India is an ancient and very diverse country, both culturally and linguistically, and you will find that many languages are spoken here. If you are intending to live and work in India, you may be asking yourself how easily you will be able to communicate, particularly if you are a native English speaker. We will take a look at this complex situation below.Dauntingly, a census at the start of the 21st century revealed that India has 122 major languages and 1,599 other languages. Many of these are more properly described as dialects, but the linguistic heritage of the country is extremely rich and we will not attempt to list all of these languages here! However, the 23 official languages of India are as follows:
• Sanskrit (an official classical language)
• Tamil (an official classical language)
These languages belong mainly to two big linguistic groups:
• Indo-European (the branch of Indo-Aryan is spoken by about 75 percent of the Indian population)
• Dravidian (spoken by about 25 percent)
Other languages spoken in India come primarily from the Austro-Asiatic and Tibeto-Burman linguistic families, as well as some isolated languages.
In 1950, after the country ceased to be a part of the British Empire, the Indian constitution declared Hindi in Devanāgarī script to be the official language of the union. Hindi, a linguistic descendent of Sanskrit, is still the official language of the Indian central government.
English is a provisional official sub-language, beneath Hindi itself as the official language. However, individual state legislatures can adopt any regional language as the official language of their state. For example, Tamil, one of the Dravidian languages, is an official language of Tamil Nadu, Puducherry and the Andamon Nicobar Islands.
There are other languages spoken in the country as well, such as Persian, Portuguese or French.
India is thus linguistically very complex indeed. English is a co-official language in the country, and you will find that many Indians speak English, often with considerable fluency. It is estimated that around 12-30% of the country are English-speaking to some degree. English is widely spoken in large urban areas and tourist destinations such as Bangalore, Mumbai and Chennai, but is rather less common in more rural areas and the north. In those regions, you will find that Hindi and some of the local dialects are more common. There is also a class differential between English speakers and non-English speakers: in general, poorer people will not speak English, whereas the higher status classes are more likely to do so.
If you are working in the country, it is likely that your workplace will be English-speaking. The number of languages across the country make it an impossibility to learn all of them, but you may like to learn some Hindi, or perhaps the main language in your region, such as Tamil or Punjabi, especially if you are likely to be travelling in rural areas. It is always polite as well as practical to master some basic phrases, such as those for:
• meet and greet
• days of the week/months of the year
• shopping and food-related vocabulary, including eating out
• some basic medical vocabulary (e.g. asking for a doctor’s appointment)
• some basic banking vocabulary (e.g. opening a bank account)
Hindi is not the easiest language for Westerners to learn, but if you are interested in learning Hindi you will find plenty of language training opportunities in India, from culturally immersive programmes which involve staying with a local family, to summer programmes, at different levels from beginners to advanced. Bear in mind that you will be working with a different alphabet. You can start with some online training resources before you land, if you wish.
You may be intending to visit India in order to teach. It is always easier to get work in international education if you have at least a certificate in either TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) or TESOL (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages). Note that there is not an enormous demand for English teachers: since the country is a former British colony, the governing classes – who are the ones able to afford language training – tend to be English speaking anyway, a legacy of the historical process.
It is also preferable if you have experience in teaching schemes such as the Cambridge English exams or IELTS (International English Language Testing System): the English test for study, migration or work. Some teaching experience in the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) will also be helpful. This assesses analytical, writing, quantitative, verbal, and reading skills in written English for use in admission to graduate management programs, such as the MBA. You may also find work more easily if you are experienced in teaching English for particular sectors, such as tourism and hospitality, or in summer schools. Bangalore is a current hot-spot for Business English, due to its emerging IT industry, so if you are an English teacher with some experience in tech, this could be a good opportunity for you.
It will also be helpful to have at least a Bachelor’s degree but Indian language schools do not always formally require this. Basically, the rule of thumb is that the more qualifications you have, both in TEFL and in academic subjects, the easier you will find it to get work. Average monthly salaries for TEFL teachers are quoted as being in the region of US$600. The cost of living in India is not generally high, but accommodation can be expensive in the cities. Working in TEFL is generally regarded as being valuable for the experience rather than for the salary, although you will earn more at university level. Your most reliable opportunity for employment will be in the private international schools.
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