21-year-old Dhiraj Takri from Odisha is no Shashi Tharoor. He did not learn much English in school, and he did not pass 12th grade. But he has over a million followers on Instagram, where he teaches how to speak English the native way.
"If you want to learn to speak English really fast, then forget the grammar. Forget it man!" he says with an American accent, in an Instagram reel that has over 12.8 million views.
It started off as a small project — teach English to others in the same way he has taught himself. But his unconventional approach to teaching 'connected speech', drawing from native English speaking styles, has earned him over a million followers in less than two months.
Beyond his suave camera presence and confident speaking style, Dhiraj finds himself filling the gaps of school education in India, which focuses primarily on grammar, reading and writing.
Armed with a massive following, he wants to take things to the next level, and start a language school where practical aspects of languages will be stressed upon.
No Grammar, No Problem
Dhiraj does not give grammar lessons. He does not teach how to be fluent, how to write correctly, or even pronounce words properly.
Rather, he teaches 'connected speech', which refers to a natural style of speaking by native English speakers, by joining words in single utterances rather than pronouncing them separately. And he particularly likes the American accent.
In one reel, he explains the 'secret' to American English: remove the 'T'.
'Mountain' becomes 'Moun nn,' he says, alluding to a lack of emphasis on the articulation of sounds in the accent. In all his videos Dhiraj demonstrates how body language plays a key role, too, since his own changes when he's speaking with an accent, giving him an air of confidence.
In another, he illustrates how words get conjoined when speaking English, like 'does not' becomes 'dozen.' Sometimes he breaks into songs, a clever way to relate to his audience. In this reel, he justifies the 'dozen' revelation through the song 'Night Changes' by One Direction.
There is a notable difference, he says, in how we learn English and how we speak it in everyday conversation, and his schooling didn't equip him with the skills required for the latter, alluding to a larger problem with rural education.
Over 909 million people reside in rural India. Among the rural children population between the ages of 14-18, 42% cannot read simple sentences in English, according to a recent report published by Pratham Foundation.
With vernacular languages still dominating most schools across rural India, English does not take precedence. Despite political debates around dominating languages in schools, Dhiraj asserts that he grew up knowing the potential of well-spoken English.
"I don't think it's important for Indians to learn English with an accent. But learning the language can indeed boost one's confidence and open doors, and that's what happened to me," he says, stressing on how he used to be an introvert - who struggled to articulate himself.
In 2019, while studying at a Bible institute in Kerala, he wished to join the church choir. His lack of acumen in English stopped him from joining, but gave him strong incentive to improve.
"I was watching these videos that taught you how to learn English with an American accent. And that really helped me, especially since I was slow with my speaking," he says, adding that accented English was faster and easier to pick up.
Soon the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and he found himself stuck at home, looking for more English lessons on YouTube, when he came across a Brazilian YouTuber - a non-native English speaker - who taught the spoken English to his followers.
"I was amazed that someone in another country, who did not speak the language and was not taught it properly, could teach so well. That is what inspired me," he said. He soon found a pool of non-native English speakers who are self-taught and can teach in ways that he never experienced.
Dhiraj found his calling.
12th Fail... But Who Cares
One of five siblings, Dhiraj did not enjoy school much. "In 12th, I didn't just fail in one subject, I failed them all," he says.
That did not deter him from learning all the practical skills to thrive in the highly competitive game of content creation. He credits YouTube tutorials for teaching him to film, edit and present himself.
Despite his poor performance in school, and despite neither of his parents knowing what social media is, they were supportive of his endeavour.
His elder brother Firoz, who runs a Jan Seva Kendra, is the sole breadwinner of the family. Like Dhiraj, he too was self-taught in English, and is one of the three members in the family who can speak the language. Firoz was also the first in the family to join the content creation game to make some money, but is no longer active.
Understanding the pros and cons of social media, Firoz now helps his brother manage his presence both online and offline, often handling his communications. He said that when Dhiraj started creating content in 2023, "at first most of his followers were his friends".
Stuck at just 160 followers, despite making 65 videos, Dhiraj started off making tutorials entirely in English. Then, last December, he tried a video in both Hindi and English - and that went viral.
Within a month, he had over a million followers.
"This is still new to me," he says of his overnight success on Instagram.
He is now among the growing community of content creators, who are blurring the lines between entertainment and education, in an age of smartphone ubiquity.
His story resembles that of YouTuber Yashodha Lodhi from Sirathy, Kaushambi in Uttar Pradesh. Lodhi received inconsistent schooling until 12th grade, and when her husband lost his physical abilities after an accident, she was not equipped to get a well-paying job.
Now, with over 3 lakh subscribers to her channel that provides lessons on different aspects of the English language, Lodhi earns at least Rs. 25,000 per month.
Dhiraj too has started earning through brand collaborations on Instagram. Firoz adds that they're careful about the brand deals they get, to ensure they are relevant to his audience.
But Dhiraj's plans now extend beyond the internet.
"I want to continue content creation until I can do something more physical, like open a school in my village for children to learn different languages, not just English," he says. “I want to focus on pronunciation, confidence, etc. Not just textbook education.”
Going through the comments, we found overwhelmingly positive reactions. "You have changed the mindset of everyone", "Bro is actually teaching phonetics" to, "You teach better than my English teacher", are some of the reactions we found.
Some have asked him to start writing out all the words he teaches in his captions so it's easier to revise. Others have pointed out that they struggle with the basics (alphabet) and would want him to start from there, taking paid courses online.
With his unique efforts, Dhiraj wants to decolonise the approach to learning English, where confidence and coherence is the goal, rather than grammar policing.