Language, Politics and Education in North India, Part III: The Problem with Hindi

Part I of this article, regarding the Jashn-e Rekhta festival and Urdu in India, is available here.
Part II of this article, regarding the historical origins of Hindi as India’s official language, is available here.

III. The Problem with Hindi: Evaluating Hindi as an Educational Medium

Source: Subhashish Panigrahi (Creative Commons)

Given recent attempts to use the language outside of North India, including efforts to spread the use of Hindi in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka (Anbuselvan, Gopal, Kausar), it is worth revisiting whether Hindi should be a language promoted by the government at all. This conversation regarding national languages and official dialects is in some ways academic, but it has very real consequences on the ground in education spaces. As noted by Indian historian Tara Chand in his 1944 book The Problem of Hindustani, the more artificial a language becomes, the less accessible it will and the more likely it will cease to be a living language. Hindi (in India) and Urdu (in Pakistan) are artificially elite languages because their formal registers are heavily influenced by Sanskrit and Arabic respectively. Knowledge of these tongues is largely limited to Hindu and Muslim elites, limiting the accessibility of high register Hindi and Urdu to the majority of the population (Dudney, R. King, Naim). But Hindustani, the language of Bollywood, is a mixture English and local Indian languages. That makes it widely accessible and very much a living language.

Even on warning signs in construction zones, knowledge of shuddh Hindi is needed to understand the message as written (Photograph: Jackson Walker)

Therein lies the problem with Hindi: the Indian government promotes a non-living educational medium that requires most children to learn a lot of new vocabulary just to make it through primary school, thereby harming the learning of children by replacing everyday English (and Urdu) loan words in the name of nationalism. Instead, the Indian government should pursue educational policies that will allow children in North India to be taught in the mixed register of everyday Hindustani, a language that blends Hindi with Urdu,English, and other influences. This will be valuable for three reasons: first, it will allow children to be taught in a language that reflects their daily lives. Next, it will change the language of government and education to a mixed register that reflects the modern importance of English and create new economic opportunities for Indians. Lastly, it will solve the ideological question at the heart of the national language debate.

First, teaching children in a language that resembles their everyday speech has clear benefits. Scholarship in India and outside it has shown that vernacular language education is beneficial to students vis-à-vis English medium education because it eases the transition from home to school and because it is easier for children to acquire new languages if they have strong skills in their first language (Mody). This phenomenon is also not limited to differences in language alone. Scholarship regarding the effectiveness of language movements the United States supports this. Schools in Oakland, California adopted African American English (AAE) as their main language and declared their schools bilingual in 1996. This move sparked controversy over the question of AAE is its own language, but what is clear is that teaching children who speak AAE at home in AAE and introducing Standard American English over time at school improved student outcomes and test scores in reading, and by extension, other academic subjects as well (Rickford). Such studies support the notion that teaching Hindustani could improve learning outcomes and retention of these learnings for North India’s students. While the study also suggests that Hindi could be introduced over time and learned effectively, using a more-accessible language like Hindustani in education and government both would be a more desirable and efficient choice.

Hinglish may provide greater economic utility than Hindi (Photograph: Esmeralda Herrera)

Second, the inclusion of English loans in the formal language used in government institutions could help increase the practical language ability of students and potentially their economic outcomes as well. The challenges students face in being educated in English rather than a vernacular language is well-documented and oft-discussed (Mody), this challenge extends to dialects as well. Why would it be easy for speakers of Awadhi (or Braj, Rajasthani, Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, or any other “Hindi dialect”) to adopt a new language to attend school? While this issue pertaining to disconnects between colloquial speech and standard linguistic registers is common across the world, this issue is particularly significant in India, where government mandated policies are running counter to both colloquial habits and market forces, which often require knowledge of English to advance economically and have led to local idioms to necessarily include English words and make use of concepts.

English has become ubiquitous in Indian life, even in rural areas (Photograph: Esmeralda Herrera)

Indeed, English in India is a marker of status and a gateway to economic opportunity (V. Chand). But even Hindi speakers, like Urdu speakers, have a tendency to blend the languages, making extensive use of English loan words, rather than their Sanskrit-derived counterparts, within the Hindi grammatical structure. This sort of speaking is not uncommon: “Hinglish” as it is known, is in many ways the real lingua franca of North India, combining everyday Hindustani, with its large stock of “Urdu” words, with vocabulary from the globally-important English language. Ultimately, “Hinglish” is itself a language on the rise, as Hindi speakers cannot avoid using English loans, or Urdu loans for that matter, in their everyday speech. One study on the topic found that 18.5% of words used by urban Hindi speakers were actually English (V. Chand).

With this in mind, it may make more sense to promote Hinglish, a language already in wide use in daily life, as the language of education. If this were to happen, replacing the English word “topic” with “vishay”, the word “school” with “vidyalay”, or “physics” with “bhautik vigyan” would be unnecessary, and would allow the technical vocabulary used in India to match the technical vocabulary used worldwide. Especially as such loan words are becoming more common in media and news, the insistence upon replacing technical language from English with contrived Hindi alternatives lacks real-life practicality (V. Chand). While Hinglish speakers will not out-compete fluent English speakers for jobs, they may, given limited access to English training and low numbers of skilled English teachers, overtake monolingual Hindi speakers in the employment hierarchy in North India. This shows that a knowledge of a ‘mixed’ register may contribute to broader economic opportunity than a ‘pure’ one. In Pakistan, the government has approved teaching “Urdish”, or Urdu with use of English words as they appear in more colloquial speech (Mustafa). While this has yet to be fully implemented, this example could provide the framework for the future “Hinglish medium” education system in North India. Indian government bodies would do well to take note of the growing status of Hinglish and work to improve economic outcomes by making this change.

The language of Bombay cinema (Bollywood) must be a mixture of dialects and influences to reach the widest possible audiences (Photograph: Creative Commons)

Lastly, making the official language of education in North India “Hindustani” or “Hinglish” rather than Hindi in its ‘shuddh’ variety will finally put to rest the issue of a national language for all of India. While many non-Hindustani speaking parts of the country, including Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, have protested the imposition of Hindi since independence, the actual populations of these places, particularly in urban centers, may be less resistant to the promotion of Hindustani than Hindi (Daniyal). While people outside of the “Hindi belt” may resist being required to learn Hindi in schools, they use Hindustani phrases in their daily speech, understand Urdu poetry, and have been much more receptive to Hindi entering their lives through Bollywood romance than classroom instruction (Rajan). The language can spread through accessibility and attraction, and Hindustani is indeed spreading through the power of Bollywood film (Rajan), Hinglish comedy and television (V. Chand, Daniyal), and a revival of Urdu poetry in the Indian cultural imagination (Bali). In this way, Hindustani would be a language that would be accessible in North India and have the potential to be widely embraced as a second- or third-language throughout the country.

If the government did adopt this recommendation, it would require concerted effort to implement effectively. Textbooks and governmental materials would need to be remade and norms for formal speech in North India would need to change to reflect the English and Urdu influences of the new standard language. Formally renaming the official language Hindustani would mark this language as new, inclusive and separate from the connotations carried by the names “Hindi” and “Urdu”. The move would likely be resisted by those with an interest in maintaining the status quo and people may continue calling their language “Hindi”. But state power through education and media combined with the positive market incentives of using Hindustani would  substantive and impactful change to the language itself.

Lord Macaulay may have advocated for English instead of indigenous languages for nefarious reasons, but 200 years on, the position of English globally should make policy makers in Delhi pause to consider that it is no longer 1940 and that a “pure”, non-English lingua franca for India no longer makes sense. The Government of India removed Urdu’s influence from Hindi in the name of nationalism. Now, it may be time for Hindi advocates to let go of the idea of linguistic purity and embrace a “mixed” educational medium for the sake of the students themselves.


Anbuselvan, B. “English Goes Out, Hindi Sneaks into Milestones on Highways in Tamil Nadu.” The New Indian Express, March 29, 2017. Accessed May 4, 2018.

Bali, Abhishek, and Manish Mansinh. “How a Bunch of Indians Are Making Urdu Great Again.” GQ, December 5, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Chand, Tara. The Problem of Hindustani. Allahabad: Indian Periodicals, 1944. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Chand, Vineeta. “The Rise and Rise of Hinglish in India.” The Wire. February 12, 2016. Accessed May 03, 2018.

Daniyal, Shoaib. “The Rise of Hinglish: How the Media Created a New Lingua Franca for India’s Elites.” Scroll India, June 18, 2017. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Dudney, Arthur. “Imposing an Arbitrary National Language Would Only Divide Pakistan Further.” The Conversation, September 14, 2016. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Gopal, Vikram. “‘Imposition of Hindi’ in Bangalore Metro Signboards Irks Kannadigas.”Hindustan Times, July 03, 2017. Accessed May 4, 2018.

Kausar, Heena, and Soumya Pillai. “In Delhi Schools, 3-language Formula May Tilt the Balance in Favour of Sanskrit.” Hindustan Times, December 25, 2016. Accessed May 3, 2018.

King, Robert D. “The Poisonous Potency of Script: Hindi and Urdu.” International Journal of the Sociology of Language 2001, no. 150 (2001). Accessed May 3, 2018. doi:10.1515/ijsl.2001.035.

Mody, Anjali. “Ndia’s Craze for English-medium Schools Is Depriving Many Children of a Real Education.” Scroll India, September 2, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Mustafa, Zubeida. “Over to ‘Urdish’.” DAWN, August 21, 2015. Accessed May 3, 2018.

Naim, C. M. “Urdu in India: Some Observations.” The Annual of Urdu Studies 10 (1995). Accessed May 3, 2018.

Ranjan, Amit. “How Hindi Came to Dominate India.” The Diplomat. May 06, 2017. Accessed May 03, 2018.

Rickford, John R. “Language Diversity and Academic Achievement in the Education of African American Students – An Overview of the Issues.” In Making the Connection: Language and Academic Achievement Among African American Students, by Carolyn Adger, Donna Christian, and Orlando Taylor, 1-29. Washington D.C.: Canter for Applied Linguistics, 1999.

Jackson was born in Calcutta, India, and raised in the American Midwest, and completed his undergraduate studies at Northwestern University (NU) in June 2017. After spending the summer studying Urdu in Lucknow with the Critical Language Scholarship Program, Jackson is excited to be returning there to serve as an AIF Clinton Fellow with Medha. Building upon his undergraduate coursework, where he studied Political Science, Asian Languages and Cultures, and International Studies, and experience interning with an NGO in India through the NU’s Global Engagement Studies Institute, Jackson is looking forward to working full time in the Indian social sector. Throughout the Fellowship, Jackson is eager to serve Lucknow's youth, further developing his language abilities in Hindi and Urdu, and join a community of Indians and Americans committed to pursuing social change in India. After the Fellowship, he plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career in policy or academia.

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