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Indian language teaching at Inalco : A brief summary

Visit of H.E. Mr. Javed Ashraf, Ambassador of India to France


2, rue de Lille

75007 Paris

March 9, 2020

Speech title : Indian language teaching at Inalco : A brief summary



Shahzaman Haque

Co-director, Department of South Asia & Himalaya

INALCO, Paris.



Your Excellency,

President and Vice-Presidents of the University,

President of the Inalco Foundation,

And my dear, esteemed colleagues,


I am very honored to have the privilege to speak to you this evening on behalf of Inalco about the historical importance of Indian languages, a subject that is especially close to our institution’s heart.

As Edward Sapir once wrote, “Language is the most massive and inclusive art”. That wonderful art facilitates mutual understanding and continues to inspire thousands of French and international students to learn languages, especially Indian languages, at our esteemed institution. History is the witness that we have demonstrated through our energy and our efforts a deep commitment to promoting knowledge and mutual understanding by enhancing the study of all aspects of the East.

At Inalco, we are proud to offer the opportunity to meet and interact with people from over one hundred and twenty countries within our student body and faculty, and one of those countries is India. It is my very great pleasure to tell you that, for over 200 years, we have attracted students from France and beyond to study Indian languages, such as Sanskrit, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, and Urdu, all of which are recognized as official languages by the Constitution of India.

Thanks in no small part to Inalco, the 19th century saw France become Europe’s central hub of Indian studies, attracting scholars who were motivated by an intense passion to learn Indian languages, which they intended to use to understand the mysteries of the subcontinent’s uniquely rich civilizations. Just as Nalanda University in India attracted students from abroad in the 4th century, so, from the early 19th century onwards, European intelligentsia flocked to Inalco.

One of the first Indian languages taught here was Sanskrit. Its early European students saw the language as the skeleton key to unlock the academic treasures, cultural knowledge, and religious insights of the subcontinent. Among their number were famous scholars, such as the German orientalist, Franz Bopp, who came to this very building in 1812, followed by his compatriots Julius Klaproth in 1815 and Auguste Schlegel in 1823. The celebrated Norwegian orientalist, Christian Lassen also spent three years here learning Sanskrit from 1823 to 1826.

Understanding Sanskrit remains of great importance for linguists and grammarians all over the world, as well as for scholars of India’s classical period and those who wish to understand the doctrines and rituals of Hinduism. We are proud to still teach it at Inalco to this day.

Hindi and Urdu have a particularly rich history and bond with our Institution. The two languages were first taught here under the name “Hindustani” in 1828. At that time, Inalco was the only European institution teaching this language.

The statue which we see in the courtyard is of Silvestre de Sacy, to whom we are indebted, as he had a great connection with Indian languages. It was his idea to create a Chair of Hindustani in 1830. Lessons in Hindustani were started in 1828 by his student, Garcin de Tassy, a great scholar of the language. De Tassy taught Hindustani using both the Devanagari and the Perso-Arabic scripts. He remains a towering figure in the history of Indian languages in France because he was the first Head of the Chair of Hindustani at Inalco.

To this day, Hindi continues to be the most popular course offered by the South Asian Department. The language now has over 600 million speakers worldwide, and our course attracts not only French students but others from European countries such as Poland, Italy, and The Netherlands. Last year, 110 students were enrolled on Hindi language courses, making it the fourteenth most popular language in terms of enrolment among the 100 oriental languages taught at Inalco.

Urdu was originally taught alongside Hindi, but from 1962, a separate course was established and a Chair of Urdu created, a position that I have been very honored to occupy since 2015.

Tamil language teaching started here in 1868, after Garcin de Tassy, argued in favor of its introduction. Due to a lack of professors, there was a gap from 1871 to 1879. However, from that date onwards, Tamil language teaching benefited from a growing interest in Dravidian studies and Classical Tamil. It was, at one time, used to train public servants for the French settlements in India.

Bengali was not introduced at Inalco until relatively late, 1930 to be precise. Coincidentally that was the very year when the great Bengali poet, painter, philosopher, and Nobel-prize winner Rabindranath Tagore came to Paris. Unfortunately, the teaching of Bengali was interrupted after just two years. However, it resumed from 1964 and remains a part of our Indian languages offering to this day.

The teaching of the Telegu language started here in 1973 and, from 1982, it has had its own chair.

Apart from the numerous renowned French professors who have taught Indian languages here, Inalco has had the honor of recruiting many Indian-origin professors to teach the five Indian languages that we offer. Our teaching staff have come from more than 10 different cities or states in India, including Agra, Allahabad, Almora, Kolkata, Nagpur, Pune, Simla, Bihar, Chennai, Delhi, Hyderabad, Madhya Pradesh, Pondicherry and Rajasthan.

Currently, we are the only European institution offering fully-fledged bachelor’s, master’s, and Ph.D. programs in five Indian languages: Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Telegu, and Urdu. This means that we have the unique privilege of being the only place in Europe that can compete with the offerings of North American universities when it comes to Indian languages.

Your Excellency, building on our esteemed past and our unique present position, we are highly committed to forging further alliances with Indian universities, sending our students to India on exchange programs, and enhancing long-term, cutting-edge scientific cooperation in the fields of literature, language, and the humanities.

Thank you, once again, for taking the time to listen to the history of Indian language teaching here at Inalco. For over 200 years, we have been proud to be facilitating deeper connections between India and the rest of the world. We look forward to continuing to do the same in the future, forging ever stronger collaborations with our colleagues in universities across India to promote knowledge and the culture of the subcontinent for the common benefit of humanity.

Thank you.