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I am to travel around some Indian cities: Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and others. Will I have trouble speaking only English, or should I learn some phrases in Hindi?

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5 Answers 5

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I have backpacked around a fair bit in India - I grew up there, by the way - and yet I still mostly had to use English to get myself understood when I was visiting other states. India has 22 official languages, so the curious thing is even for Indians it is often English that is the binding thread - the one language that I could communicate in any part of the country I was travelling.

Hindi is useful primarily in the north and western regions of India. People will be lot more friendly to you even if you can speak basic Hindi phrases and less inclined to rip you off. Having said that, correct pronunciation in Hindi can be tough to master. It's sort of like learning Chinese - when you don't get the tones right, they won't understand what your 'Chinese' means. While Hindi is not a tonal language per se, it does have elements where tone and stress play a part unlike they do in English.

If you plan to go off the beaten track and into rural areas, then I would very much suggest you to learn Hindi phrases and try to get pronunciation right. People in cities can often compensate for wrong pronunciations because they are used to it, but people in smaller towns often cannot. In most situations, they will try to help you though by getting hold of someone who does understand English.

Now, for southern parts of India - Bangalore, for instance, as you mention in your itinerary - you will find less people capable of speaking and understanding Hindi, and in addition to the regional language of the state English is the de facto second language. In fact, speaking in Hindi can sometimes be taken as insult in the southern states because it is seen as 'north India' imposing an alien language upon them.

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FYI In Bangalore, you can easily communicate with English. –  pramodc84 Jun 29 '11 at 3:38
    
There's nothing like Chinese language, it is either Cantonese OR Mandarin –  Nilesh Thakkar Mar 7 at 13:28
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@NileshThakkar I'm very well aware of that, as I've studied Mandarin. There are far more variations than just Mandarin and Cantonese. My point is still valid. –  Ankur Banerjee Mar 8 at 9:18
    
@NileshThakkar Completely and utterly incorrect. –  deutschZuid May 30 at 1:57
    
If tones in Chinese were as important as some people say, then the Chinese would not be able to understand the lyrics of their own songs. –  WGroleau Jun 22 at 1:11

I traveled around Maharashtra (including Mumbai) and Andhra Pradesh and I had no problem getting by with just English. I did try and learn a few phrases in Hindi, Telugu, and Urdu, however, I hardly used any of them. In the few instances where I did try and speak in the native language (e.g., when trying to bargain), I was often met with a blank stare. This was either due to

  1. the seller only wanted to haggle in English;
  2. the person actually spoke one of the other 100+ languages in India; or, more likely
  3. I completely butchered the pronunciation!
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English works everywhere with people buying and selling things and in the hospitality and tourism busniness.

Hindi does not work everywhere and seems to not even be respected in the parts of the country (ie most of India) where it is not the primary language. I found very few people helpful in trying to teach me basic Hindi phrases, the opposite that I found everywhere else I've travelled. I put this down to all the areas I was in having a different primary language so a bit like asking somebody in Slovenia or Romania to teach me some Russian.

Having said that I did learn and use the numbers from one to ten and how to order a cup of tea and those seemed to work well (-: (I think it was "mujhe ek kop chai dijiye".

If you only learn one word for India, make it "namaste" - it worked in every part of the country I went to and for me it was the key for to turning the locals from rudely elbowing in front of me at the train booking window to kindly helping me to fill out my forms! This single word seems to show the local people that you are not just another ignorant outsider.

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+1 about 'ignorant outsider' thing. We have a history here. Most of us do not appreciate a stereotypical white man. –  duci9y Jan 20 at 11:10
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Mujhe ek kop chai dijiye! ^_^ I grew up in Delhi and believe me when I tell you that Indian people absolutely LOVE and appreciate foreigners speaking their language. We honestly do not care if it's right or not. We just simply fall in love with the fact that you are trying to embrace our culture. As @duci9y said, we do not appreciate the stereotypical white person. I've made sooo many friends who have impressed me just by saying a single line in Hindi and I was able to strike a long conversation with them just because of that. –  Aditya Somani May 8 at 1:46
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@hippietrail Ayy. Hindi is my mother tongue. Well in all fairness they'll be loving you if you speak in their local language whatever it might be. But Hindi usually works in most places up North. People don't understand much Hindi down South. They don't mean no harm but they basically understand Hindi and can't really speak it because of lack of practice and native tongue. This is also predominantly the case in major cities only such as Bangalore or Mumbai. Other places Hindi is not so common. Northern parts such as Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujrat etc. Hindi works. –  Aditya Somani May 9 at 1:15
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@hippietrail And as I mentioned, it doesn't even need to be complete sentences or anything. I was just super elated to see you write Mujhe ek kop chai dijiye! And I assure you many others would be as well! Of course i.e. if my mother tongue is Hindi. In South India, I'd stick to either English or whatever the local language might be. Even when I visit Bangalore or some other place in South India, sticking to English is better. The same holds true when I'm talking to South Indian friends even though they might understand Hindi, rarely do they speak it. –  Aditya Somani May 9 at 1:19
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@hippietrail Also, I hardly believe anyone would take offense from the fact that you try to speak Hindi. They appreciate the fact that you're a foreigner trying to embrace the language of the country. They usually understand you but are too scared to reply in the same language either because they don't know it or feel that you might not know enough. In North India at least I can vouch that you can go around with those little Hindi (or any other local language - the closer the better Eg. Bangalore - Kannada) phrases and you'll make people happy! ^_^ –  Aditya Somani May 9 at 1:26

If you are planning on travelling to only places such as Delhi, Bangalore, Mumbai, Chennai and Hyderabad - essentially the metros - English will not be a problem. There is no one language that really works in India. But in most urban areas such as the ones listed above, English will work without any problem. At most "touristy" places too, you are very likely to find someone who speaks in English. For instance, in Rajasthan the guides actually speak a lot of European languages such as French and Spanish.

If you plan to visit the country side (where mostly the vernacular language is spoken) or taking an off beat path, English may not always work. In such cases, it might just help to learn some stock phrases in the local language. But people are generally friendly; if you stop one person for help, a bunch of them will gather together. Someone in the group will definitely understand what you need.

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English works, better than Hindi in the southern states. If you are planning to visit cities, English will not cause any problems. Most people on the streets definitely will understand the gist of your question.

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protected by Ankur Banerjee Aug 7 '13 at 8:01

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