Are you wasting your money on language classes?

rsz_1language-classesIf you want to learn a new language, you’ve probably thought about taking language classes.

But is this the best way to go? Are language classes really worthy of your hard-earned cash?

In an industry said to be worth around US$200 billion, it’s a question that we’re entitled to ask, and I’m going to explore it here.

You may disagree with what I have to say, and that’s fine. But please read to the end of the article in order to hear my argument in full.

Let’s get into it.

Do language classes help?

Meet Rebecca. She’s learning Spanish.

Olly, do you think taking classes in a language helps?

Of course classes can help. Lots of things help you to learn a language. Language classes, textbooks, visiting the country, making friends with native speakers…they all help.

Great! So I made the right decision signing up for this Spanish class then!

Not so fast! I said classes can help. I didn’t say you should necessarily sign up.

OK, now I’m confused. But you just said it was good! The school I found is well-known and they hire professional teachers. I’ll learn Spanish in no time!

Rebecca’s just fallen into the same trap that thousands of language learners around the world fall into every day.

I call it the “pay a professional” trap.

And it has to stop.

What do you really want?

A trap? Don’t be ridiculous! I suppose you think you’ve got a better method?

Look, what I’m going to take issue with right away is the foregone conclusion that paying for “professional language tuition” is a good thing.

Now, in certain conditions, language tuition can indeed be a great thing, and if you find the right teacher it can be life-changing.

But it’s a big “if”.

Rebecca, you’re going to class in order to learn Spanish. So let me ask you this – why not just learn with a textbook at home? I’m not saying you should, but just humour me.

Because textbooks are boring. Taking a class will make me study and I’ll make much more progress!

Right. So your problem is that you’re not motivated enough to learn by yourself?

No! I am motivated!

Ok, so I ask you again: Why not just learn with a textbook? What are you paying money for in the classroom that you couldn’t get on your own?

Well, for one thing, in the lesson I’ll get to speak Spanish with a native speaker! You can’t get that from a textbook. That’s why taking classes is so good!

How many students are there in the class? And how much of the time are you talking to your teacher?

Well, there are 10 of us in the class, and we spend lots of time speaking in groups. So it’s great – I’m speaking lots of Spanish during the class!

Yes, I see. And how good is the other students’ Spanish?

Well, we’re all beginners, so of course our Spanish is not very good yet! We all make quite a few mistakes!

So then, how much time are you actually speaking with a native Spanish speaker in class?

Hmm. Well, not much, I guess. And to be honest, the teacher actually explains things in English half the time. Look, I know I could – I should – probably study by myself. It’s just much better to join this Spanish class. It’s near my house, and quite convenient to get to.

All right. That makes sense. But since we’ve already established that you don’t spend any time speaking in class with a native speaker, what exactly are you paying for? I mean, I’m guessing it’s not cheap.

Sure, it’s not cheap (actually, it costs a lot), but it means I do actually go, I do learn things each week, and I do go off and do the homework that the teacher gives me.

So taking classes is a way to get started basically? That’s great, and well done for taking the plunge!

language classes

Knowledge or experience?

Ok, Olly, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I could just do this by myself and don’t need to pay for classes. But I’m OK with paying for classes. If I didn’t take classes I wouldn’t know what to do. It’s better than just muddling along by myself and not getting anywhere.

I understand. You want to learn Spanish, but you don’t know how. You want to take classes because you want some direction. And that’s absolutely fine! I mean, language learning is nothing if not hard!

Yes, that’s it. I’m really committed to learning to speak Spanish fluently, and I’m really not a talented language learner. That’s why I’m investing in classes.

I love your ambition!

Now, forgive me, but I’m going to dig a little deeper on this point. Just now, you said that taking classes is an alternative to learning by yourself, one that you’re happy to pay for because it’s motivating and it makes you study.

But what you’re implying is that taking classes is just as beneficial as learning independently (with the added benefit of accountability).

But I question if these two things are in fact equally beneficial, and therefore whether you’re making an informed choice.

Let me ask you this. If you believe that you yourself are not a talented language learner, and you wouldn’t be able to learn on your own, then what makes you so sure that you’ll be successful with your new teacher?

She’s a Spanish teacher, of course she’ll help me learn Spanish!

Ok, but what makes you so sure?

Look, Olly, she’s a native Spanish speaker and a qualified teacher. Are you really going to tell me that she’s no good? You haven’t even met her!

Let’s be very clear here, because a lot depends on this point. This is not about how good your teacher is, or even where she’s from. What this is really about is a question of fundamental beliefs about how languages are learnt or taught.

Specifically, I believe that a language cannot be taught, it can only be learnt. Consequently, however talented your teacher, however enlightening your classes, what I’m saying is that your dream of becoming fluent in Spanish will happen as a result of your own initiative and self-directed learning, not because of what you may be taught.

So, yes, language classes can help support you in your journey of becoming fluent, but they are absolutely not a replacement or a solution in and of themselves.

You’re going to have to explain a bit more about why classes alone aren’t going to work.

Of course. Let’s get more specific.

If you were to walk into a random Spanish class somewhere in the world, here’s what you will probably see: The teacher will select a certain grammar point, teach you about it, and (hopefully) create some opportunities for you to practise it with others in the class. This is a generalisation, to be sure, but a pretty accurate one (I know, because I’ve observed hundreds of teachers in different countries).

In other words, by attending language classes, you will learn about some of the unique elements of Spanish. But the fact that the teacher has chosen to teach something does not mean that it’s either useful or possible for you to learn it right now.

My point is that systematically learning about the Spanish language is not directly addressing the actual issue of learning to speak it.

You can go through all the textbooks under the sun, become a genuine expert in Spanish, but not actually be able to speak it naturally in conversation with a native speaker.

Learning the language and learning to use the language are not the same.

Now, compare this to an organic process of learning whereby you read books, listen to music, go out there and speak, decide for yourself what you need to learn next (based on evidence), and then learn it…and you hopefully start to see where I’m coming from in my critique of relying on language classes.

So, when I ask you whether your Spanish teacher can really help you, I’m not questioning her ability to teach you all about Spanish and how it works. I’m sure she’s great at that.

She can choose appropriate exercises from the textbook, ask you to complete them, and correct them. She can also get you to try out your Spanish with your non-Spanish-speaking classmates.

But here’s my question:

How exactly are your classes benefiting you that justifies the high cost and your faith that you will learn to speak Spanish by attending them?

You wouldn’t expect to learn to speak fluently by using a textbook. So is it rational to expect the same outcome from your classes?

 

Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Right, I suppose I see what you’re saying. You mean that there’s more to learning Spanish than just following a textbook…whether you’re learning by yourself or from a teacher. You’re saying that you need to direct your own learning, and the only way of doing that is by actually using the language out in the real world – reading, speaking, whatever – and that a language class is not the right place to do that.

Exactly! And now we’re getting into an area that is often misunderstood, and yet gets to the core of what I think it means to learn a language successfully or not.

Look, you can learn a language bit by bit over time, enjoy the process, have it as a hobby, and that’s absolutely fine.

But I think what you really want is something different – and do tell me if I’m wrong.

I think what you really want is to learn to speak Spanish. Not just a passing appreciation or general understanding of the language. You want to be able to use it for real purposes and with real people. And you want to do it quickly – you don’t want to still be a beginner one year from now.

For you to learn Spanish well, you need to take responsibility for the process yourself. You need to direct your own learning, explore the language by yourself, at your own speed, noticing things that interest you along the way.

You need to read, learn, listen, speak, all the time noticing what your strengths and weaknesses are and taking steps to fix them as you go.

I’m sure your teacher is great. But she’s no substitute for you.

Abdicating responsibility for learning

This is quite difficult to say, but it needs to be said.

The biggest danger in taking language classes is that you’re abdicating responsibility for your learning… whether you know it or not.

Earlier, I mentioned the “pay a professional” trap.

Well, here it is, right here.

With many things in life you can “pay a professional” for a solution to your problems (lawyers, cosmetic surgeons, interior designers). There’s therefore a huge temptation for us language learners to think: “Time to get serious, I’ll pay a professional to teach me Spanish for once and for all!”, especially if it’s something we haven’t done before or know how to do ourselves.

language classesHow you learn languages

What’s the “language learning solution?”

As I said earlier, our common sense tells us that first we need to study the language, and this will then translate into an ability to speak it.

But it’s not that simple. Your proficiency in a language is a result of practical knowledge acquired as a result of the experience of using it, not of being taught how it works in theory.

Again, languages cannot be taught. They can only be learnt.

Einstein understood this, which is why he said: “I never teach my students, only create the conditions in which they can learn.”

This is the fundamental difference between teaching and learning.

It doesn’t matter one bit what is taught, only what is learnt.

So go! Attend your class, read your textbook. Learn about the language.

But you will never know how meaningful any of what you learn is until you’ve gone out there, tried it out for yourself and seen if you sink or swim.

And in order to establish all of this, you need to be putting yourself out there and speaking Spanish a lot. Not once or twice. Not from time to time, or whenever the opportunity arises.

A lot. And it’s this necessity to be spending large amounts of time in the company of native speakers that is exceedingly difficult for the language class environment to replicate by itself.

What is a truly great teacher?

OK, Olly. I see what you’re saying. But there must be good teachers out there. How do you know if you’ve found one?

Well, here is the challenge that faces language teachers the world over – the challenge a teacher needs to overcome if they are to be considered truly great.

A great teacher needs to create the conditions in which learners can learn for themselves.

A great teacher needs to encourage the student to behave in ways that they would not otherwise. And it’s got little to do with teaching.

A great teacher often needs to resist the temptation to actually teach.

That’s what Einstein knew.

I believe that what you really need from a teacher is not their “teaching” but their ability to help you reflect on your own learning, what’s been working for you and what hasn’t, and how you can improve faster than you currently are.

If your teacher is great, she would discuss interesting elements of the Spanish language with you, help you solve problems, or answer questions that you bring to the table.

Most valuably, she would pay close attention to your use of Spanish, and help guide you towards noticing new features of the language that you might not have been aware of.

At the same time she would probably act as a counsellor of sorts – reminding you that the various language anxieties that you have are not as catastrophic as they may seem, and what is far more important is your ability to press on with your study in spite of your difficulties.

She would have far more characteristics of a “coach” than a “teacher”.

And this relationship between “coach” and student is probably more intimate and close-knit than with a traditional teacher-student relationship, which is more about the imparting of knowledge than the creating of conditions for learning.

More progressive teachers might argue that they can help the learner by creating those conditions for learning during the lesson. In fact, this approach is the foundation of modern communicative language teaching methodology.

Except that it’s a delusion.

A couple of hours per week in a classroom with nine other students is simply not a credible language learning solution, however enlightened the teacher.

Learning should not be seen as what happens in the lesson, but what happens outside. Therefore lessons should be focused on improving what the student can do during the time she is not in class.

Have you found a teacher that can do this?

A teacher that has the skills and the presence of mind to implement it in practice?

I hope you have.

But I think it’s unlikely.

At the heart of my argument is that what is required to effectively teach a student to speak a foreign language well is the ability to help them understand the true nature of the task ahead of them.

It is not going through the motions of teaching with a textbook, handing out grammar exercises, and other “quick wins” that might fit the traditional image of “teaching” but do little to actually improve students’ competence in the language.

Teachers need to help students understand their own weaknesses and how to address them by themselves outside of class… and to be there to coach them through it all.

If your teacher fits the above description, they are worth their weight in gold.

If not, you might want to consider whether your hard-earned money really is best spent in this way.

And this is the major decision you have to make.

Language learning success is yours for the taking!

Language classes can certainly help, and you will undoubtedly learn something in the process.

But you can get most of the benefit of classes by yourself, at home, with a simple textbook and a smattering of motivation.

By making language classes your primary language learning strategy, your biggest risk is abdicating responsibility for your own learning, and in-so-doing fail to learn the big lessons that come from self-directed, independent learning.

The ultimate question for you, as a passionate, aspiring language learner, even if you can justify the cost of lessons, is: Am I really justified in placing the success of my language learning ambitions in the hands of another?

Do you think that language classes are a waste of money? Or do they have a place in your learning strategy? Leave me a comment below.

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  • Terry

    Really excellent article! This has definitely been my experience of classroom teaching. I went to so many classes to learn Chinese and French. It always feels like I’ve accomplished something when I sign up, but I don’t learn as much or progress as fast than when I learn using a textbook independently and speaking with natives using Skype. Really glad you published this article Olly!

  • RevBill

    My Arabic 2 class at a local community college will cost me less than $3 an hour. I will be taught my a native Arabic speaker who will speak with me and correct me. I will be challenged to study a textbook and memorize vocabulary. I will interact with fellow-students, many of whom surprisingly are native Arabic speakers. I will be challenged to speak Arabic in the class including to giving presentations in Arabic. I see this class as a supplement to my own study of Arabic which includes having regular conversations with Arabic speakers in Gaza and Al-Kalil (Hebron) who teach me words and phrases in Arabic, my review of Arabic on Memrise, etc. I do not rely on my class or instructor to teach me Arabic. I think of my class and instructor as aids in helping me learn Arabic.

    • Hi RevBill, I think that’s fantastic, and it sounds like you’ve got a really great situation there, with a good teacher and even native speaker classmates – wow! Especially for $3 an hour, I’m tempted to sign up myself 🙂

  • Afnan Linjawi

    I completely agree with your article. I don’t think it’s controversial at all, I view it as a very clear and logical common sense. I am also an independent language learner who learns through various methods. What I personally do is start a language on my own and take a course for level 2. Then study level three on my own, then take a course for level 4 and so on. Courses will only offer one thing different than what you would have done alone. To enroll in a course means to pay someone else to arrange your language learning schedule for you. So if you’re willing to do that. Then take a course!
    But know that a teacher is a magical elf or giant (depending on how tall your teacher is 😉 who has all of the answers.
    You, the leaner is the one with the answers

    • RevBill

      Go to conversationexchange.com. It is a free site where you can create your own account, make a profile and tell what language you want to learn. I received scores of letters from Arabic speaking people who wanted to exchange improving their English for helping me learn Arabic.

      • Hi RevBill, I used conversationexchange.com when I first moved to Japan and found lots of people to practise with there – it’s a great site!

      • Afnan Linjawi

        Thanks, I know the website and it’s very useful. That’s where I get my speaking partners as well

    • I sometimes find myself doing that too – seeking help from a teacher when I don’t feel like I can get much further on my own. Interesting way of putting it!

  • Vanessa

    This article speaks the truth. Since last year I have French in school. I know some grammar. I know basic things. Writing is okay and even listening is somehow okay but guess what? I can’t really speak. Basic things like introducing myself is okay because we repeated it like a million times but that is it. If studying in class you can’t go in your own space too! Some don’t understand e.g. the sentence order or how the past is build up and than you stuck, ready to learn new things and want to go further.
    And I have a little question. How do you get language partners? Do you just add them randomly or is there a site where you can meet native speakers?

    • Hi Vanessa. The problem you described is symptomatic of so many people’s experience of learning in classes. It’s so important to take control and carve out the path for yourself.

      I have used two main sites to find language partners. Firstly, italki.com, and secondly conversationexchange.com. They’re both good.

  • Zaytun

    I started studying Modern Standard Arabic from home in september 2014 and started taking (extremly slow) classes in october. When I arrived at class, I was already ahead of the whole class by at least two months. I felt very proud of myself and my teacher compliments me during almost every class on my pronunciation and accent.

    Now, three months through the first course, I think I have managed to skip a whole class by learning with my Assimil book and “trying” to speak with native speakers whom I either met through the internet or through tandem exchange websites. I realised that Vianna (where I live) is full of arabs and currently so many syrians come here who are all keen to learn german. It turns out that almost all syrians are excellent speakers of MSA, apart from their own dialect, and they also have a very clear accent that is very close to how MSA is pronounced and spoken.

    It feels like I hit a gold mine because within the last three months I have made so many good friends and all of the syrians feel very delighted by the fact I want to learn arabic. So they are really comitted to teaching and correcting me. They actually ring me up and ask if I need help or if I would like to come see them and have a cup of tea. I have never encountered anything like it before! I’m really overwhelmed of how polite and kind these people are and I am 100% sure that these relationships have strengthened my bond with the language. You will never get this from a person who you are paying.

    Arabic can be very difficult to get started and I think 80% of all students quit after the first 3 months months, and although I am only through the first four months of learning this incredibly difficult (or lets call it different) language, it has already become part of my life. Over the last two weeks I managed to have small talks, with random people from around the world, whom I just met on the street because they were speaking arabic. Random people from Somalia, Iraq, Egypt to Palestine.

    I could go on forever of how glad I am that I started taking control of the learning process right from the start, even though this is the first language I am teaching myself and I have basically no idea “how it works”. It is also great to know that YOU have achieved this ALL BY YOURSELF! It’s a big booster for your motivation and will ensure, no matter how hard it may seem to learn this language, you will continue to learn, to make the mistakes and GROW!

    • Hi Zaytun, I really enjoyed reading this comment, because it reflects almost exactly what I’m going through right now with Egyptian Arabic (although in Cairo, not in Vienna!). I think above all, what you’ve managed to cultivate in your situation is a genuine passion and connection with the language you’re learning. As I said in the article, I think there’s certain the potential for language classes to supplement this work that you’re doing, but the fantastic cultural and linguistic experience that you’re fashioning for yourself right now is the result of one thing, and one thing only: your self-direction and drive to make it work! Great job!

  • Daniel Wieser

    You speak from my heart with this article!

    And what many people don’t understand is this: even if you have a language teacher, you still need to practice with a textbook – because one or two times per week is not enough.

    I often hear people saying “I learned in school for 3 years, but I can’t speak it.” – yet, thousands of language learners are learning languages by themselves – with success!

    • I think you’ve touched on the main point of this article, which is to question people’s reliance on classes. Yes, they can help, but as you say, all too often people simply rely on classes as their only solution and the results speak for themselves.

  • Kayjulia

    I liked your article very much. I have taken Spanish classes several times and spent a large amount of money on these classes and in the end I learned something but not nearly enough. Teachers have their own paradigm on how a student learns a language and what is necessary to speak a language. This may or may not be accurate. I would bet money it isn’t accurate. I have tried speaking the way it is taught in class and I get these weird looks and then, once in a while, someone will enlighten me to the fact that what I am saying is not even remotely like how they speak the language, yes there are those words but they don’t use them or maybe they are used in a classroom but not on the street or in the family. People talk in idioms and groups of words not in clear grammatically correct complete sentences. Speaking like ordinary people takes time to learn and asking lots of questions. I wish I had my money back as the advertised results are not delivered or at least were not delivered to me. I study on my own and use it when and where I can.

    • Part of the problem of classes is that it’s impossible to deliver on specific results (and I think most teachers know that), but in fact it’s the often students themselves that demand that, seeing classes taught by professional teachers as a magic solution. If only that were the case.

  • This is a great article and covers all the aspects of language learning. But i would like to tell something else.
    Currently i am learning two languages, Korean and German. For German i am taking courses in my college as lectures so i dont pay any money for them. I went through A1 level in German and taking courses actually helps me very much. My teacher is a great teacher and i enjoyed all the classes and never skipped one! I am about to graduate now and after that i am planning to go on my own. Since this was my last semester in college so i have a very busy schedule and no time for anything actually, so taking courses at that time was very helpful. Also i have German friends so it was all fun! And also i am learning Korean at the same time by myself, totally self-learning, and despite of the heavy schedule i managed to improve my Korean a little bit. To sum up, i am studying Korean by myself and also learning German in the college at the same time. For me, language learning is all up to you. If you really want to learn you find a way and learn it. In either way, whether you take classes or not, you need to study by yourself, you need to practice a lot. We need to find a way in which we feel comfortable.

    • Absolutely right, Sena. The more experience we have of language learning, the more we can use classes to our benefit, I think. With your drive and commitment to learning, I’m sure you’ll make it work whatever method you choose! Thanks for sharing 🙂

  • When I went out to college I ended up taking classes in two different languages. I took classes in Japanese and Spanish. I felt like class was needed for me as a a beginner in Japanese. I tried learning the characters at home but what helped me was having a teacher go over the character and give us quizzes in each character. Also what helped is classes were four times a week. Sometimes we had assignments we had to do with other classmates outside of class.

    There is so much I still remember because of time in class and the people I met in class. Now I’m actually studying Japanese on my own but I think the class helped with the initial motivation.

    I didn’t get as much out of my Spanish class. I think really what distinguished the classes was the level of commitment outside of the class. I didn’t meet up with other class mates from Spanish class because of a group assignment. Most of our work was solo. I don’t remember anything from that class. Sometimes a class can be a complete waste of time and money.

    • Hi Angel, I love your story because it perfectly describes what I was trying to get at in the article. It seems that your Japanese classes helped with two things: getting you to take some action as a beginner, and getting you to do activities outside class. Great work, and keep up the Japanese and Spanish!

  • Wayne Jones

    Great article and well presented, I also thought the graphics were wonderful.

    My experience with class learning ties in closely with your argument. I enrolled at Alliance Francaise last year to learn French and while I had a wonderful teacher and relatively small class sizes the progress made in the class was excruciatingly slow at times. At the end of the first year I comfortably passed A2 but was the only person who was even able to sit the exam, but that was only because of the other self-study I did.

    Some reasons for this: as you mentioned we spent time a lot of time either listening to the teacher speak in English or working amongst ourselves (and we were all quite bad!), and secondly because we are learning for our own interest they rarely set any homework that took more than 5 minutes to do (for the whole week, not each day!) so no-one improved much unless they did extra study. And because we are learning for a hobby and paying fees the class had to move at the pace of the slowest person – and we had a couple of people in the class who were enamoured with the idea of learning a language but didn’t actually want to do any work, so somewhat ironically the teacher spent more time going over things with the students who were the least motivated, rather than with the most motivated students.

    The only benefit that I could see with the classroom setting as opposed to self-learning was the social aspect to it. I struck up some friendships with some other motivated students and we shared ideas and tended to sit together and email each other during the week.

    I use italki and have at least 2 classes a week via italki and these are now 100% in French but it doesn’t have the same “feel” because of the social aspect of AF classes.

    The other aspect of a classroom setting that may benefit some people is the structured nature and routine of having to attend a class that some people who don’t like routines may require.

    • Hi Wayne. The point about routine is an important one, and I’ve found myself galvanised by attending classes too in the past. But it’s only valid as long as you take the “something is better than nothing” approach. After all, as we’ve discussed, classes are often not effective, so how valuable is that routine if it doesn’t end up delivering you the results you want (ie. learning a language well)?

      It’s not an easy problem to resolve because if the realistic alternative to attending classes for most people is doing nothing at all, then surely it is worthwhile in the end? Catch 22.

      • Zaytun

        Exactly! This is where I’m stuck right now… So I’ve successfully finished my “Phase 1” of A1 and to finish A1 completely I will have to finish Phase 2 and Phase 3. They are seriously stretching A1 over 9 months, each phase lasting 3 months… And each phase costing 350€. Don’t you think that is ridiculously expensive?

        At first I thought, this is much better than rushing into it. If it weren’t for the money, I wouldn’t mind at all. But its way too much don’t you think?

        On the other hand, I like going there and it’s sort of a self check if I actually did get the stuff right I tought myself from the books… Or to see what gaps I have to fill, or if maybe my teacher can explain some grammer to me. I suppose there is something in every lesson that I learn, even if it is just a word or phrase, and being exposed to the language and being forced to listen to the teacher might be better than I am aware of. So I’m actually afraid of not signing up for Phase 2 and Phase 3 because I don’t want to miss out anything!

        • The money part is relative. 350 euros is a lot for some people, affordable for others, so it will ultimately come down to personal choice. 350 euros, for something that actually works, can be a bargain. IF it works! As you’re already a motivated person, I’d say that self-study, plus some informal tutoring sessions on italki.com to have your questions answered should do the trick!

  • Ladybird

    Absolutely agree with the article. I am studying Spanish and Italian both of which I did a short course at college. Although I did learn the basics it was only when I finished the classes that I really began learning the languages. I began listening to audio, working through textbooks and also started taking lessons on italki. My progress is a lot faster than in class, as already pointed out the teachers time is split between you and however many students are in the class often leading to little one on one time.

    A point mentioned by several commentators here is that many people enjoy the social aspect of classss and initially I did too miss this particular aspect once I became an independent learner especially as I made friends who I am still in contact with to this day. But I have since discovered that the meetup website is a great place to find language exchange groups and also groups that are specific to that country for example I found a italian film club and a spanish meetup group. Through this I have met lots of native speakers to practice with even though I am not in either of the target countries.

    • Yes, I like that point a lot. There are always lots of alternatives for the a social scene, and if you’re taking classes abroad then you can genuinely set yourself back by making friends primarily with English-speaking people you meet in the class, and further distance yourself from the target language in the process. Obviously this is highly subjective and depends on your individual motivations and circumstances, but I’ve seen it happen many times.

  • joycewycoff

    Great article … wish I had seen it years ago, it would have saved me a lot of money, time and frustration. My only push-back is your statement: But you can get most of the benefit of classes by yourself, at home, with a simple textbook and a smattering of motivation.

    With all the great online resources available, I would never try to get by with a “simple textbook.”

    I especially like: At the heart of my argument is that what is required to effectively teach a student to speak a foreign language well is the ability to help them understand the true nature of the task ahead of them.

    I think the language learning industry as a whole does people a great disservice by not helping learners choose the level of language they want to learn … from just knowing enough to enjoy their travels more … to reading great literature in the original language. People need to know how much they want to learn … and understand a realistic time frame for learning it. There is way too much “thin thighs in 30 days” (or fluency in 3 weeks/3 months) hype going on.

    Your article about taking responsibility for our own learning is a great wake-up call.

    • Thanks for the comment Joyce, I appreciate your input! 🙂

  • A controversial article but very interesting! I study Spanish by myself, but I have taken a couple courses and found them immensely helpful. I live in a Spanish speaking country so I have plenty of opportunity to practice and speak the language in “the real world”. I found these courses got me out of a rut that I was in. Going through a textbook with a teacher can be a really great learning experience plus they can help you learn faster than you can on your own. Also a teacher can test your level and see where you need work and give you the next thing you should learn rather than having you “decide for yourself”.
    I think for advanced learners who don’t need to practice in the real world, but need better grammar and knowledge of phrases and expressions hiring a professional is a good way to go. Of course there are other obstacles: time and money.

    http://www.goodairlanguage.com

    • Hi, thanks for your comment. As you say, I think your level and your environment have got a lot to do with it. By already being able to speak the language to some degree, you’ve already overcome the single biggest obstacle of all (starting to speak), meaning it might make sense for you to go on to focus more on the details of the language.

      How do you think it would be different if you were one of the many foreigners living abroad who have never got to the stage of comfortably speaking with people?

      • Hard question to answer, but I still think you can learn faster with a teacher, but as you said in the article you need a good teacher with a plan.

  • Pavel Saman

    Great article, thanks for it.

    I think a teacher can help you a lot at the beginning when you don’t know how to pronounce a language and this is something where you can benefit from having a teacher. As you gain more confidence and skills in a language, I think you can slowly cut back on spending your time with a teacher and start learning on your own.

    Actually, this article made me think whether I really needed my teacher. I still see some opportunities how to benefit from our classes, but to be honest, we focus more on something I can do at home by myself. So, I think I’ll tell him this and require something a little bit different – more speaking and writing because both I cannot do completely by myself because I need some corrections.

  • Kelsey

    I agree with most of your points, but I believe that a good teacher can make a huge difference! In my first semester of Arabic, my teacher really encouraged speaking and promoted learning. Grades were based far more on effort, and he cared about the students’ desire to learn the language. After one semester, I was on my way to speaking, and could write most of what we had learned from memory. But subsequent teachers repeated a book-based approach, more focus on grammar, and the lessons were more teacher-centric. After 3 semesters of that, my time would have been better spent with a native speaker, for sure.

    I’m a big fan of the self-taught method. I spent 2 years learning German on my own in high school, tested into the intermediate courses in college, and I was ahead of the class in terms of speaking. My grammar was pretty bad, but that was mostly because of inexperience. Now I get grammar quickly, it’s just speaking that becomes difficult.

    In any case, I think classes have their place. But check out the teacher beforehand, and definitely understand your goals prior to entering the classroom! Thank you for the thoughtful article!