But you are Indian; do you do English?

One of the most common questions I get asked, as a freelance writer, from my potential clients is “Is English your first language?” It is also a question that always gets me in a fix. As an Indian, can I say if English is my first language?

India has an inquisitive affinity with languages — we speak over 1721 languages in India but have no national language. Hindi, the most popular language in India, is spoken by only 40% of Indians, that too if we count dialects mutually intelligible with Hindi.

I want to talk in particular about English though, and my (and India’s) relationship with it. English obviously came to India with the Britishers[1] and steadily became a part of the country over a few centuries. It became the language of the elite and the educated since most of the education in India came to be in English; this remains true today as well. It is also the language I got my education in, and the language I was encouraged to speak since childhood. I did manage to become fluent in it though, and it soon overtook as my primary language. But, it still can’t be my first language, because it is not the language my parents speak.

If not English, then Hindi qualifies to be my first language, for sure. B..bu..bu..but, wait! I am having a thought: I can’t actually write in Hindi, can I? I can’t list the Hindi alphabets in their correct order. I will struggle if I have to read a book in Hindi. I can’t have a conversation for 5 minutes in Hindi without using at least a few English words. Hell, if I had to write this piece in Hindi, I will have to break a sweat just attempting to translate my thoughts from English to Hindi. In spite of all this, Hindi is, in fact, my mother tongue, and thus, by dictionary definition, my first language.

This is not just my story though — it is the story of most Indians my generation. English is the medium of education in most educational institutes (starting from primary school) and workplaces, but most Indians speak their mother tongue at home. This has led to peculiar inventions of new languages or blends of existing languages.

When I recently moved to Delhi from Bangalore for work, I came across the dreaded ‘Hinglish’ dialect. Hinglish is, by definition, a hybrid use of English and Hindi (or its close dialects). Sentences like “Arre, what I am saying is, ke let’s go there only na!” are frequent and naturally spoken. As an outsider, I have a difficult time conforming to this kind of a fusion of Hindi and English, even though I am fluent in both of these languages.

In conclusion — no — English is not my first language; by definition, I don’t have one. I am bilingual, at the least; I grew-up as such. English, to me, is my primary language; unfortunately, for now, the only language I can effectively and naturally convey my thoughts in, at a native-speaker level.

India is gigantic and (sometimes overwhelmingly) diverse. Any attempts at generalising any fact about India is vague because it will never be applicable to the whole of the country anyway. A majority of Indians might not speak actual English (rather its hybrid with other languages), but even if 0.5% do, that is 6 million people.


[1]- Britisher is a term for British people in the Indian Subcontinent. It is used mostly as a pejorative term to refer to the British Colonizers in India.

Originally published at neervarshney.com on November 24, 2017.