What Languages Are Spoken In India?

By Krista Conrad on August 11 2020 in Society

Hindi, English, and Bengali are among the most popular languages spoken in India.
Hindi, English, and Bengali are among the most popular languages spoken in India.
  • Hindi is the most spoken language in India with 41% of the population being first language speakers, but the other 59% of the population speak over 30 different languages.
  • Due to their long history, Tamil, Sanskrit, Malayalam, Odia, and Telugu have been designated classica languages.
  • Most Indian languages are classified into one of four groups: Afro-Asiatic, Dravidian, Indo-Aryan, and Sino-Tibetan.

With more than 1.35 billion people, the Republic of India has the second-highest population in the world. It also boasts the seventh-highest landmass with 1,27 million square miles (3.29 million square km). Though Hindi and English are the official national languages of the country's government, there are several hundred tongues spoken throughout the South Asian country with numerous dialects of its most common languages found in different regions. With the exception of English, these are the five most commonly spoken languages in India today.

1. Hindi - 528 million speakers

Following Mandarin, Spanish, and English, Hindi is the fourth most common first language in the world, spoken by about 41% of people in India. A descendent of Sanskrit, Hindi has been influenced by several languages over the centuries, including Dravidian tongues, Arabic, Portuguese, English, Persian, and Turkic. There are several dialects that differ between east and west variations of the language.

In recent years there has been a push to make Hindi the most-spoken language within India's borders by measures that included changing the numerals on rupee notes to Devanagari script, which is used to write Hindi in addition to several other native languages, and milestone signage on highways in Tamil Nadu, where other languages are more prevalent, were changed from English to Hindi.

2. Bengali - 97 million speakers

Also known as Bangla by native speakers, Bengali is the official language of Bangladesh, and most spoken in the Indian states of West Bengal, lower Assam and Tripura. Spoken by 8% of Indian citizens, Bengali holds the title as the fifth most-spoken first language in the world. Like Hindi, it evolved from Sanskrit, as well as Pali and Prakrit with influences from many other languages including Persian, Portuguese, Dutch, French, and English. It is now divided into eight disparate groups depending on geographical location. 

A highway sign with Hindi and English destination names. English is commonly seen in India because many Indians speak it as a second or even third language. Image credit: Animai/Shutterstock

3. Marathi - 83 million speakers

Purported to be more than 1,300 years old, Marathi is spoken by about 7% of Indian people and is the official language of states in the western regions of the country including Goa and Maharashtra. Like other Indian languages, Marathi descended from Sanskrit and is made up of at least 42 regional dialects, some of which resemble eastern Hindi in sound and structure. Its roots can also be found in Indian languages like Konkani, Goanese, Deccan, Gowlan, Ikrani, and Varhadi-Nagpuri.

4. Telugu - 81 million speakers

Telugu, a Dravidian language, is found mainly in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, and Yanam, as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, and Odisha. Its earliest-known inscriptions appear on coins from 400 BCE, which contain some Telugu words, and the first inscription written entirely in the language was created in 575 AD. It is presumed this was made by Renati Cholas, who was known for writing royal proclamations in the language rather than traditional Sanskrit.

5. Tamil - 67 Million Speakers

Like Telugu, Tamil has Dravidian roots and is spoken by close to 6% of Indian citizens, as well as being an official language in Singapore and Sri Lanka and a recognized minority language in countries like Malaysia, Mauritius, and South Africa. It is notable as one of the oldest languages in the modern world, with a literary history dating back at least 2,000 years. It is commonly spoken in southern India, primarily in the state of Tamil Nadu and the Indian Union Territory of Puducherry. Its earliest-known transcriptions date back to 500 BCE with literature appearing in about 300 CE in its original form, Old Tamil.

What Languages Are Spoken In India?

RankLanguagePercentageFirst-Language Speakers (2011 India Census Data)
1Hindi41.10%528,347,193
2Bengali8.11%97,237,669
3Marathi6.99%83,026,680
4Telugu7.19%81,127,740
5Tamil5.91%69,026,881
6Gujarati4.48%55,492,554
7Urdu5.01%50,772,631
8Kannada3.69%43,706,512
9Odia3.21%37,521,324
10Malayalam3.21%34,838,819
11Punjabi2.83%33,124,726
12Assamese1.28%15,311,351
13Maithili1.18%13,583,464
14Bhili/Bhilodi0.93%10,413,637
15Santali0.63%7,368,192
16Kashmiri0.54%6,797,587
17Gondi0.26%2,984,453
18Nepali0.28%2,926,168
19Sindhi0.25%2,772,264
20Dogri0.22%2,596,767
21Konkani0.24%2,256,502
22Kurukh0.17%1,988,350
23Khandeshi0.21%1,860,236
24Tulu0.17%1,846,427
25Meitei (Manipuri)0.14%1,761,079
26Bodo0.13%1,482,929
27Khasi0.11%1,431,344
28Ho0.10%1,421,418
29Garo0.10%1,145,323
30Mundari0.09%1,128,228
31Tripuri0.08%1,011,294

More in Society