Musings on Multilingualism in London and Mumbai

Shortly after I posted this, a slightly earlier version of the article was (finally!) published by the online magazine Scroll here.

“When we want to be dramatic or romantic,” Sangeeta informed me, “we speak Hindi. When we want to be formal, we speak English. But when we want to respect our family culture, we speak Marathi.”

I nod, enviously conscious of the fact that for me and many of my fellow Brits, conversation, whether formal or romantic, is mostly restricted to English. Yet the everyday multilingualism described by Sangeeta, a young graduate from a Mumbai suburb, is familiar to the point of cliché across India. Take my friend Murtaza, an architect based in Mumbai’s Lower Parel. I’ve heard him conduct business calls in Gujarati, then speak to his girlfriend in Hindi before Skyping his family in Mewari, all the while maintaining an English conversation with me.

Recently, I have found myself drawing comparisons between the linguistic life of my adopted home city, London, and the city that forms the basis of my academic research, Mumbai. London is frequently claimed as one of the world’s most multilingual cities, with 300 or more languages in regular use. Even on a short stroll through the city I wouldn’t be surprised to hear snippets of conversation in English, French, Urdu, Polish and Somali alongside numerous languages I cannot identify. For some this is a sign of cosmopolitanism to be celebrated, while for others, like comedian John Cleese, it makes for a London that is “no longer English”. A similar phenomenon was described by one Captain Hall who roamed the bazaars of Bombay (as Mumbai then was) in 1812 and heard “the sounds of every language” he had ever heard elsewhere. A century later, Joseph Gerson da Cunha described the city as a “real Babel of tongues”.

London Diversity

London diversity (credit:

Clearly there are some similarities between the two cities, but I can’t help wondering whether sheer number of languages spoken is an appropriate yardstick to measure the multilingualism of a place. In London, according to the 2011 UK Census, nearly four fifths of the city’s residents speak English as their main language, while the next five most widely spoken languages (Polish, Bengali, Gujarati, Urdu and Punjabi) only account for 1-2% each of the population. In Mumbai, by contrast, no one language is the mother tongue of more than half the city’s population. The frontrunner, at around 45%, is Marathi, while slightly under 20% each speak Gujarati and Hindi as a first language. Other languages spoken include Tamil, Sindhi, Kannada and Konkani.

Furthermore, the British, unlike Indians, are hardly noted for their polyglot tendencies, and nearly two thirds of the country speak only English. Of course, in multicultural London there is a higher prevalence of bilingualism, but even so, the dominance of English in public life is overwhelming. With a few exceptions, such as the use of French at St Pancras International Station and Bengali street signs around Brick Lane, public signs and announcements tend to be English only. Likewise, the vast majority of London’s schools teach in English medium.

In Mumbai, conversely, the trappings of official polyglossia are everywhere. Street signs are bilingual in English and Marathi at the very least, while trilingual station signs and railway announcements include Hindi too. Schools, meanwhile, operate in each of these language media, or in others such as Gujarati, Urdu and Tamil. Does this make Mumbai the more multilingual of the two cities? My own feeling is that treating multilingualism as a scale is meaningless in this context, and that it makes more sense to think of the two cities as multilingual in very different ways.


Trilingual station sign in Marathi (top), Hindi (middle) and English (credit: Wikimedia Commons, user Superfast1111)

In London, you can get by your entire life speaking only English, and would live a restricted life without it. Indeed, despite the populist perception that the British metropolis is overrun with foreigners who don’t speak a word of English, Census data indicate that only around 3% of Londoners can’t speak English even to a basic level. In Mumbai too, many regard English as the passport to commercial success, and the furious uptake of English-medium education has been likened to an “English storm”. I have met several Mumbaikars who went to a Marathi medium school themselves but are determined that their children be schooled in English.

Simultaneously, however, a regionalist orientation in local government has pushed the Marathi agenda into prominence in recent decades. Directives have been issued for all state schools to teach Marathi, for buildings to display nameplates in Marathi and even for multiplex cinemas to allocate a certain number of screenings each year to Marathi films. This also appears to extend to law enforcement. “All the cops here speak Marathi,” Murtaza once told me, “so if you get into trouble it pays to know some of the language.” Others have gone further, hinting at darker consequences for failure to speak Marathi. More constructive, however, are private initiatives such as Mumbai resident Kaushik Lele’s excellent Learn Marathi blog which has been a lifeline for many students of the language (including me).

Despite these moves, the language most commonly heard in public (at least outside the Marathi-dominated former cotton mill belt) is, arguably, Hindi. While the city has a sizeable population with roots in Hindi-speaking North India, the use of Hindi extends well beyond this community. Indeed, Mumbai is famous for its “Bambaiya” variety which has been celebrated as a “mongrel language” by historian Gyan Prakash and functions as a lingua franca across the city. More than one North Indian acquaintance has admitted to me that mastering the nuances of Bambaiya felt more of a priority than learning Marathi when they settled in Mumbai.

Again, speaking as a monolingually-raised Brit, the idea of London or any other British city functioning in a language other than English is hard to imagine. Equally hard to imagine is London as the centre of a world-famous French or German film industry. I therefore forgive my 18-year old self, arriving in Mumbai for the first time in 2003, for assuming that Bollywood produced Marathi films. Actually, the most accurate label for the language of Bollywood films is a matter of ongoing debate. Hindi? Hindustani? Some even suggest Urdu, and arguably the fact that Bollywood gets dragged into cross-border politics with Pakistan is an indirect consequence of the linguistic (if not cultural) unity of Hindi and Urdu.


Poster for Anarkali with Hindi, English and Urdu text (credit:

Meanwhile, the more explicitly linguistic brand of identity politics that Mumbai continues to experience has faint parallels in London. Ethnolinguistic identity is increasingly coming under the spotlight in the wake of the “Brexit” vote to leave the European Union. Successive British governments have demonised those immigrants not yet able to speak English, while in 2016 PM Theresa May damned cosmopolitanism everywhere by proclaiming that “If you believe you are a citizen of the world you are a citizen of nowhere.”

So far, neither city seems to be losing linguistic richness as a result. London retains the edge in terms of number and diversity of languages spoken, although in practical terms it is dominated by English. In Mumbai linguistic capital is more evenly distributed. English may be essential for getting ahead, but Marathi remains the most widely spoken mother tongue, and its importance in greasing the wheels of diplomacy is perhaps growing. And regarding Hindi, I’ll let Sangeeta have the (almost) last word: “in times of crisis and riots, Bollywood binds Mumbai together. Everybody speaks Hindi. Everybody understands Hindi songs.” Not, I suspect, entirely accurate, but nevertheless profoundly sincere.