Tuesday, January 4, 2011


For Indians, probably along with sex, money and in-laws, English is associated with the greatest amount of misery and negativity. We envy those who speak English fluently, and we resent them for being snobbish and dominating. We feel neglected and inadequate in the presence of English. We feel ashamed of not knowing it. Often we hate English and blame it for destroying ‘our’ culture and languages. We deplore it for being the language of ex-rulers. We hate ourselves for wanting English and for being enslaved by the speakers of English. Yet the fact remains that along with sex and money, English is what we desire the most. Hence as a teacher of English, I would I would like to briefly share my views on how to master English.  My views are based on Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan’s powerful book Three Laws of Performance (2009).(Read my review of the book by clicking here) The ideas presented here may not be ‘new’, for there are hardly any ‘new’ ideas, but these ideas in my view are the most effective ones. The ideas aim at transforming our relation with English.

Zaffron and Logan argue that our performance is correlated not to how or what something or someone is, but how something, someone or some situation occurs to us and that how something, someone or a situation occurs to us is inside of what conversations we have about it with ourselves or with others. They point out that by altering these conversations about something, someone or a situation, we can alter how it occurs to us and there by alter our performance. Hence in order to alter our performance in English we have to look at how English occurs to us and inside of which conversations does it occurs to us. In short, let us look at what we keep telling ourselves and others about English.

Typically, we say English is not ‘our’ language; it is the language of outsiders. It is not our ‘mother tongue’, it is our ‘auntie tongue’ or it is ‘step-mother’ tongue. We say it is the language of slavery. We say it is the language that is destroying our languages and it contaminates our Glorious Indian Culture. We say it the language of the dominant and elite class, which is consequently ‘less Indian’ than us. We call this class neo-colonizers or colonial collaborators.

We also say it is too difficult and we will never learn it properly. We say English is all about speaking English fluently (look at the thriving ‘spoken English’ cottage industry in India). We say we want to ‘think’ in English. We say that by making mistakes in English would make us ‘look bad’ and that by speaking it fluently we will ‘look good’. We say that by learning grammar properly, we will learn English.

Consider that inside all these conversations, we have already ruled out any possibility of English being ‘our language’ or using it like our mother tongue, because we have already declared it to be ‘other tongue’ and our ‘second language’. When we call it a ‘foreign’ language, we can never make it our own.  Hence the possibility of being as fluent in English as one is in one’s own language is already ruled out, even before we start learning it seriously. Unless we stop telling others and ourselves these things, we can never use English as well as we use ‘our’ non-English languages. Surprisingly we say all these things when our nationalist leaders like Swami Vivekanand, Sri Aurobindo, Dr. Ambedkar, Jawaharlal Nehru and even Mahatma Gandhi who opposed English in theory and who brought out an English newspaper, were highly accomplished in English and even the Constitution of India was drafted in English. Inside of these conversations of blame, we have already distanced ourselves from English and closed our access to the language.

Our complaint that English is the language of the upper class elite or the class of neo-colonizers/ colonial collaborators does not prevent us from desiring the language and from sending our own children to English medium schools. This means that though we resent that class and are envious of it, we want to be part of that class. This means that our complaint is nothing but hypocrisy and this hypocrisy takes on a different shade when the academics who should be teaching English and who themselves belong to this class start saying that the English is the language of upper class elite. These academics imply that they are ashamed of being who they are and hence want to prevent others from having English. This simply means they don’t want to do their jobs, although they don’t mind being paid for it. If we want English and we want to belong to the English speaking elite, it is honest to abandon this hypocrisy and blame games.

Now consider that inside of the conversations like ‘it is too difficult and we won’t be able to speak it properly’, we are again ruling out the possibility of mastering English and using it with proficiency for ourselves. Hence it is extremely important that we accept the responsibility of all these conversations and drop them every time they crop up in our heads or on our tongues because they are blocking all the possibilities of our getting English.

Once we drop all these dialogues which prevent us from acquiring proficiency in English, we should access the language through our listening. There is no other way of acquiring a language. We feel language is all about talking and we feel that the only way to learn speaking English is by speaking. However, listening is the only way we can reach the core of the language. Consider, for instance, among the dumb and deaf people, most of the people classified as 'dumb' actually unable to speak as they are deaf. The chief reason why most of the people remain 'dumb' in English are actually 'deaf' as far as English is concerned.

In my view, instead of having 'spoken English' classes, we should have classes which teaches us how to listen to English. If we pay close attention to how we listen, we realize that we hardly listen or listen only  through our thoughts continuously going on in our minds. We hardly remain present to someone or something as our mind wanders all over the place: through our opinions, day dreams, memories and various kinds of distractions inside our heads. We should develop awareness about these distractions and pay attention to what is being spoken, why it is being spoken, how  it is spoken and what all is going on behind what is being spoken. Paying this kind of attention dramatically improves not just our spoken English but also our relationship with people. Regularly listening attentively to just how English words are pronounced, enhances quality of our spoken English.

One can see that a lot depends on the attitude and mindset regarding English. What we need is the right spirit and the right spirit is all about treating it as a game.  We begin the game by declaring openly that you will master the language and  as Zaffron and Logan put it ‘play as if our life depended on it’. Declaration is significant, because when you openly declare your intention, people hold you accountable for it and which makes you work without giving up. The authors suggest ‘Play the game passionately, intensely, and fearlessly. But don’t make it significant. It’s just a game’. (2004)

We may have hundred reasons for not using English, we don’t have people who can speak it with us, we don’t have enough vocabulary, and our grammar is poor and so on. But the point is to play it anyway. Zaffron and Logan suggest, ‘if something occurs to you as an obstacle, you will push back by playing on the obstacle’s terms. Instead, make the obstacles, conditions of the game.’ (201). We have to remember that the distance between two set of stumps on the cricket pitch is twenty two yards is not an obstacle, but the condition of the game itself.

The most important thing is being in action with English. Though there is great desire for English, there is an inbuilt reluctance in using English. It is usually reluctance to take risk in using English. It is about fear of failure and one is reminded of an old joke where a person declares, ‘I won’t step into water, till I learn how to swim properly’. Unless you jump into the language and take risk of ‘looking bad’, you wont be able to use English at all.

Zaffron and Logan make a profound distinction between ‘taking about the game, from the stands’ and ‘playing the game on the court’. They give example of a football game where the conversations of people who stand in the stands is all about ‘judging, evaluating, assessing, making excuses about their teams, or saying what their teams did right, or rationalizing’ (199). The authors’ note that from the stands there is little at stake and the conversation has no impact on the action of the game. They suggest, ‘You leave the stands when you stop assessing and judging and instead put something at risk.’ No action, no result, no mastery.

Hence to attain mastery over English, it is essential to drop the conversation which actually block our access to the language and inside of which there are no possibilities of mastering it. It is essential to declare your intention of mastering it so that people around you, hold you accountable for your performance. Without this accountability, we won’t work to enhance our performance. Finally, leaving the stands and being in action on the court with English, taking risks and making all the obstacles, conditions of the game will lead to mastery over English. Obviously, performance cannot be a one time affair.  Playing this game of mastering English is a life long process, where we keep climbing ‘Mt. Neverest’, jumping from one peak of excellence, to another – till we are burned, buried or fed to birds……


Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan. Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of your Organization and your Life, San Francisco: Josey-Bass, 2009. Distributed in India by the Times Books, Rs. 395