Asian Nations and Their Languages

By Pallavi Aiyar

Three large Asian nations -- China, India and Indonesia -- are polyphonic and geographically diverse. They all made different choices on their national language.

“Why don’t all Indians speak Hindi?” That question was put to me by a Chinese student at Peking University circa 2002. The girl in question was a Hindi-language scholar.

She was beginning to realize that, when it came to job prospects in India, English would be more useful to her than the language she had spent the last several years learning.

India’s dizzying multilingualism

I tried to explain India’s embrace of multilingualism. That it had 22 official languages. I talked about diversity. I spoke of the unfairness of prioritizing the tongue of some Indians over those of others.

The young woman stared at me blankly, unable to comprehend the idea that a country could be coherent in the absence of a unifying tongue.

To her, the idea that a nation requires a national language to act as a glue felt as obvious as stating that the sun was hot.

Linguistic decisions: Crucial and controversial

In fact, there is nothing obvious about the choices that different nations make when it comes to languages. The process of arriving at these decisions is often a fraught one, both crucial and controversial.

This is especially so in the context of polyphonic and geographically diverse countries like China, India and Indonesia – three large Asian nations that I have lived in.

The making of “Chinese”

In China, the Communist Party under the leadership of Mao Zedong pushed for Putonghua, a newly standardized idiom based on the language spoken in Beijing, to become what we now refer to as “Chinese.”

This took considerable social engineering to achieve. Prior to the 1950s, Han Chinese spoke nine main tongues that were in large part mutually unintelligible when spoken.

These included Mandarin (which became the basis for Putonghua), as well as Wu, Xiang, Gan, Jin, Kejia, Yue, Northern Min and Southern Min. Each grouping contained many subdialects.

Moreover, in China, non-Han peoples used to speak an additional 300-odd languages including Mongolian, Tibetan, Uyghur and Zhuang.


To consolidate state power, facilitate communication between the Chinese peoples and to promote literacy, Mao Zedong “reformed” Chinese to make Putonghua (literally “the common speech”) the national standard.

Chinese characters were also simplified in the manner of their writing. This made them easier to learn.

India: A nation without a language?

In stark contrast, there is India. Here, the initial intention of the post-colonial state — to adopt Hindi as the national language — was abandoned.

Massive protests and riots took place against the proposed imposition of Hindi on the entire country.

Hindi is a northern Indian language that belongs to a different linguistic group to the languages spoken in southern Indian states.

There are currently 22 official languages in India — and no national language.

Revealing contrast between India-China

The contrast between India and China’s linguistic trajectories highlights their strengths and weaknesses. India’s excess of languages reflects its choice of democracy and diversity at the risk of messiness and centrifugal tendencies.

Linguistic diversity and survival as a nation

India might have avoided Balkanization and therefore ensured its survival as a nation because it eschewed a national idiom. This choice in effect strengthened its political viability by allowing linguistically centrifugal forces.

In China, the ability to impose a single language was facilitated by a common writing system. The determination to do so reflects the prioritization of a strong state making decisions in the long-term “interests” of the nation, untrammeled by the inconvenience of the vote.

Indonesia: A third way

And then there is the case of Indonesia. A sprawling archipelago of over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is home to some 700 languages. Many of these do not share scripts or linguistic roots.

Like China, independent Indonesia also chose to adopt a single national language: Bahasa Indonesia.

What made this choice quite remarkable is that it was neither the language of the majority of citizens, nor of the political elite.

Those labels belonged to Javanese, a language spoken by most of the inhabitants of Java, Indonesia’s most populous island and the center of gravity of its nationalist movement.

Making Malay Indonesia’s national lingua franca

Bypassing its majority language, Javanese, in favor of a variety of Malay, whose standardized form was dubbed Bahasa Indonesia, was an unusual choice.

Yet, many Javanese nationalists involved in the discussions at the time not only acquiesced, but actively advocated Bahasa Indonesia as the logical choice for a national language.

Malay had functioned as a lingua franca across the archipelago for centuries. By the time it was officially adopted by the Indonesian nationalist movement in 1928, it had already emerged as a rallying symbol of resistance to colonial politics.

Under the Dutch colonial administration, “native” Indonesians were discouraged from learning Dutch. Consequently, unlike English in India, the colonial language of Dutch was not of much use in enabling nationalist consciousness in Indonesia.

Malay, on the other hand, had long been used by traders across the Southeast Asian region as the language of communication.

Flexibility and simplicity

Bahasa Indonesia was also a simple and flexible language. It had soaked up loan words from divergent cultural milieux.

Its amalgamation of words, borrowed from Sanskrit, Javanese, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English, were synthesized with a no-fuss grammar, written in the Roman script.

Language and literacy

Choosing a simplified national language as China and Indonesia did, arguably helped increase literacy in these countries. When the communists took over mainland China, the adult literacy rate in the country was below 20%. It is now over 96%.

Indonesia boasts a similarly impressive trajectory. When Jakarta declared its independence from the Netherlands in 1945, only five percent of Indonesians could read and write. This figure is now up to over 95%.

In contrast, the adult literacy rate in India remains low, at only 77-odd percent. This is no doubt a marked improvement from the 20% literacy the country began its post-colonial inheritance with.

However, it is possible that the sheer abundance of languages in India and their varying importance to personal success — local, regional, Hindi and English — have hampered policy efforts to improve literacy.

The downside for minority languages

It isn’t all good news for single national language nations, however. Smaller language groups in countries like China and Indonesia are threatened to a greater extent than in India. One of every four Indonesian languages, for example, is considered endangered.

Although many Indonesians still speak local dialects, when they write it is almost exclusively in Bahasa Indonesia. There hasn’t been a daily newspaper in Javanese, the “native language” of the archipelago’s largest ethnic group, for decades.


The language-nation link is thorny. Language matters to how both nations and individuals understand themselves. Wrapped up in a nation’s idiom(s) are questions of power, opportunities and identity.

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Asian Nations and Their Languages