More Indians speak English than any other language, with the sole exception of Hindi. What's more, English speakers in India outnumber those in all of western Europe, not counting the United Kingdom. And Indian English-speakers are more than twice the UK's population.
These facts emerge from recently released census 2001 data on bilingualism and trilingualism in India. Indians' linguistic prowess stood revealed with as many as 255 million speaking at least two languages and 87.5 million speaking three or more. In other words, about a quarter of the population speaks more than one language.
English was the primary language for barely 2.3 lakh Indians at the time of the census, more than 86 million listed it as their second language and another 39 million as their third language. This puts the number of English speakers in India at the time to more than 125 million.
The only language that had more speakers was Hindi with 551.4 million. This includes 422 million, who list it as the primary language, 98.2 million for whom it was a second language and 31.2 million who listed it as their third.
The rise of English puts Bengali, once India's second largest language in terms of primary speakers, in distant third place. Those who spoke Bengali as their first, second or third language add up to 91.1 million, far behind English.
Telugu with 85 million speakers in all and Marathi with 84.2 million retain their position behind Bengali as does Tamil with 66.7 million and Urdu with 59 million.
Gujarati now falls behind Kannada though it has a sizeable number of primary speakers — 6.1 million — compared to Kannada's 37.9 million.
Karnataka's linguistic diversity means that many list other languages as their first and Kannada as a second language. This adds 11.5 million to the ranks of Kannada speakers and another 1.4 million use it as a third language. In total, Kannada had 50.8 million speakers in 2001 compared to Gujarati's 50.3 million.
Oriya overtakes Malayalam thanks to the 3.3 million people who listed it as their second language and 3.2 lakh who said it was their third language.
The total number of Oriya speakers was 36.6 million against 33.8 million who spoke Malayalam. Punjabi, with 31.4 million speakers, and Assamese with 18.9 million are among India's most spoken languages.
Unfortunately, the census asked people to list a maximum of three languages, so it is not known how many speak more languages.
The data covers only those over five because the census assumed that younger children would only know their mother tongue.
As expected, urban Indians are more likely to be multi-lingual but as many as 136.7 million rural Indians speak at least two languages.