Speaking the same language is far from a guarantee of understanding. As an interculturalist and interpersonal communications consultant, I am often asked to advise working with Indians… My country of birth is an intriguing and bewildering place. This is sometimes true even for people born and raised there. So, let us start with the basics.
Our own brand of English also known as Hinglish (a combination of Hindi and English).
In a country where there are 23 official languages, English is often the common denominator for communicating even between Indians and it is estimated that English is spoken by more Indians than in the UK or Australia.
Indian English, however, has many cultural idiosyncrasies and below are just a few examples that I hope will make you smile and also explain a few things. The expression ‘ The notion of time as being more fluid and less linear and therefore also much less stressful than in the occident. This is something that Indians intrinsically understand and that foreigners soon learn to deal with and accept, at least if they want to successfully work or live in India for an extended period. Indian Stretchable Time’. Ever had to In my varied cultural experience, I learned English in India but also studied in both the British and American educational systems. Some peculiarities of the language were so natural that I did not even know that they were not used elsewhere. One such word is ‘preponed,’ the perfectly logical opposite to postponed. By the time a British friend pointed it out to me, I had been teaching it to my students for years so do not be surprised if you hear a French executive using ‘ prepone a meeting? preponed’ with confidence! Acronym alert! PIO, CIO, FIR The acronyms in our newspapers can be a perplexing whirlwind of utter nonsense. There is, of course, no rule of etiquette that says that any of these are to be explained at the first use! For the unwitting foreigner or worse the : NRIlike myself, there are only two choices – Smile, and look clever, or choose to stand with the brave and ask for explanations. However, you must be aware that this is at the risk of exposing yourself to that special mixt of disdain and pity reserved for the uninitiated! The cultural concepts: The ‘convent educated, fair girls’ to the ‘educated abroad’ there are expressions that have layers of cultural sub-meanings that would warrant an entire article dedicated to them. The Sunday matrimonial ads also have their secret code of abbreviations. The matrimonial section of the newspapers uses abbreviations because it was a system in which you paid for the ad by line or by letter and the result of this is obscure abbreviations as can be seen in this example, ‘High-status family. Match for Smart, Fair, Slim Brahmin, girl 27/5'2" convented b'ful working in top MNC’. The mix between Hindi and English: I will be passing out of college…while passing out may be interpreted by most as a need for urgent medical assistance, this phrase has its roots in the Hindi-English expression ‘I am 10th Pass or I am 12th Pass’ (Dasavi Pass or Baravi Pass)which essentially means that the person has completed a particular level or exam. The direct translations: The expression ‘My friend is eating my brain!’ or ( Mera sar kha rahi hai) roughly means he is nagging me and ‘She is sitting on my head!’ ( Sar pe baheti hai), watching me closely and therefore stressing me out… Micromanagement anyone?! Both of these expressions are direct translations and their meaning is so perfectly clear to all Hinglishspeakers that almost none would think to provide a translation. The archaic expressions from colonial times: There are some expressions that one only hears in Indian English and although they might have been part of the mainstream language at some point they are hardly ever used abroad. “Please do the needful” and “in a jiffy” (doing something quickly) are a couple of examples. Hindi movie with English subtitles: The strangeness, however, takes on another dimension when watching a Hindi movie with English subtitles. In general, with translations, we lose much of the cultural context but the songs or ‘Bollywood numbers’ take the concept of lost in translation to another level of absurdity. Released from their cultural moorings Bollywood songs just do not translate.
As with the food, Indian English is the spicy version and it takes a little getting used to…but once you try them you will relish them both.
Nandita Sood Perret is a communications consultant and leadership coach at CTD Cultural Insights, where she helps people and companies break through old patterns, to develop new perspectives and innovative solutions for collaboration and growth. Read Nandita Sood Perret's columns