Does Speaking Indic As a Native Language Help You Learn English?

Commenters are discussing this question. Mr. India first said that Indians speak English well because they speak an Indo-European language natively. First of all, it’s dubious whether most Indians speak an Indic language natively. Many speak Dravidian and Asiatic languages natively.

Wade: I doubt that the fact that both are Indo-European really matters a lot. I doubt learning Russian would be easy just because I speak English. The European countries don’t have a “native” English tradition implanted by colonialism like India does.Cyrus: Trust me when I say it does, Wade. It is more than just remembering words, but a way of thinking. For you to learn Russia would be simpler than if you tried to learn Chinese. Like wise, you could pick up Persian far easier than Turkish. I’ve seen that happen over and over again.

The problem is that the obvious cognates are few and far between. I know Indo-European studies pretty well, and I have been through a lot of the IE etymological dictionary (Pokorny). Indic is one of the most screwed up branches as far as cognates with English are concerned. Sure there are lots of cognates, but they look little or nothing like their English cognate words! Iranic is similar – there are almost no obvious cognates left that I’m aware of. The cognates are there, but they are badly mangled.
Slavic is bad too, but I think maybe not quite as bad as Indo-Iranian. Baltic is bad, maybe the same as Slavic or closer.
The closest to English are obviously Germanic and Italic, which obviously has lots of words in which cognates line up quite well with English words, though in many cases the only English word cognate anymore is a dead one from Old English or Middle English.
For some reason, Celtic is actually ok as far as English cognates, but a lot of them are pretty removed from the English word, and it’s a stretch to see how the Celtic looks like the English word. But it’s probably second after Italic – Germanic.
Greek is ok due to all the borrowings, but there’s not a lot there either, plus the alphabet is different, so that seems to ruin everything.
Albanian and Armenian are disasters. There’s virtually nothing left, and the few cognates typically look almost nothing like the English word.
I have known many speakers of Dravidian languages and many speakers of Indian Indic languages. The Dravidian speakers’ English is no better or worse than the Indic speakers’ English.
Speaking Indic as a native language seems to be little or no benefit in learning English as opposed to speaking Dravidian as a native language.

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10 thoughts on “Does Speaking Indic As a Native Language Help You Learn English?”

  1. Well Robert and Wade, I was coming not so much from word common origin, as to sentence structure, and even the fundamental construction of words themselves. At the risk of sounding subjective, I believe the actual thought-processes behind language come into play. An Indian gets the logic of English down before a Chinese person would.
    Wade does have a point, though. How do the Dravidian speakers compare to the Indo-European speakers in English fluency on the Indian-Subcontinent? Is there a major difference, and if so, why?

  2. I agree with Cyrus. When it comes to learning a language, it isn’t only the lexical part that matters, but also the grammatical aspect, which can be subdivided in morphology and syntax. Those can vary enormously between languages.
    For instance, the hardest part of learning a Slavic language for an English-speaker is probably the case system. In my experience, the part of Dutch and German that English-speakers have the most difficulty with is syntax, because that’s where the greatest differences lie. It isn’t easy for Anglophones to say ” In Italy has Berlusconi a vote of non-confidence survived.” or “I just read that in Italy Berlusconi a vote of non-confidence survived has.” That’s exactly how a Dutchmen or German would say it.
    Regards. James

  3. Firtsly, most Indians in Northern India do speak Indo-European languages. The number of people speaking Dravdian is at most 24% and Tibeto-Burman languages would be around 3% at most. In fact, even half of Northeasterners actually speak Indo-European Languages such as Assamese, although some Tibeto-Burman and Austro-Asiatic words may have crept in.
    Secondy, I think it does help because there is greater familiarity between somewhat related languages than there would be between totally unrelated languages, say, between English and Mandarin.
    Having said that, there appears to be loads of very similar words between English and Spanish and yet many Hispanics in America struggle to speak good English. But that could also be because Hispanics do not bother to learn English as many seem to live and work with other Spanish speaking people so there is no great to learn English.
    Another reason why Indians may speak English well is because the middle classes just speak it. There is also term called ‘Hinglish’ which basically combines Hindi with English so you will often find during conversations people frequently use English words in dribs and drabs while speaking Hindi (or any of the other regional languages). Many of the sentences are panctuated with one or two English words while conversing. This is very common among upper and middle classes. Its also very common in many Bollywood films.

  4. I often wonder how much about another languages grammar you can learn by observing the mistakes they make in english.
    I often notice that at chinese restaurants that it seems like they don’t know how to use plurals. When labeling things like cheese stickS they will often put cheese stick instead. I wonder if it is realated to the way plurals are done in chinese or if it’s just something a lot chinese people forget to do when writing english.

  5. Dear Wade
    You are absolutely right. All nouns in Chinese are uncountable nouns, like water, grass and cattle in English.
    In spoken French, nouns have no plural form, so a lot of French Canadians say for instance two car, four dog, etc.
    In the Slavic languages, there are no articles, so you hear Slavs getting the article wrong all the time. Either they put one where none should be used or they drop the article where one should have been used.
    Regards. James

    1. “In spoken French, nouns have no plural form, so a lot of French Canadians say for instance two car, four dog, etc”
      Is written frech different? Do you know if they do something similar in the other romance languages spoken in France like Occitan?

  6. I agree that Indo-European languages might have a similar basic thought process that other language families don’t share. I can’t comment on Indic languages, but as a parallel I can tell you the common mistakes Indonesian people tend to make when they speak English:
    – Confusing genders. Indonesian does not distinguish between “he”, “she” and “it”. You use the same word and you rely on context; if I start talking about “Mr Smith”, then the maleness is just assumed. So it’s very common for Indonesians speaking English to refer to males as “she” and vice versa.
    – Confusing tense. Indonesian has no separate markers for tenses (as in the English “had”/”has”/”will have”/”is having”). It’s all context – once I establish that I’m talking about something that happened yesterday, it is just assumed that I’m speaking in past tense, and I use the same verbs as I would if I was talking about the future. Obviously, when speaking English, Indonesians can forget to apply tense to their verbs, saying things like “yesterday I go to the shop”.
    – Plurals. Many Indonesians say things like “I own 2 house” or “I saw lot of person over there”, because it makes perfect sense in Indonesian, which has no suffixes for plurality, relying instead on context.

  7. Dear Wade
    Yes, written French is different. For instance, in the sentence “Les personnes riches sont en moyenne plus instruites que les personnes pauvres” = “Rich people are on average more educated than poor people”, there are 7 plural s’s, not one of which is pronounced.
    That’s why French writing is tricky. A lot of it is based on grammar rather than sound. For instance, parlez, parler, parlé, parlée, parlés and parlées are all all pronuonced in the same way. The difference between them is purely grammatical.
    Sorry, I can’t tell you anything about other Latin languages spoken in France.
    Cheers. James

  8. Guys they are Indo-Aryan or Vedic languages not Indian Indic or whatever.
    But these are good observations. Languages being of a common family means nothing as their evolution can go about in any direction mainly depending on the location of speakers. If IE tribes had settled in the heart of Africa in ancient times we’d have a completely separate branch of IE today.

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