When people want to learn a foreign language, the first thing they often do is run out to the local community college or Berlitz center and sign up for a class.
It’s understandable. Most of us went through the school system, spending 12 or more years in classroom settings. If we want to learn something, like calculus or English composition, we take a class.
Foreign languages are a little different, though, and therefore require a different approach.
Classroom instruction isn’t terrible, and there are some benefits. But before rushing out and plunking down cash, consider these five reasons not to.
1. Not enough exposure
Learning a language takes time. More specifically, it takes exposure. If you want to get to a proficient level in a language, you need a minimum of 1000 hours of meaningful exposure – and that’s being conservative.
Imagine a two-hour class that meets three times a week, which is a common schedule. At that rate, it would take you over three years before you got to a proficient level from the class alone.
The better alternative: Sure, you can get more exposure by supplementing the class work with additional work. Or you can skip the class altogether and just do the additional work.
2. Not enough individual attention
In a classroom with multiple students, the instructor can’t pay much attention to you for more than a few minutes per hour.
It’s just simple math. If you’re in a class of, twenty people, you can’t get more than 3 minutes of individual attention an hour. The rest of the time is spent listening passively to a lecture or to the teacher talking to the other students.
The better alternative: Hire a tutor. A tutor devotes the entire hour to you, instantly correcting your mistakes. If you live near a college, you should be able to find a college kid willing to tutor you (and maybe 1 or 2 other people to split up the costs) at a reasonable price.
3. You have to drive to class
Okay, this might sound a little petty, but for people without a lot of free time, the drive to class is a big deal.
I live a half hour away from any language class. Considering the drive, finding a place to park, and walking to class, a 2-hour class would eat up more like a 3 and a 1/2 hours.
The better alternative: Learn during the drive itself. There are plenty of listening-based courses you can listen to in the car. If you have a commute to work like I do, you can get in an hour a day of studying during otherwise wasted time.
4. You spend most of your time listening to other students
A good portion of any class consists of students struggling through a language. I’ll concede that there might be some value in hearing others working through problems that you likely have yourself, as that gives you an outsider’s perspective.
But a little of that goes a long way. Your time is much, much better spent listening to natives speaking the language correctly and at a natural pace.
The better alternative: Listen to the language being spoken correctly. Instead of an hour listening to students stammering, listen to an hour’s worth of something you can understand. If you’re a beginner, that might be actors in a language course speaking dialogues. If you’re advanced, that might be the news. Whatever you choose to listen to, though, will train your ear and your mind better than listening to struggling students.
5. Classes are expensive
Here in Germany, I have an American coworker who has been taking German classes for the last two and a half years. Her German is really coming along, but at a price.
She estimates that she has spent over $2500 in tuition.
Sure, prices vary, but instruction doesn’t come cheap, and the costs add up.
The better alternative: Sink your money into quality study-at-home courses. I’ve been studying German as well, and in the last year I have spent about $400, a fraction of what my coworker has spent. Had I not bought Rosetta Stone, which is okay, and had I been a little more selective, I would’ve spent only about $150. And had I used the library more effectively, I absolutely could’ve spent no money whatsoever.
The Bottom Line
There are definitely some advantages to taking a language course in a classroom, which I will discuss in future posts. And I may take a class again someday. But they’re not ever going to be my “go to” language learning method again.
What do you think? Are classes worth it? Leave a reply in the comments.