(Representational image) (Photo: Reuters)
(Representational image) (Photo: Reuters)

Is Hindi becoming more popular in the South?

The spread of the language is driven largely by demographics and economics rather than any other factors, suggests data from Google and the Census

The draft National Education Policy, which initially proposed introducing three languages including Hindi into the national curriculum, sparked outrage in the southern states. And while the centre quickly retreated to diffuse the situation, for many South Indians, the episode further fuelled the perception that Hindi was being imposed on the South. A contributing factor to this perception of Hindi imposition could be the steady spread of Hindi across India and including the South. The data though paints a more nuanced picture: Hindi is entering the South through migration but is far from affecting South Indian languages.

A major channel for the spread of Hindi is culture and, specifically, Bollywood. Social scientists have long suggested that Bollywood is the critical vehicle for the spread of Hindi. For instance, as far back as 1987, linguist S.N Sridhar had suggested that cinema was the most effective and pervasive tool in spreading Hindi across India.

Quantifying this spread of Hindi through Bollywood is difficult but one approximate measure could be Google search interest in Hindi films. As more Indians get connected to the internet, the terms they search for on Google serve as a useful proxy of their interests. Mint analyzed Google search data to understand how popular Hindi films were in the South - and especially compared to regional films.

Increased frequency of Hindi films-related searches in the South would suggest that Bollywood is becoming more popular and Hindi is entering South India as a mainstream language. The data, though, suggests otherwise with regional cinema becoming even more popular in recent years according to Google’s data. For instance, in Tamil Nadu, over the last decade, there have been around seven times more searches for Kollywood-related (the Tamil film industry) terms than Bollywood. Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, there were around four-times more Tollywood-related searches than Bollywood in the same period. In both states, search interest in both regional industry films has actually increased over time. The exception here is Kerala where there was an overwhelmingly more search interest in Bollywood than the regional film industry.

The dominance of regional cinema suggests that Hindi has yet to enter mainstream entertainment in the South. Further evidence for this is the proliferation of regional content on streaming platforms such as Hotstar and Amazon Prime both of which have invested heavily in South Indian content. At least on this cultural measure, fears of Hindi’s spread could be overstated.

Another common notion among South Indians is that people from the South are far more likely to speak Hindi than a Hindi-speaker speaking a South Indian language - a point highlighted by Congress leader Shashi Tharoor recently. And this is borne out in the latest available data from the census 2011. Only 11% of Hindi-speakers speak a second language compared to more than 25% of South Indians. However, more multilingual south Indians speak English than Hindi, further reiterating the South Indian reluctance to adopt Hindi.

Despite the dominance of regional entertainment and preference for English, Hindi is still being spoken by increasingly more people in the south - thanks to population dynamics and migration. Across India, there has been a steady increase in the number of Hindi speakers (defined as those with Hindi as their mother tongue) over the last few decades. In 1971, 36.9% of Indians spoke Hindi as a first language but in 2011 this had increased to 46.6%. In contrast, the proportion of Southern language speakers has actually decreased. For instance, the percentage of Indians speaking Tamil decreased by 1.2 percentage points between 1971 and 2011 (from 6.9% to 5.7%) while Telugu speakers decreased by 1.46 percentage points (from 8.2% to 6.7%)

The relative rise of Hindi, though, is a function of population dynamics rather than any Hindi-imposition. Populations in Hindi-speaking states such as Uttar Pradesh have grown far faster than populations in the South. Many from the North are now also bringing Hindi into the South through migration.

For instance, in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the number of people who spoke Hindi as their mother-tongue doubled between 2001-2011. This corresponds to the increased migration into these states from poorer northern states. The 2016-17 Economic Survey highlighted how states with higher per capita income which include Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have emerged as the preferred destinations for labour migration. The survey also pointed out that language has not been a barrier to the movement of people across states.

All this suggests that economics and demographics, rather than any education policy, could be the factors that could make Hindi popular in southern India.