Going to a language school makes a lot of sense. After all, most of the basic knowledge you have about the world you probably got through some form of a school while you were growing up. For most people, and for our parents and their parents this was where you got your ‘learning’ from, schools. Sure, those really aggressive folks might have made a few trips to the library to do more research, but the majority of people went to schools.
But, if you learned a language in school, there is a good chance that you forgot most of it already. There are some exceptions to this of course. There are some truly good education systems that seem to produce pretty capable speakers of a language.
For instance, 99.9% of the Germans I have met in my life speak pretty good English, and I would say some Germans that I have met could have fooled me into thinking they were American if they hadn’t told me they were from Germany.
On the other hand, there are plenty of self-studiers or language hackers out there that seem to be doing pretty well. In fact, some of them see better results for less money in better time. So, what’s the deal, should you go with a school or self-study?
How old are you?
So, first off, if you are still a hard core believer in the whole ‘you can only learn a language when you are young’ myth, that has been busted. You can learn a language at pretty much any age. If you haven’t been exercising your brain a lot, you might have a hard time in your 80s, but other than that you are pretty much able to do just fine.
However, the way you learn things can be much different. When you are younger, you are used to school, you are used to having assignments given to you. Having some kind of structure or schedule of classes is probably a very comfortable way of doing things for you. Furthermore, you like constant feedback through tests and quizzes that let you know how you are doing.
On the other hand, if you have been away from school for a few years, you are probably pretty used to doing things your way. On top of that, you might have an irregular schedule. For example, some months you are extremely busy, while others you have to hunt for things to do. For these reasons, a lot of people in their 30s and older will generally opt for self-studying.
Do you need to learn through experimentation? Were you the kid that loved ‘physical’ subjects like biology or chemistry where you got to experiment and actually see things happening. When you get a new app or a smartphone, do you read all the instructions or do you just jump in and start goofing off with it?
If this sounds like you, you are an experimenter. You need to learn something by doing it. If this is the case, self-studying is probably a good choice for you.
Or were you the person that took meticulous notes and was able to recall definitions of biological processes? Could you write out all the steps to calculus solution with precise accuracy? Do you love to read books, tons and tons of books?
Well then, taking a class might be better suited for you. Now, a good school and a good teacher will allow for experimentation in class and for students to use their creativity. But, a school can not allow you to go off the beaten path too much, because there are other students and they might not want to take the path you want to take, at least in classroom work.
Go Beyond the School Walls
If you do take a class, there is a tendency to put a good amount of trust in the teacher and to follow along with the flow of the course. I mean, the teacher is the expert after all. You should just do everything they tell you, and you will become a foreign language speaking machine right?
Well, first of all, not all teachers are created equal. They are only human and can, at times, leave things out or explain things in a way that leads to misunderstandings. For example, even natives will disagree on what sounds natural from time to time. This is actually a regular topic among my colleagues at work. I will actually ask them ‘Would you say this?’ or ‘Would you describe this, in this way?’
A teacher will give you advice based on what they see in class (if they give any advice at all). But, what is really causing problems with your language learning could be a whole host of things. For example, I hate to say this, but some students lack social skills even in their native language, so when they go to learn a new language it’s twice as difficult because they simply aren’t familiar with what kind of information that would be exchanged in certain situations.
Great students go beyond the book and the school walls and do some out-of-the-class experimenting. That might be just getting a chat partner to work with or it could be working your way through some supplemental textbooks that the teacher didn’t require you to read. Some classes have bad textbooks, so you might need to get a replacement.
In other words, don’t just follow the teacher, just for the sake of following the teacher. You still have to do the assignments and do what is required of you, but make sure you journey off the path and personalize it for you. I think language is a personal thing that you need to take charge of to be successful.
Which do you Choose?
Language school or self-study? If you did go to a language school, which school? And how was the experience? Do you think you learned faster/easier? Let me know in the comments below.