Learning French is challenging and can easily be overwhelming. For this reason, a lot of beginners choose to join a language class. Is it really the right choice? Some people swear by it, others hate it. Who should you listen to?
In this article, we will review the pros and cons of joining a class. What is important to keep in mind in your decision is your personality type. If you like to play safe and do not enjoy spending time experimenting with new approaches, then it seems that your decision is already made. If you hate being told what to do and/or like to get out of your comfort zone, then again you already know what to do. If you're somewhere in between (the majority of us), then this article is for you.
Before diving into the subject, please note that there are a few important factors that I am not going to cover in this article.
- Methodology - what is their method of teaching? Check out this infographic to see which one fits you best.
- Does it fit your needs? Some classes have different goals (business, career, academia, etc.) that you must be aware of before enrolling.
When weighing the pros and cons, I am going to assume that you're already OK with those.
The Pros of Language Classes
Learning a language in a classroom can benefit a lot of people, especially those who like to learn in a safer environment. Those classes typically follow a structured curriculum and designed to develop your skills gradually. Here are some specific ways you can benefit from a class.
I know a lot of people who would benefit from a language class just because of this. Accountability. It's what keeps them on track. Some of them wouldn't even be learning in the first place.
Accountability happens when you're under the influence of authority; in this case, the teacher or even your peers. It pushes you keep up to the demands of the class and in some cases it even creates competition. If you're competitive, it may generate an incentive for you to do better than your classmates and therefore push your results further.
Fallacy: The problem with accountability though, it's that the need for it often hides a lack of motivation.. How often do people join a gym as a New Year's resolution and end up going only once or twice? This happens a lot! Same thing here: a lot of people secretly wish they could learn a language just by joining a class. Personal work is key. Don't fall into that trap!
2. Opportunity for Feedback
One of the advantages of joining a class is that you get direct feedback from the teacher. Whether it's grammar, pronunciation and wrong use of vocabulary, the teacher will usually correct you.
When learning independently, authentic feedback is not the easiest thing to get. When engaged in true conversations, people might be too polite to highlight your mistakes.
Of course the quality of the feedback matters. Some teachers do a great job but others will just correct you without an explanation.
Tip: If your primary need is feedback then a language class might not be the best option. When it comes to pure feedback, the most effective way to get it is through tutoring. Hiring a private tutor is not only very different from a language class but it goes beyond it. Because the tutor is solely focused on you, it is supposed to satisfy your personal needs. Again, you have to know you're looking for.
3. Emphasis on Grammar
In my experience, most language classes put an emphasis on grammar. While this may put off a lot of people who like to learn from exposure, it's perfect for those who are more down-to-earth.
Back in school, they had us buy workbooks with a lot of exercises. It's practical and I used to have fun with that. The key is to view the whole process as a game.
If you're the type of person who likes to learn through pure trial and error, you may want to avoid taking a class. Same thing for people who like to learn socially.
While the communicative approach is becoming a trend, in my experience most classes do not prioritize authentic communication. Working in small groups is becoming more common but then again you're interacting with other learners who don't master the language.
Fallacy: While this is true that you cannot speak a language without knowing its grammar, a lot of teachers put too much emphasis on grammar, correcting every single mistakes until the student gets it right. In my experience, mastery of grammar is a process that cannot be forced; you integrate the grammar as you get exposed to the language and practice it. No amount of cramming will trick your brain.
The Cons of Language Classes
Let's be real. I personally do not enjoy taking classes. It's my personality. I am more of an explorer. Although it is important to understand the basics of grammar, I like to get a feel for it by exposing myself to real content. I like to understand how the whole machinery works by myself.
However my personal view does not change the facts. You may or may not need to take a class. You get to decide.
1. Great for Grammar, Not for Vocabulary
As mentioned above, language classes are great for learning grammar. It is true that emphasis can also be put on vocabulary, in the form of vocabulary lists or various exercises. This cannot work. Often times, the student get exposed to new vocabulary items, either (1) out of context; or (2) within content that is not interesting to them.
The polyglot Steve Kaufmann often talks about compelling content. Your brain tends to forget what it considers useless. However, you can maximize vocabulary retention by getting exposed to content that is emotionally engaging. Exposure to compelling content implies your personal choice and enough time on your own to focus on it; language classes tend to get this wrong.
2. Uninspiring Content
I've just mentioned compelling content. Every single language class that I attended got this wrong. During all those years of school, I found myself bored to death.
When I was 15 in highschool, the semester topic for Spanish was terrorism. After that it was feminism. In English classes, we often talked about the melting pot and equality of rights. When I was on Erasmus in Germany, we covered a political article about Donald Trump and Angela Merkel.
All those things are important, don't get me wrong. However, it's hard to stay focused when you're both learning a foreign language AND dealing with stuff that don't interest you.
3. More Expensive
Now you get you pay for. If you think a language class is worth it, go for it. However, learning on your own is way cheaper (and sometimes more effective!).
I learned Turkish without spending a dime on the learning itself. I borrowed books from the library, used language learning apps (Duolingo and Memrise; HelloTalk for practicing with native speakers). The only thing I paid for was actually going to Turkey!
Now I'm all about spending money on stuff that provide value, including a class. Experiment and go for the most effective way!
So... Are Language Classes for You?
Who self-learning is NOT for: If you have no experience whatsoever in language learning, this path is probably not for you. I have been lucky to be naturally good at language learning since I was a kid. This provided me with momentum and a methodology of how to go about it. If that's not your case but you feel like you may be an independent learner, try it. If not, I recommend you start off with a class.
Now there are two extreme case scenarios to be mindful of:
- joining a class because it feels good and make you think you're on the right path
- learning independently without having any idea how to learn a foreign language
Coming back to the beginning of the article: do you enjoy learning in a safe environment and in a more structured way? Or are you more adventurous and independent? The former would definitely prefer a language class, the latter would not.
Please note that most of the drawbacks exposed in this article could easily be avoided through methodology. The more skilled the teacher (in terms of communication, compellingness, etc.), the less true they hold. Unfortunately 90% of the teachers I had were not involved enough. No one will ever care about your language learning as much as you do!
If you had to remember anything from this article it is this: even joining a class involves independent learning.
At the end of the day, language classes are just a tool. What really matters is your motivation. If you're motivated, you'll be successful in either path. The real question is: do you really want to learn your target language and if so, what is the most practical way to do it?