Setting Aside English Grammar Rules

By Neha Abraham

“Ma’am ‘- ing’ hamesha Continuous ke sath lagta hai?” (“Ma’am, do we add ‘-ing’ to make the Continuous tense?”)

“Ma’am ‘At’ hamesha time ke saath ata hai?” (Ma’am is ‘At’ always used for time?)

These are common questions in ETASHA’s classrooms. Most of our trainees have studied English up to the 12th Standard, but very few can actually express themselves effectively in the language.

English is thought of in terms of rules, like formulae to crack an exam, rather than being a means of communication. This fixation over always getting the rules right is what makes the trainees hesitant, and so one of the major challenges of facilitating spoken English classes is pushing them to move beyond grammar, to help them speak and articulate their everyday thoughts in English, and to help them become effective communicators which is what will make them employable in the formal sector.

English isn’t as alien as people make it out to be. There are some trainees for instance, who struggle to string a single sentence together, but can sing Bollywood hits like ‘Pappu Can’t Dance’ and ‘Do you want a partner?’ perfectly, oblivious of how both songs have so many English lines.  This unconscious stock of vocabulary is what we are trying to tap into and build upon, to help our trainees develop fluency and confidence and not falter because of a set of intimidating grammar rules.

Therefore, understanding the interests of the trainees and the things that they might relate to is essential in making our classes relevant, interactive and participative.

Every classroom, however, has students with varied levels of confidence and different degrees of exposure, and this complicates our work a little bit. Some trainees are street smart, or ‘jugaadu’ – great at networking, and familiar with many back alleys of Delhi. They know how to get things done, which makes them potentially employable in Operations management. But perhaps they never paid much attention in class at school and weren’t the conventional good students who learnt all their English  ‘formulae’, which is why they are extremely hesitant and self-conscious of speaking in front of others. On the other hand there are some trainees who are self-driven and enthusiastic because they know they can perform well in class, but they rarely venture out of their ‘mohallas’ and would be very uncomfortable if asked to do so on their own.

Manish, a trainee at Mori Gate is an example of the former type. While he is attentive in class, and constructs long humorous sentences about his classmates, he never likes to show that he is trying. Outside class, he takes great pleasure in pulling my leg with the tall tales he narrates so convincingly in Hindi. When spoken to in English, however, he refuses to respond. “Kya bolu Ma’am? Mujhe aati hi nahi” (What do I say Ma’am? I don’t know how to speak in English), he says.

Manish’s classmate Shumaila is his complete opposite.  A spirited trainee, she takes the initiative to participate, and speaks confidently in English, always ready with clever comebacks (in English) for the boys who tease her by calling her a Pakistani.


Bridging the gap between these extremes involves creating a space where everyone feels comfortable – comfortable enough to be corrected and laughed at occasionally, and open enough to speak out and make mistakes.

For the more self-conscious trainees, it’s a question of getting them interested and almost ‘tricking’ them into speaking in English. We discuss topics such as ‘romance’ and ‘my dream house’ when we are left with extra time after class, just to bring in some humour and to get the trainees talking.

On one occasion, I asked the trainees to come up with a list of blatant lies, in English, of course. I told them that the best lies would be featured on ETASHA’s blog. Manish’s face lit up with a mischievous grin because he was certain that he had the wildest imagination in the group. Shumaila, too, who is always quietly competitive, was excited by the idea of a fun challenge.

During my seven months as a facilitator at ETASHA Society, this is one ‘trick’ which stands out because my most conscious trainee was voted by others as the best speaker, at par with my most forthright trainee.

I leave you with the lists they came up with. Hope you have a good laugh!

Yesterday night at 1, I was repairing the puncture of the metro.

Dirubhai Ambani is my friend.

I put a100 rupee note under a train track and it changed into 200.

I jumped off from the third floor and nothing happened to me.

I abused Prime Minister Modi in a dru    nken state.

I got 105 marks out of 100 in Accounts.

I can perform stunts on a horse.

My father owns Bharat Petroleum.

I threw cow dung at an Aunty and she smiled.

– Manish, Code 24, Mori Gate


I met Akbar and Birbal at the Red Fort.

I will sell the Red Fort on 30th February 2015

I reached Mt. Everest by a cycle.

I am the hair stylist of Tom Cruise.

I shave my face every day.

Barack Obama is my neighbour.

I have a pet lion.

I can live without make up.

– Shumaila, CODE 24, Mori Gate
 About the author – Neha Abraham is a facilitator at ETASHA Society.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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