the new move to teach English in all government schools becomes a welcome one. Illiah disagrees with the upper caste contention that “English will destroy the culture of the soil.” “Logically speaking,” he says, “the next step would be the abolition of the gap between the prevalent English medium schools and the government school in terms of both teaching and infrastructure.” (“Dalit and English,” Deccan Herald, September 27, 2012)

New expertise

How can we fulfil the widespread demand for English learning? Could this perhaps be done by the introduction of new variants of English, say of the “basic kind” that the English critic I.A. Richards had spoken of? Additionally, I would argue that in the given scenario, we must have a national policy for English language learning with matching resources and increased institutional support.

“Indian English” has come of age, and has been accepted as a legitimate category the world over. Consequently, we must develop our own expertise suitable to our own conditions. English language and literature must be brought into the fold of the literatures and habitat of postcolonial India. It is here that the teachers of English must address their task in an innovative and professional manner.


And finally, the question of English and multilingualism: we must develop new paradigms and tools for the teaching of English in India. Instead of an approach that upholds a cordon sanitaire between English and Indian languages, English teaching must not be “context neutral.” To be effective, “it has to take into account factors like learner position, textual implication, assumptions underlying teaching methodology, etc.” (Mishra and Murali Krishna, 2007).This could also be furthered by “critical bilingualism”: “the ability to not just speak two languages but to be conscious of the socio-cultural, political and ideological contexts in which the Languages operate” (Walsh, 1991).


What then is our vision of the global English of “the brave new world”? It is to indigenise and localise the teaching of English language and literatures even as we aspire to play our legitimate role in the global turf. English language learning in India must go hand in hand with multilingualism. By such actions, we will be sensitive to plurality in the classroom situation and relate to the varied language/caste/class backgrounds the students come from. This must be as true of our cultural politics as of English teaching in the classroom.

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