What Are the Most Spoken Languages in India?

By Ray S
June 10, 2024
India is a vast country – and a melting pot of several hundred different languages. Some of which are still unclassified. Amongst them are 29 languages which are spoken by more than a million people. But it’s important to remember the country’s size when considering that number. In India, a million people is around 0.1% […]

India is a vast country – and a melting pot of several hundred different languages. Some of which are still unclassified. Amongst them are 29 languages which are spoken by more than a million people. But it’s important to remember the country’s size when considering that number. In India, a million people is around 0.1% of the population.

In India, the term “tricolour” almost always refers to the Indian national flag.

Whether you’re thinking about going on holiday to visit or are doing business in India, it’s important to understand that this is just one indication of the cultural and linguistic variations you’ll see between the different areas of what – let’s remember – is the seventh largest country on Earth.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the most spoken languages in India in order – at least, the top five!

Hindi – approximately 422 million speakers Hindi (along with English) is the language officially recognised and used by the Indian Central Government. Most speakers of Hindi live in the north of the country in the so-called “Hindi belt” where it’s the common tongue. But it is the most prevalent first or second language amongst the entire population of the country. In 2001, a census found that:

  • 6% of the population stated they spoke Hindi as a first or second language
  • 41% stated they had Hindi as their mother tongue

Hindi is by far and away the most popularly spoken language in India, with around 422 million speakers. These speakers mainly live in the states of  Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand, where Hindi is the main official language, but they also reside in many of the Union Territories.

It’s important to bear in mind that the definition of “Hindi” here actually covers a number of different “Hindi languages”, according to the official census.

Hindi on its own is the 4th most-spoken language in the world. But when combined with Urdu to become Hindustani (the colloquial version of Hindu and Urdu are so similar they are often considered one pluricentric language with Modern Standard Hindi and Modern Standard Urdu as its two registers) it is the 3rd most-spoken, trailing only English and Mandarin in global speakers.

The language is spoken by significant numbers of people on pretty much any continent you care to name too, including:

  • Over half a million Hindi speakers in North America
  • Perhaps a quarter of a million in South Africa
  • Several hundred thousand in Europe

The sheer breadth of Hindi’s history and depth of its influence and use in culture and different forms of media could run into hundreds of pages.

Asian Absolute is an agency that specialises in Hindi translation. Read more about our services here.

Bengali – approximately 83 million speakers Bengali, also known as the Bangla language, is the official language of the Indian states of West Bengal, Tripura, and in the Barak Valley in Assam, as well as in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. It’s the 7th most-spoken language in the world, helped by the fact that it’s also the official language in Bangladesh, and is spoken by around 83 million people in India.

Approximately 80-85% of Bengali has been attributed by modern scholars as being modified, corrupted, or natural versions of Sanskrit words, with much of the rest being loanwords from other languages, predominantly Persian.

The Bengali Renaissance, which took place in the Bengal region from around the 19th to early 20th centuries, started an expansion of Bengali literature which built on a traditional heritage over a thousand years old. This literary form of Bengali differs heavily from the Standard Colloquial form of speech though, meaning the language suffers from serious diglossia to the point where some commentators claim it could be said to have triglossia or even heteroglossia between its spoken and written forms.

If you are looking for Bengali translator you’ve come to the right place. Read more here.

Telugu – approximately 74 million speakers The Indian States of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana both have Telugu as their primary language, mainly because up until very recently these were both one unified state. Telangana, the north-western part of the state, was divided from the rest of Andhra Pradesh in 2014 following a movement for separation.

Telugu also has the status of official language in the Yanam district of the Union Territory in Puducherry and is spoken by a significant number of people in different parts of India. This includes in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as well as the states of Chhattisgarh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Odisha, and Tamil Nadu. It’s the 15th most-spoken language in the world, according to the Ethnologue list, with around 74 million of those speakers residing in India.

There are three main dialects, with the Andhra and Telangana dialects – with some exceptions – roughly spoken within those geographical areas, and the Rayalaseema dialect spoken in the four southern districts of Andhra Pradesh.

Spoken Telugu also has a system of inflection which can be confusing to the outsider, including as it does inflections for:

  • Number – singular or plural.
  • Gender – masculine, feminine, and neuter.
  • Case – nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, vocative, instrumental, and locative.

Marathi – approximately 71 million speakers Marathi is mainly spoken in the Maharashta state in Western India, where it is the official language. It’s also widely spoken in the nearby state of Goa, where it’s a co-official language.

Though the earliest examples of Marathi’s existence date back almost 2000 years, the oldest Marathi literature comes from around 900AD, making it lag a little behind Tamil in terms of having a “classical” past.

That said, Marathi is spoken by around 71 million people in modern-day India and is the 19th most-spoken language in the world, so it’s definitely “ahead” in terms of number of speakers. The language has two main dialects, Standard Marathi and the Varhadi dialect, though altogether there are more than 40 recognised dialects.

From a linguistic viewpoint, perhaps the most interesting feature of written Marathi is that the contemporary grammatical rules of the Maharashtra state give special precedence to words taken from Sanskrit. Sanskrit is possibly the oldest language in the world, dating back some 4000 years, and is the sacred language of Hinduism. These Sanskrit loanwords are known as tatsamas, and function in much the same way as Greek loanwords do in English. Examples of the latter might include “academia”, “syntax”, or “thesis”.

Tamil – approximately 61 million speakers Tamil is an official language of Sri Lanka and Singapore and one of the top twenty languages spoken worldwide according to the Ethnologue list. But in India, despite being spoken by more than 61 million people (almost the size of the entire population of the UK!), it is merely a face in the crowd. Though admittedly, a very popular face.

In his “Statement on the Status of Tamil as a Classical Language“, George Hart, a scholar at Berkeley University in California wrote that Tamil was “one of the great classical traditions and literatures of the world”. Certainly in India, it is probably the only language which could be said to have direct ties to a classical-era past, with the earliest examples of it in use said to date from 500BCE.

In modern India, Tamil is a language which features, or suffers from, diglossia; two dialects, in this case, a “low” and a “high” version, which are spoken by a single community, usually broken along socioeconomic lines.

Modern written Tamil consists of 12 vowels, 18 consonants and a special character called the “āytam“. It has three different forms:

  1. Classical literary style, or sankattamiḻ
  2. Modern literary or formal style, known as centamiḻ
  3. Modern colloquial style, called koṭuntamiḻ)

These three variants are not mutually exclusive and can borrow from each other in terms of vocabulary or forms.

All of these features combine to make this ancient, storied language often immensely confusing to the non-native speaker! The most-spoken languages in India I am text block. Click edit button to change this text. Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Ut elit tellus, luctus nec ullamcorper mattis, pulvinar dapibus leo.

When taken all together, even these “top five” indicate the sheer breadth of diversity even amongst the most spoken languages in India. And remember – there are still a further 24 languages which are spoken by more than a million people!

In a country where Linguistic Diversity Index statistics say that the odds of two random citizens having different native languages are over 90%, understanding where you are and who you’re speaking to is more important than ever.

Do you have some interesting facts about Indian languages which we haven’t covered here? Comment below and we might well add the best to our article!