If 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.
By the way, whether you take language classes or not, if you want to be a successful language learner, using the right method is key.
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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!
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.
How 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?
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