Why I don't like language classes

matthias on 2013/03/23

I do like learning languages and when this comes up I often get questions from friends about how I think they should approach learning a new language.

Since this has come up quite a bit, I’ll try to summarize how I think language learning should be approached and why I believe that language classes should be avoided.

I found great arguments that are mostly in line with my point of view here: http://www.antimoon.com/other/englishclass.htm. Here is my summary of that post. I rephrased the points I find less important and marked them with parentheses.

Here is what you can do at an English class. (Note: other language classes are of course the same; for Chinese add lots of character studying):

  • Listen to some bad English. The pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary of other students (and sometimes the teacher, too) will be bad. Sometimes as bad as this, or worse. Surely listening to these people will not make your English better.
  • Say five sentences in English. There are usually 10-20 students in the class, so there is little time for you to speak English. Normal English classes are very poor speaking practice. (Conversation classes are better.)
  • (Textbooks are boring)
  • (Grammar exercises are boring; did you need them when you learned your mother tongue as a child?)

Other very important points are in my opinion:

  • Slippage times (you spend additional time commuting to class)
  • The class will proceed only as fast as the slowest student allows.

The alternatives the author suggests I only somewhat agree on however. If you are starting at zero, they are just not that feasible. For instance: Be my guest and try finding a native speaker who enjoys conversations that are limited to a vocabulary of 100 words. (Note: If you can, a model career might be more suitable for you than whatever you’re doing now)

So how would I learn a new language?

  1. Build a solid base. Does not need to be too great (otherwise you will never start speaking - you know who you are if you can understand written English perfectly, but wouldn’t want to speak to anyone…). Here are some books and computer courses that will get you started. I like them because they emulate learning languages in the same way you learned languages as a baby. That means:

    • Lots of listening (can be done during commutes) to the new language and only the new language (I hate the kind of programs where English is mixed in all the time
    • Barely / no grammar lessons. It is assumed that you will pick up the grammar as you go.

    Here is what I have used during that phase:

    • Assimil: (should be on amazon as well) This was the only resource I had at first when I started learning Chinese. They have programs for pretty much any language. You will have to fork out 100 EUR for a course that took me over a year to complete part-time. And I was a university student at that time, so that part-time was probably more effort than what I could do now that I’m working. Interesting methods I saw, that sounded as if they follow similar principles, but that I haven’t tested are:

    The following methods look equally suitable but I do not know them.

    • Michel Thomas Method the description is similar to Assimil - actually they claim to get to business even faster. If you’re wondering about what to get, here’s a reference (will cost about 250 EUR for the full Mandarin deal for instance): http://www.michelthomas.com/courses.php
    • Honorable mention: livinglanguage 100 USD with unlimited access to a tutor seems too good to be true. I haven’t tested this and I wouldn’t be surprised if they can’t deliver on that promise.
  2. Use spaced repetition to maintain and improve upon your vocabulary. For lack of time and maybe also a bit for lack of enthusiasm right now, this is currently all I am doing for Chinese. I have put together flash cards for the new HSK levels and I am currently working up to Level 5 with Anki (I haven’t seen the iPhone version, but I really recommend it for Windows and Android where I’m using it).

  3. Immerse yourself in the language. Find podcasts, radio, movies, news and most importantly people who will talk to you (yes, chances are you will have to get away from the computer; no, I didn’t like it either, but hey: you might like it and points 1&2 still let you spend ample time on the computer 😉 )

    I actually followed quite a few Chinese podcasts in the past (especially chinesepod), but they have since all become non-free and I’m not following anymore.

2013-03-26: Small amendment. I have to admit that language school also has advantages. You will have to leave the house and you will probably meet new people. Moreover you learn much more about the culture of the country you’re interested in than by using the approach I described. And of course, you typically get a certificate after the class whereas otherwise you’d always have to participate in standardized tests. Those of course are of much higher value.

2017-11-12: Small edits when I moved my blog to another platform.