If two random Indians meet, there is only a 36% chance that they can talk to and understand each other, a Hindustan Times analysis of 2011 Census data shows, given the large diversity in languages spoken across the country.
This is an average, of course, and the actual proportion depends on where the two people are from.
The probability is a meagre 1.6% if one is from Tamil Nadu and the other from West Bengal, while it is around 95% if one is from Uttar Pradesh and the other from Uttarakhand.
Several factors explain the variation.
The first is the low share of the multilingual population in India. Only one in five Indians is bilingual, meaning they can converse in two languages — and not necessarily be able to read and write in them. Just 7% know three or more languages.
The second is the dominance of the Hindi belt. For instance, more than 97% of the people in Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand can speak Hindi, which is why it is highly likely that random people from the two states can talk to each other. The case is similar across nine Hindi-dominated north Indian states.
The third is regional diversity. The chance that a random person from the Hindi belt can speak with someone from outside the region is low. For instance, a person from Uttar Pradesh has a 42% probability of being able to talk to someone from Gujarat.
This figure declines as one goes towards the east and south: it is 3% for Tamil Nadu, 14% for West Bengal, and 25% for Assam.
In fact, outside the homogenous Hindi Belt, the probability that two random persons from even two neighbouring states can talk is low. Take Karnataka and Kerala, for instance: the probability is merely 5%.
This happens because states outside the Hindi belt do not have a common dominant language like Hindi.
A majority of the people in each of these states speak their own regional languages. And because the rate of multilingualism is low, the chance of being able to communicate is low.
But what about within states?
In 25 out of 35 states and union territories, there is an over 75% chance that two randomly selected people from the same state can have a conversation.
It is the highest in Kerala (96%), which is in harmony with the state’s low linguistic diversity — 97% of people there are native Malayalam speakers.
However, some Indian states are highly diverse, leading to a lower probability there.
It is the lowest in Nagaland, which is one of the most linguistically diverse states with dozens of tribes having their own languages.
There is only a 24% chance that two people from the state will be able to have a conversation.
Still, the probability calculated from census data may not be representative of what’s happening on the ground (at least in Nagaland) , said Laishram Bijenkumar Singh, assistant professor at the Centre for Naga Tribal Language Studies, Nagaland University.
The lack of a common language among various Naga tribes has led to the emergence of Nagamese, a Creole language not recorded by the Census.
“Nagamese is a mixture of Assamese, Bengali and some other languages,” he said. “The language has influenced the Naga tribes to the extent that new generations report it as their mother tongue.”
There is another caveat with these figures: the analysis does not account for the similarities between languages.
For example, most Punjabi speakers can understand Hindi; so is the case with Gujarati and Marathi; Hindi and Urdu; Odia and Bengali; and Bengali and Assamese.
Linguistic expert Ganesh Narayandas Devy, founder of the Bhasha Research and Publication Centre in Gujarat and pioneer of the People’s Linguistic Survey of India, explained that many of the people speaking similar languages will be able to understand each other, even though they may not be able to speak the other language.
This impacts the numbers. For instance, assuming that most Hindi and Urdu speakers can communicate with each other because of language similarity, the chance that two random people from within Jammu and Kashmir can talk increases from 51% to 63%.
Nagamese developed with the lack of a geographically widespread language, which means the need to learn additional languages is determined by the number of people who know that language.
“When people find that they can manage the affairs of normal existence by speaking only one language, they resist the idea of speaking another additional language,” Devy said.
“Thus, the larger the geographical expanse of a given language, smaller is the chance of its encouraging multilingual practices.”
The census data complements this notion. It shows that people who reported Hindi – the most widely spoken language in the country – to be their mother tongue were the least likely to know any other language.
Only about 12% of native Hindi speakers were multilingual. Bengali – the second most widely spoken language – had the second lowest share of multilingual population, only 18%. On the other hand, over 80% native speakers of smaller language groups such as Konkani and Ladakhi were multilingual.
This has two implications. One, Hindi-speaking states have a lower share of multilingual population. Second, as non-Hindi speakers have picked up Hindi — it is the most common second language in the country — native Hindi speakers have a lesser need to know a second language to converse with fellow Indians. English is ranked second among the secondary languages in the country.