When Kanan Gupta landed an internship at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru, he didn’t think twice about accepting it. A student of mathematics at Ashoka University, Sonipat, Gupta has been in Bengaluru for two months and is slowly picking up bits of the local language. His job doesn’t require him to speak Kannada but he has learnt a few phrases to get by.

“I have been lucky because Bengaluru is very metropolitan but I have realized it helps to know the local language, at least the basics," he says.

He is not the only one. As Indians become more mobile, the chances of them relocating to different cities increase. In a country like India, which has 22 official languages and is home to over 780 others according to a 2013 People’s Linguistic Survey of India (PLSI) study, being able to speak, read and write at least one other language aside from your mother tongue and English isn’t such a stretch. In fact, data from the 2001 census on bilingualism and trilingualism showed 255 million people spoke at least two languages and 87.5 million, three or more.

While it may be too early to label this a trend, the demand for learning Indian languages seems to be on the rise. The language learning app Duolingo, for instance, launched its first Hindi course for English speakers on 19 July. There are several institutes offering Indian-language classes—both classroom teaching and online—for the interested pupil, says Raghavendra Prasad, founder, IndLangs, a language training institute based in Bengaluru. Companies too are also organizing workshops to help employees adjust better to a new city, he says.

Saravanavasan K.S., associate vice-president, learning and development, at Omega Healthcare Management Services Pvt. Ltd, says there is no one career where multilingualism is crucial. “Being fluent in more than one language is often a differentiator rather than a core competency," he says.

Ramraj Pai, president, CRISIL, a global analytics company, says that knowing multiple languages can help build a culture of trust in an office environment where employees or customers are spread across the country. “Personally, and professionally, knowing languages can help you build good human relationships, which is an additional plus in any business," says Pai, who speaks English, Hindi, Tamil, Bengali and Konkani.

Two months into his internship, Kanan Gupta is using basic Kannada in his day-to-day life.Photo: Jithendra M/Mint
Two months into his internship, Kanan Gupta is using basic Kannada in his day-to-day life.Photo: Jithendra M/Mint

T.N. Hari, human resources head at online supermarket BigBasket, agrees with Pai. His ability to converse in English, Hindi, Kannada, Telugu, Bengali, Odia, Marathi and Tamil has been extremely helpful. “I can walk into any of our distribution centres across India and do focus group sessions with our staff, addressing everyone in their language. They trust me and open up," says Hari. Recalling how a Union minister warmed up to a conversation when he realized Hari understood his mother tongue and grew up in his province, he says: “It helped break the ice and build a rapport. Even if the conversation is in English, the moment the person across the table knows you speak his/her language, a special bond is established and it becomes much easier to do business. People, after all, do business with those they like and trust."

The increased interest in learning a new language could well be for purely professional reasons, rather than a love of learning. Rita Kothari, professor of English at Ashoka University, says: “I find fewer people with fluency in their own languages, and less literacy in scripts other than Roman. However, a notion that knowing the local context and language is helpful may have got strengthened, largely for reasons of market research, not as a carrier of intellectual or emotional discourses."

Bengaluru’s IndLangs offers online and offline Kannada classes to individuals, companies as well as groups in housing societies. Most of their 4,000 clients over the last eight years have come from the professional world. Prasad says interest has gone up in recent years, with company HR teams reaching out to them to organize short-term courses for employees.

“In Bengaluru, you can manage with English and some Hindi. But if you are in certain professions which require you to be in the field, talk to government officials or be in the sales teams, you will find it easier to know the local language. Many of our clients are from NGOs, or lawyers who have to work with documents drafted in Kannada, or people who work with local vendors," he says.

One of Prasad’s former students, Rohit Srivastav, moved from Lucknow to Bengaluru to set up ARBS Power Solutions, an electrical equipment supplier to the Karnataka government. So, Prasad’s work involved not just marketing the product but also making technical presentations to government officials, giving technical instructions to the field staff and setting up an office comprising mainly locals.

“I needed to build a working rapport with them. I learnt Kannada as a trade skill. But even without that, general navigation, talking to people and being part of the city, required me to speak and understand comfortably in Kannada," he says.

Hari believes it’s especially important to know multiple Indian languages today. “India is a growing economy and migration within the country is very high at all levels," he says, adding, “At every level, the workforce is becoming more cosmopolitan, and more so at the bottom of the pyramid. If leaders are to be effective in this milieu, being multilingual in Indian languages is a critical success factor."

Learn a new language

Nativemonks.com: Marathi, Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Punjabi, Sindhi, Rajasthani and Sanskrit.

Urbanpro.com: Hindi, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada.

Verbalplanet.com: Bengali, Punjabi, Tamil, Telugu, Urdu.

Learnkannadafluency.com: Kannada.