India contains a variety of languages, with 78.05% of Indians speaking those that belong to the Indo-Aryan family of languages. This is followed by Dravidian languages comprising 19.64% of the population. The remaining 2.31% speak languages belonging to a variety of other language families, including Tai-Kadai and Austroasiatic.

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Hindi is the most commonly spoken language in India and serves as somewhat of a lingua franca throughout its northern and central parts. Bengali is the 2nd most spoken, having a majority of its speakers in the eastern and north-eastern parts of India.

In recent times, there has been turmoil over Hindi being forced upon parts of India that do not natively speak it, such as Tamil Nadu.

The total number of languages spoken in India is widely disputed, however, the general consensus is that there are 780, putting India in 2nd place for most languages spoken within a single country, after Papua New Guinea.

India has two official languages: Hindi (Devanagari script) and English. With that being said, this does not mean Hindi is India’s national language, as the Indian constitution does not permit any language such status.

The Indian constitution refers to 22 languages by name, which are called scheduled languages. These are the languages that have been given official acknowledgment and support.

These are:

  • Assamese
  • Bengali
  • Gujarati
  • Hindi
  • Kannada
  • Kashmiri
  • Konkani
  • Malayalam
  • Manipuri
  • Marathi
  • Nepali
  • Oriya
  • Punjabi
  • Sanskrit
  • Sindhi
  • Tamil
  • Telugu
  • Urdu
  • Bodo
  • Santhali
  • Maithili
  • Dogri

Of these, 14 were in the constitution from the start, with the others being added through time.

The other languages spoken in India have not received recognition from the government due to one of three reasons:

  1. Having less than 10,000 speakers within India.
  2. There not being enough data to adequately differentiate them as a language in their own right.
  3. Linguistic consensus on whether they are additional languages or merely dialects of existing ones not being reached.

Besides this, there are 6 classical languages within India:

  • Kannada
  • Malayalam
  • Odia
  • Sanskrit
  • Tamil
  • Telugu

The Tamil language is one of the oldest languages in the world. The language was found in records that are even more than 5,000 years old. The status of a classical language is given to those languages that have been deemed to have a deep heritage and be of independent nature.

96.71% of Indians speak one of the scheduled languages, with the other 3.29% speaking a wide variety of others. In India, it is reasonably common to not speak the same language as the rest of your household.

This linguistic variety has been achieved due to multiple causes:

  1. The lack of centralization – India has been disunited for most of human existence, leading to a variety of different cultures forming in the land we now refer to as India.
  2. Mass migrations throughout history have left their mark, creating 6–7 different language families within the same area.
  3. The British colonization of India lead to English becoming an extremely important language in it. Even today, it is being used by many institutions of higher education and even certain areas of the government.
  4. Persian was the dominant language in India during the Mughal period, which let it become the court language until the British colonized it.

All of this has led to the situation we have today, the highest figure for Indian languages outside of the scheduled languages being 1599. This has sparked a debate among linguists, which continues to this day, over the distinction between language and dialect.

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