Five Reasons Never to Take a Foreign Language Class

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.

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  • John Wright

    I tend to agree that language classes are not always the best way to learn a language. I moved to Zurich from the US nine years ago. I had completed an intensive, 11-week German course at the University of Oregon 25 years prior to my coming here, and it did come back somewhat. By chance, there was a group of Germans studying that same summer at the U of O, and I went out with them afternoons walking, drinking beer, etc. Great help with the German studies. My employer here in Zurich paid for a German course. It was helpful, but the quality and level of preparedness of the instructors was extremely uneven. I later took an Italian course here in Zurich and it was terrible. The text was totally inappropriate for an adult-level course and the instructors had very little idea about teaching a language, and it was very expensive.

    Here some things that I found useful in learning languages:

    Find someone who speaks the language you want to learn and wants to learn your native language. Arrange to meet on a regular basis and switch off between the two languages.

    Read, read, read. I love to read. I start with comic books, then detective novels, perhaps books I already have read in English. Some books I read 3 or 4 times. I don’t worry about understanding every word. If there are too many words I don’t understand, I leave the book and find an easier one.

    Movies. Watch a German (or whatever) movie with German subtitles, then without subtitles. If I watch an English movie now, I turn on German or Italian subtitles.

    I like for starting off. It gives a really good basis, listening, speaking, reading, writing, and is not expensive. I have it on my iPad and it’s easy to do a little each day after checking emails.

    If you already know one foreign language, try using that as the instruction language when learning a second foreign language (easy to do on Babbel). I use a German-Italian dictionary and am using Italian on Babbel to learn French (which I studied in high school, too many years ago). (I have no association with Babbel.) In my experience, it seems to strengthen the first language, but maybe takes a little longer to learn the second using this method.

    Of course, travel to a country where they speak the language you want to learn. It’s interesting how just being in the environment helps: street signs, conversations overheard in the tram, etc.

    I listen to books on tape when working around the house and read the book, too. I think I’ve both listened to and read Im Westen nichts Neues each about 3 times.

    Talk to yourself as you walk around in the language you’re trying to learn.

    If you can get someone to pay for it, take a class.

    • Ron G.

      Hi John! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Very cool, and your list of languages is impressive.

      Don’t know if you’ve had a chance to take a look around my site, but you and I have *very* similar approaches to language learning.

      The only big difference I see is that I haven’t used a foreign language to learn a second foreign language. For me, it’s always been interpreting a new language in terms of my native English until the point where I can navigate the new language on its own terms. I want to try your approach, but it’s a little intimidating to be honest.

      Also, when I hit the intermediate level, I’m comfortable with watching shows and movies and listening to podcasts and the radio. But books on tape always give me the most trouble, even if I can read the same book. Maybe it’s an issue with concentration?

      I talk to myself too. My wife and soon keep saying, “Huh?” And I have to just say, “German” or “Spanish” and they go back to doing what they were doing. hahaha

    • John Wright

      Hi Ron

      You’re welcome and thank you also for your reply.

      My idea with using a second language to learn a third (in my case, German for Italian) is to try to somehow create more “links” in my brain. Also, it really helped with my German. Sometimes, of course, there’s no substitute for a good grammar or dictionary in English. I like using children’s first vocabulary books, for example. German to Italian. This helps me with the German definite articles and pictures are anyway very helpful. I also like to read textbooks or other non-fiction in the language I’m learning. That way I can not only learn the language a little better, but also learn something about another topic that interests me. Non-fiction is often easier in a second language that fiction, I find, especially if I already know a little about the topic.

      I use books on tape as background while I’m doing something else, like ironing my shirts. With repeated listening, I understand it better each time, especially if I read the book as well. With the tapes, I repeat words or phrases sometimes as I hear them.