In her role as program director at Unbound, Pritha Hariharan visits sponsored child Antony at his home in India.
Jan 30 2017

The uniqueness of Indian English

In her role as program director at Unbound, Pritha Hariharan visits sponsored child Antony at his home in India.

In her role as program director at Unbound, Pritha Hariharan visits sponsored child Antony at his home in India.

By Pritha Hariharan, program director for Unbound’s international programs

“I passed out of college in 1996.”

I said this to a mostly American audience, only to receive a mixture of horrified and puzzled looks. An Indian friend helpfully stepped in and explained that I had not, in fact, fainted in said year, but had graduated from college at that time. That was my first exposure to the idea that there are some phrases in Indian English that are very uniquely Indian. So much so that many Americans wouldn’t know what I was referring to unless they have spent a significant amount of time either traveling in India or working with other Indians.

Don’t get me wrong. Almost everyone knows that there are some basic differences — that we in India use British English — such as adding the u in “colour” and calling an elevator a “lift” and an apartment a “flat.” However, the uniqueness of some of these phrases is worth pointing out, especially to sponsors who might be a bit confused by the letters they’ve received from their sponsored children in India.

When a sponsored child writes to her sponsor that she is “doing her graduation” in chemistry, the sponsor might wonder what that means. While Americans think of graduation as an event that happens at the end of a course of study, most Indian students use it to describe the process of pursuing a course of study that will eventually lead to a degree.

Along the same lines, while the words “degree” and “diploma” are used interchangeably in the U.S. to describe the document received at graduation, a diploma in India usually indicates a course of study that is not a college degree, but rather a course that is akin to technical college.

Similarly, when I refer to a “batchmate,” I am usually referring to someone in the same graduating class. This is different from a classmate, who might have taken some classes with me, but not necessarily passed out of college the same year as I did.

I also happen to have been “convent-educated.” One might conjure up images of nuns in convents. While this is a fair understanding of the expression, what it actually means is that I went to a school (not a convent) that was managed and administered by — yes — nuns! What really distinguishes this school from others, though, is the language of instruction. English is just one of the 22 officially recognized languages in India, and schools with English instruction are generally run by Catholic missionaries.

If a sponsored child writes to let you know that he received a “freeship,” you might want to congratulate him, as he is referring to receiving a full payment for college or university studies — in other words, a full-ride scholarship, a very special honor reserved only for the brightest and smartest.

On her first day of college, your sponsored child might wear “cooling glasses” to protect her eyes from the sun. These would be sunglasses, also sometimes known as “shades.” When the sponsored child raises her hand in class to say she “has a doubt,” she means it in the sense that an American would say, “I have a question.” She is certainly not expressing mistrust in the teacher!

All those hours of studying might get tiresome, and the same sponsored child might decide to “do some timepass,” which accurately describes the act of passing the time, usually in an activity of little to no value such as watching a mindless television show or staring at the wall. The child’s parents might “crib” about the child spending too much time timepassing. When someone cribs in India, they are actually complaining.

Let’s say the same sponsored child got an invitation to a party — she might receive notification that the event has been “preponed.” The opposite of postponement, the preponement of a party would be a child’s dream! Unless she has a schedule conflict, in which case she might crib about and have to “revert back” (respond) to the host to let them know she cannot make it so that they can “do the needful” to plan for the event accordingly. Doing the needful is a delightful Indian phrase that basically means doing what is necessary.

However, if she does end up going to the party, it is very likely she would “freak out” — no, she wouldn’t be shocked or disoriented, but rather have a wonderful time.

So, now you know a little more about Indian English. I might suggest you ask your friends if they have any “doubts” about Indian English, and upon answering their questions correctly, you will have “passed out” of my course.

Want to learn more about other cultures? Consider going on an awareness trip with Unbound!

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