If you ever need a reminder of the diversity of India, just take a look at any currency note. On the back, you will find the value of note in fifteen languages, along with English and Hindi.
India’s languages are perhaps the most telling way that this is a country of countries. It is possible that you could have a room of four or five Indians and none of them would be able to understand the other.
Why should I care about the languages of India? Don’t they speak English well enough?
It’s true that most Indians that you will do business with speak English at a high level. In fact, most of them speak at least three. Understanding the linguistic talents of Indians will give you a lot more respect for their abilities and make you less likely to correct any inconsequential errors you notice.
A person’s ‘mother-tongue’ is a very special and intimate part of their being. It is quite rare for an outsider to be able to recognize someone’s heart language. If you can show that you care enough to know even just the name of someone’s first language, you will build a lot of relational capital.
Finally, it is important to recognize that when you work with a group of Indians, you should insist on people using a language that is universally known and most comfortable. For example, if you are working in Chandigarh, and everyone speaks Hindi except for you (and they are not comfortable in English), then the onus is on you to up your language skills. However, if you are in Chennai with a group of Tamilians and a few northerners mixed in, you should insist on the team using English and not Tamil for the sake of those who will feel uncomfortable and left out.