The Indian subcontinent consists of a number of separate linguistic communities each of which share a common language and culture. The people of India speak many languages and dialects which are mostly varieties of about 18 principal languages and 3000 dialects. India is as close as the world comes to Babel. There's no 'Indian' language per se, which is partly why English is still widely spoken almost half a century after the British left India. Eighteen languages are officially recognised by the constitution, but over 3000 minor languages and dialects were listed in the 2001 census. Language is a heavily politicised issue, not least because many state boundaries have been drawn on linguistic lines. Major efforts have been made to promote Hindi as the national language and to gradually phase out English. A stumbling block to this plan is that while Hindi is the predominant language in the north, it bears little relation to the Dravidian languages of the south. In the south, very few people speak Hindi. The Indian upper class clings to English as the shared language of the educated elite, championing it as both a badge of their status and as a passport to the world of international business. In truth, only about 3% of Indians have a firm grasp of the language.
Some Indian languages have a long literary history--Sanskrit literature is more than 5,000 years old and Tamil 3,000. India also has some languages that do not have written forms. There are 18 officially recognized languages in India (Konkani, Manipuri and Nepali were added in 1992) and each has produced a literature of great vitality and richness.
Though distinctive in parts, all stand for a homogeneous culture that is the essence of the great Indian literature. This is an evolution in a land of myriad dialects. The number of people speaking each language varies greatly. For example, Hindi has more than 250 million speakers, but relatively few people speak Andamanese.
Although some of the languages are called "tribal" or "aboriginal", their populations may be larger than those that speak some European languages. For example, Bhili and Santali, both tribal languages, each have more than 4 million speakers. Gondi is spoken by nearly 2 million people. India's schools teach 58 different languages. The nation has newspapers in 87 languages, radio programmes in 71, and films in 15.
The Indian languages belong to four language families: Indo-European, Dravidian, Mon-Khmer, and Sino-Tibetan. Indo-European and Dravidian languages are used by a large majority of India's population. The language families divide roughly into geographic groups. Languages of the Indo-European group are spoken mainly in northern and central regions.
The languages of southern India are mainly of the Dravidian group. Some ethnic groups in Assam and other parts of eastern India speak languages of the Mon-Khmer group. People in the northern Himalayan region and near the Burmese border speak Sino-Tibetan languages.
Speakers of 54 different languages of the Indo-European family make up about three-quarters of India's population. Twenty Dravidian languages are spoken by nearly a quarter of the people. Speakers of 20 Mon-Khmer languages and 98 Sino-Tibetan languages together make up about 2 per cent of the population.