India has over 200 languages, a testament to the country's vast cultural diversity. Hindi is the official language and, next to English and Chinese, the world's most commonly spoken tongue. It uses a phonetic system of writing based on an alphabet of 61 letters. However, Indians often know Hindi only as a second language. At school, lessons are taught in the regional language, while in business, government and university-or wherever a common tongue is needed-Indians use English. People in India often grow up learning several languages at once.

Urdu and Punjabi are usually spoken by Muslims in the north, where many languages are closely related. In southern India, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada and Malayalam are more common, while Gujarati and Marathi are spoken in the west. About three-quarters of Indian languages are Indo-European, meaning that they share grammatical and other similarities in the same way that French and Italian do. Languages like Tamil and Malayalam come from the Dravidian group. Some Indian languages have their own distinct writing systems, though the majority, including Hindi, use the Davanagri script.

Indians do not use surnames as people do in the West. Instead, people are referred to by their first names; for example, a woman named Latha Vemuri would be called Miss Latha. Muslims are known by their given names followed by bin (son of) or binti (daughter of), plus the father's given name. Sikhs use given names followed by either Singh (for men) or Kaur (for women); only the given name is used for address.

Indians meeting for the first time generally greet each other formally and respectfully. The most popular form of greeting is commonly called the namaste, a slight bow with the hands pressed together in front of the face. Not all Indians are comfortable with touching strangers, and the namaste allows people to greet each other without physical contact. Once past the formal greeting, Indian strangers will often spend a large amount of time trying to find some connection between them, no matter how small. Questions about birthplace, family and marital status are accepted ways of establishing an acquaintance.

Indians do not usually use the words "please" and "thank you," believing that actions are performed from a sense of duty and do not require these courtesies. Indians try to avoid conflict and often will not say no directly, preferring to give a more polite answer such as "I will try."

English Hindi
Yes Han
No Nahin
Goodbye Phir milenge
Any greeting (hands clasped or folded) Namaste

  Did you know?
The ancient Sanskrit language is the mother of all Indian languages.