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Surprising India

By Rhaessner (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons Gateway to India, Mumbai

If you’ve ever played Chess, Snakes and Ladders, or Parcheesi, you may not know it but you’re playing games originally invented in India.

Mathematics owes the concept of zero to India and it was an Indian mathematician who first calculated the value of pi.

India is also the birthplace of four major world religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism—which are still followed by a quarter of the world’s population.

And today, India is an emerging economic power, expected to possibly surpass Japan this year to become the world’s third largest economy.

A most extraordinary country

A fascinating place, India, and particularly interesting from the point of view of language. Estimates of the number of language spoken in India vary widely, but there are probably over 400. According to India’s latest reported Census in 2001, there were 30 different languages each spoken by more than 1 million of the country’s over 1 billion people.

It is perhaps ironic that the language most widely recognized for official and other purposes is a remnant of the colonial period. English, which all educated Indians learned under British rule, is still the most widespread second language, at least among the educated middle and upper classes. But it is certainly good news for people trying to do business with India.

And India is a place that a lot of people want to do business with now. Since India liberalized its economic policies in the early 1990s, Indian economic growth has averaged over 7% each year. Despite the effects of the recent worldwide recession, India still expects to see growth of almost 9% this year.*

The U.S. and India have also become closer, both politically and economically, as a result of political changes in India. U.S.-India bilateral merchandise trade reached nearly $50 billion in 2008,† with principal U.S. exports including diagnostic or lab reagents, aircraft and parts, advanced machinery, and computer hardware. The U.S. is also India’s largest source of direct investment.

A Most Complicated Country

But if you want to do business in India, it is good to be aware of its incredible diversity. Its great diversity in language reflects a broader ethnic and religious diversity that makes India one of the more complex of the so-called BRICs. From Tamil separatists, to a Muslim population second only to that of Indonesia, India’s large population – the second largest in the world – contains many elements that may surprise some.

In addition to ethnic and religious differences, class differences continue to play an important role. Poverty is still widespread in India; the literacy rate is only 65%. The Hindu caste system also continues to influence the social structure in many places.

Language is just one of the factors complicating Indian society, but it is a major one. Mark Twain thought that India would be ruling the world, “If there had been but one India and one language—but there were eighty of them!” Hindi is certainly the most important language, but is actually the language of only about 180 million, of less than 20%, of India’s population of over 1 billion. It was originally intended that Hindi become the official language for government purposes at the national level, but many of India’s 28 states have established other “official languages,” and have resisted being forced to use Hindi.‡ Therefore, English has continued to be a second official language at the national level.

Just last year, the High Court of the State of Gujarat held that Hindi is not officially the “national language,” despite what a majority of people might think. With this observation, the court refused to issue directions that packaged commodities must contain details about goods in Hindi – manufacturers have the prerogative to use English.

Of course, sticking with English may not be a good idea, depending upon the market you are targeting. Have you ever heard of any of these languages: Assamese, Awadhi, Bengali, Bhojpuri, Chhattisgarhi, Deccan, Gujarati, Haryanvi, Kannada, Maithili, Malayalam, Malvi, Marathi, Panjabi, Telugu? At least 10 million Indians speak each of these languages. Urdu, the major language in neighboring Pakistan, is spoken by over 48 million. These audiences are certainly not to be ignored, especially as the mobile Internet (see Tips & Trends on right), spreads throughout the country.

If you’re planning on dealing with India, be prepared for many surprises. But for your language questions, MTM is here to help.

Notes added Feb 26 2014:

*Like other BRIC countries, India’s growth has faltered somewhat in the past couple of years. According to the World Bank, after peaking in 2010 at 10.5%, the growth rate fell to 6.3% in 2011 and 3.2% in 2012 as measured in constant dollars.

U.S.-India bilateral merchandise trade reached $59.1 billion in 2012 with Indian imports from the U.S. $24.4 billion in 2012 while exports from the U.S. to India were $34.7.

‡The battle over making Hindi the national language of India goes on today.

The U.S. and India are currently embroiled in a trade dispute over U.S. claims that India’s trade policies violate intellectual property rights in pharmaceuticals and software. The U.S. has threatened sanctions and India is preparing for a fight at the World Trade Organization (WTO).

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