I was naively expecting people in India to speak English.

I was naively expecting people in India to speak English.  Sure, I know very well that there are hundreds of local and regional languages, but I thought everyone also knew English, at least people in major cities.  Wrong.

The local language in the Bangalore region is Kannada; most signs around town are in both English in Kannada, although some state- and local-government signs (which they seem to expect only locals to read) are only in Kannada.  The language on the street is uniformly Kannada, and if you go into a shop the first shopkeeper you meet will, after hearing you speak English, beckon a second shopkeeper who might understand a little more.  Even on the IISc campus, which caters to students from all over India (who therefore know Hindi or another regional language, rather than Kannada), the maintenance workers and security-gate guards speak little English.  I need an interpreter to speak to the women who clean my office or the electricians who come to the apartment.

On the other hand, Indian authorities love formalities.  To get anything done you need a formal letter from someone important.  To get a pass for the gym, I needed a letter of introduction from the department chair.  Same for the library.  Same for the pool.  Same for the security gate.  I have other letters from Fulbright.  The language in these letters express a formality that I guess comes from British days. My favorite phrase is that which asks the reader to “please do the needful” and accept the request of the letter’s carrier.

The limited English ability of many Indians shows on the English written on many products. I find this odd, considering that Indian manufacturers could surely find someone with strong English skills to proofread their labels.  I found this cereal box especially amusing, partly for its “Inglish” and partly for the sentiments it tries to communicate. “…avoids dowdy or slacking & keeps one alert, attractive, young, impressive, dominating, and longevity. … maintain smart physique, stamina & sexual urge.” You don’t see health claims quite this explicit on US cereal boxes! 

This post was transferred from MobileMe to WordPress in 2020, with an effort to retain the content as close to the original as possible; I recognize that some comments may now seem dated or some links may now be broken.

Author: dfkotz

David Kotz is an outdoor enthusiast, traveller, husband, and father of three. He is also a Professor of Computer Science at Dartmouth College.

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