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?
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.There are 22 official languages1 in use in India. 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.
English works everywhere with people buying and selling things and in the hospitality and tourism business.
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.
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.
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
- the seller only wanted to haggle in English;
- the person actually spoke one of the other 100+ languages in India; or, more likely
- I completely butchered the pronunciation!