English is widely regarded as the language of international business. India, which went through nearly 200 years of colonial British rule, is estimated to have more than 200 million people who speak the language. For most English-speaking business people, this makes local communication more convenient in New Delhi or Mumbai than, say, in Shanghai or Beijing. Still, is knowing English enough for companies that want to do business in India, or should global executives also start slogging away at Hindi, the most widely spoken among India’s 22 official languages?

This question arose recently when the University of Pennsylvania’s Lauder Institute decided to offer a Hindi language track starting in May 2011, in which students will spend a two-month long immersion program in India. How important is it to know Hindi to do business in India? India Knowledge at Wharton discussed this question and more with Mauro Guillen, a professor of management at Wharton and director of the Lauder Institute, and Shiv Khemka, a member of the Lauder board and vice chairman of the SUN Group, which invests and manages private equity funds in emerging markets.

An edited version of the conversation appears below.

India Knowledge at Wharton: It is often said that English is the mother tongue of the Indian — and perhaps the global — business class. Why then is there a need for a business language track in Hindi? Mauro, could you start us off on that?

Mauro Guillen: We believe that it is, first of all, very important to have a new program on India because India has become a very important economy in the world. Indian companies are investing abroad. We have a tradition of helping students not just learn how to do business in a particular country, but also to understand the culture and the history and the way politics unfolds in ways that may be very relevant to business.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Shiv, what do you think?

Shiv Khemka: Of course, it is true that many people in business speak English in India. India is probably one of the world’s largest English-speaking nations. At the same time, I think that all of us who do business in India speak English and Hindi or a vernacular [language] often interchangeably. We feel comfortable in that and often don’t even realize when we slip into our own language. Since Hindi is the predominantly spoken language in India, particularly north India, it is used more frequently in terms of [business] discussions.

Also you have thousands of entrepreneurs blooming in every region, in every city and in every town. It is no longer a few large industrial groups that control the Indian economy. Many of these young entrepreneurs feel comfortable [doing business] in Hindi. So it is extremely important for business people and students who want to do business in India and understand the culture to speak good Hindi.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Will knowledge of Hindi be required over the long term to do business in India or is this a short-term requirement?

Khemka: All of us realize that English is the global business language. Wherever you go in the world, if you haven’t mastered English as a business language, you have a disadvantage. [Also] given India’s historical ties with Britain, speaking English well is considered not a virtue, but a duty. People who [get] into business have ambitions of expanding their business, bringing in global partners, global financing, global connectivity and, therefore, the importance of English is stressed to their children, to their colleagues and so on.

However, Hindi remains an important language to connect and allow people to work within India. Also for the political classes in India you will notice that Hindi is a critical language. Sonia Gandhi [the Italian-born leader of India’s Congress Party] today speaks perfect Hindi. Given the nexus between politics, business, media and so on — I don’t think the question of English and Hindi is either-or; the answer is definitely both.

India Knowledge at Wharton: Mauro, what is your view of the long-term perspective of teaching business in Hindi?

Guillen: Over the long-term, as I mentioned earlier, it makes all the sense in the world to take India and Indian companies very seriously. We have here a very good example of this with the SUN group of companies, which have a presence in major emerging economies including Russia as well as others. It is very important now that India has become a major player in the global economy for the rest of us to learn more about it and also to help not just MBA students who have an interest in India realize their dreams, but also to enrich the experiences of all of the other students who may not have a direct interest in India but could possibly or potentially learn quite a bit from India. Indian companies are making a dent in global competition in very different industries and essentially providing new examples and new role models for other companies around the world to imitate.

India Knowledge at Wharton: What are some of the challenges you face in introducing business concepts in a language that traditionally has not had the vocabulary to deal with such concepts? There is a joke, for example, that translates the word “ceiling fan” into Hindi as ‘chhatra latak, vaayu jhatak’, which essentially means “that which hangs from the roof and sweeps the air.” Would it be simpler, instead of trying these convoluted translations, to just call a hedge fund a “hedge fund” and private equity “private equity”?

Guillen: You are pointing out examples that are frequently encountered in other languages as well. I am a German speaker and a Spanish speaker — Spanish is my mother tongue — and I find myself often at a loss when it comes to translating some technical term from English into those languages. Sometimes it also happens the other way around. I think this is more of a general problem. It certainly is not specific to any particular language.

As a global community we need to accommodate this cultural diversity, which manifests itself in the form of language and linguistic expression. At the same time we have to look for overlaps. We have to look for common ground. Business is a very powerful force. I think it is a force that tends to unite as opposed to divide. Business and management unfolds in very different ways depending on the country. And if we are serious about preparing people to navigate the global economy we need to give them the tools to be effective managers in different country contexts. That’s what motivates me to think strongly about the importance of helping students understand India in all of its complexity because India is not just a country, it is a sub-continent.

Khemka: I certainly don’t think people should attempt to learn Hindi to try and find a Hindi word for hedge fund. Even Indians don’t do that. We are very comfortable switching between Hindi and English in our conversations. I don’t think that’s the objective and the purpose. The core issue is, how do you build relationships with a culture without speaking its language? I think that’s the core issue because it’s about people. It’s about connecting. It’s about having the cultural and linguistic connection that allows you to build trust and to do business as an overlay on that foundation of trust and relationships and respect for the culture that you are dealing with. That’s how I would put it.

India Knowledge at Wharton: The sense I’m getting from both of you is that while English is indeed important, communicating in that language limits you to dealing with a minority of the Indian population, which is proficient in English. If you want to address the Indian market as a whole, you have to reach out beyond groups that speak English, and that’s where Hindi plays a role. One final question for both of you, based on what you have said so far, is what conclusions would you draw about the broad relationship between language and business?

Khemka: As I said and as Mauro said, business is done and transacted between people. People work together on foundations of trust and communication. Although English has the legal basis in terms of Anglo-Saxon law and centers of global banking and so on to connect the business concepts together, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it connects human beings together. And, therefore, having the overlay language, which allows you to transact business, but also having the cultural links that allow you to understand each other’s cultures and transact at a human level and share that culture I think makes the foundation of your business within an international arena much, much stronger.

Guillen: Shiv is absolutely correct. If I may I would just add a couple of footnotes to what he said. One is that you really don’t even know your own country until you get to know another country. You don’t understand fully your own culture until you start digging into somebody else’s culture. That comparative perspective is very important. And the second thing I would emphasize is that language and learning a language is a window into so many other things — into the culture to be sure — but also into the politics and into the history and into the traditions and all of the things that you ought to respect. It is, in a way, a humbling act of acknowledging that somebody else may have a different view and I think this is incredibly important. It provides for a foundation of trust. And trust is everything in business.