The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #14 March / April 2015
Are You Wasting Your Money on Language Classes?
by Olly Richards
March / April 2015 | 

This article was published by Olly Richards in his blog "I Will Teach You a Language" in January, 2015 and is reprinted with his permission. The original post can be found here:

If you want to learn a new language, you’ve probably thought about taking language classes.

But is this the best way to go? Are language classes really worthy of your hard-earned cash?

In an industry said to be worth around US$200 billion, it’s a question that we’re entitled to ask, and I’m going to explore it here.

You may disagree with what I have to say, and that’s fine. But please read to the end of the article in order to hear my argument in full.

Let’s get into it.

Do language classes help?

Meet Rebecca. She’s learning Spanish.

Olly, do you think taking classes in a language helps?

Of course classes can help. Lots of things help you to learn a language. Language classes, textbooks, visiting the country, making friends with native speakers...they all help.

Great! So I made the right decision signing up for this Spanish class then!

Not so fast! I said classes can help. I didn’t say you should necessarily sign up.

OK, now I’m confused. But you just said it was good! The school I found is well-known and they hire professional teachers. I’ll learn Spanish in no time!

Rebecca’s just fallen into the same trap that thousands of language learners around the world fall into every day.

I call it the "pay a professional" trap.

And it has to stop.

What do you really want?

A trap? Don’t be ridiculous! I suppose you think you’ve got a better method?

Look, what I’m going to take issue with right away is the foregone conclusion that paying for "professional language tuition" is a good thing.

Now, in certain conditions, language tuition can indeed be a great thing, and if you find the right teacher it can be life-changing.

But it’s a big "if".

Rebecca, you’re going to class in order to learn Spanish. So let me ask you this – why not just learn with a textbook at home? I’m not saying you should, but just humour me.

Because textbooks are boring. Taking a class will make me study and I’ll make much more progress!

Right. So your problem is that you’re not motivated enough to learn by yourself?

No! I am motivated!

Ok, so I ask you again: Why not just learn with a textbook? What are you paying money for in the classroom that you couldn’t get on your own?

Well, for one thing, in the lesson I’ll get to speak Spanish with a native speaker! You can’t get that from a textbook. That’s why taking classes is so good!

How many students are there in the class? And how much of the time are you talking to your teacher?

Well, there are 10 of us in the class, and we spend lots of time speaking in groups. So it’s great – I’m speaking lots of Spanish during the class!

Yes, I see. And how good is the other students’ Spanish?

Well, we’re all beginners, so of course our Spanish is not very good yet! We all make quite a few mistakes!

So then, how much time are you actually speaking with a native Spanish speaker in class?

Hmm. Well, not much, I guess. And to be honest, the teacher actually explains things in English half the time. Look, I know I could – I should – probably study by myself. It’s just much better to join this Spanish class. It’s near my house, and quite convenient to get to.

All right. That makes sense. But since we’ve already established that you don’t spend any time speaking in class with a native speaker, what exactly are you paying for? I mean, I’m guessing it’s not cheap.

Sure, it’s not cheap (actually, it costs a lot), but it means I do actually go, I do learn things each week, and I do go off and do the homework that the teacher gives me.

So taking classes is a way to get started basically? That’s great, and well done for taking the plunge!

Knowledge or experience?

Ok, Olly, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that I could just do this by myself and don’t need to pay for classes. But I’m OK with paying for classes. If I didn’t take classes I wouldn’t know what to do. It’s better than just muddling along by myself and not getting anywhere.

I understand. You want to learn Spanish, but you don’t know how. You want to take classes because you want some direction. And that’s absolutely fine! I mean, language learning is nothing if not hard!

Yes, that’s it. I’m really committed to learning to speak Spanish fluently, and I’m really not a talented language learner. That’s why I’m investing in classes.

I love your ambition!

Now, forgive me, but I’m going to dig a little deeper on this point. Just now, you said that taking classes is an alternative to learning by yourself, one that you’re happy to pay for because it’s motivating and it makes you study.

But what you’re implying is that taking classes is just as beneficial as learning independently (with the added benefit of accountability).

But I question if these two things are in fact equally beneficial, and therefore whether you’re making an informed choice.

Let me ask you this. If you believe that you yourself are not a talented language learner, and you wouldn’t be able to learn on your own, then what makes you so sure that you’ll be successful with your new teacher?

She’s a Spanish teacher, of course she’ll help me learn Spanish!

Ok, but what makes you so sure?

Look, Olly, she’s a native Spanish speaker and a qualified teacher. Are you really going to tell me that she’s no good? You haven’t even met her!

Let’s be very clear here, because a lot depends on this point. This is not about how good your teacher is, or even where she’s from. What this is really about is a question of fundamental beliefs about how languages are learnt or taught.

Specifically, I believe that a language cannot be taught, it can only be learnt. Consequently, however talented your teacher, however enlightening your classes, what I’m saying is that your dream of becoming fluent in Spanish will happen as a result of your own initiative and self-directed learning, not because of what you may be taught.

So, yes, language classes can help support you in your journey of becoming fluent, but they are absolutely not a replacement or a solution in and of themselves.

You’re going to have to explain a bit more about why classes alone aren’t going to work.

Of course. Let’s get more specific.

If you were to walk into a random Spanish class somewhere in the world, here’s what you will probably see: The teacher will select a certain grammar point, teach you about it, and (hopefully) create some opportunities for you to practise it with others in the class. This is a generalisation, to be sure, but a pretty accurate one (I know, because I’ve observed hundreds of teachers in different countries).

In other words, by attending language classes, you will learn about some of the unique elements of Spanish. But the fact that the teacher has chosen to teach something does not mean that it’s either useful or possible for you to learn it right now.

My point is that systematically learning about the Spanish language is not directly addressing the actual issue of learning to speak it.

You can go through all the textbooks under the sun, become a genuine expert in Spanish, but not actually be able to speak it naturally in conversation with a native speaker.

Learning the language and learning to use the language are not the same.

Now, compare this to an organic process of learning whereby you read books, listen to music, go out there and speak, decide for yourself what you need to learn next (based on evidence), and then learn it... and you hopefully start to see where I’m coming from in my critique of relying on language classes.

So, when I ask you whether your Spanish teacher can really help you, I’m not questioning her ability to teach you all about Spanish and how it works. I’m sure she’s great at that.

She can choose appropriate exercises from the textbook, ask you to complete them, and correct them. She can also get you to try out your Spanish with your non-Spanish-speaking classmates.

But here’s my question:

How exactly are your classes benefiting you that justifies the high cost and your faith that you will learn to speak Spanish by attending them?

You wouldn’t expect to learn to speak fluently by using a textbook. So is it rational to expect the same outcome from your classes?

Whose responsibility is it anyway?

Right, I suppose I see what you’re saying. You mean that there’s more to learning Spanish than just following a textbook...whether you’re learning by yourself or from a teacher. You’re saying that you need to direct your own learning, and the only way of doing that is by actually using the language out in the real world – reading, speaking, whatever – and that a language class is not the right place to do that.

Exactly! And now we’re getting into an area that is often misunderstood, and yet gets to the core of what I think it means to learn a language successfully or not.

Look, you can learn a language bit by bit over time, enjoy the process, have it as a hobby, and that’s absolutely fine.

But I think what you really want is something different – and do tell me if I’m wrong.

I think what you really want is to learn to speak Spanish. Not just a passing appreciation or general understanding of the language. You want to be able to use it for real purposes and with real people. And you want to do it quickly – you don’t want to still be a beginner one year from now.

For you to learn Spanish well, you need to take responsibility for the process yourself. You need to direct your own learning, explore the language by yourself, at your own speed, noticing things that interest you along the way.

You need to read, learn, listen, speak, all the time noticing what your strengths and weaknesses are and taking steps to fix them as you go.

I’m sure your teacher is great. But she’s no substitute for you.

12All pages
Are You Wasting Your Money on Language Classes?
Writer: Olly Richards
Automatic_PWNage: Classroom (PDF title)
neo0031: Two in the Classroom
Angelschatedral99: classroom couple
matsunaa: Anime Girl studying
sonamy_4evah: Anime Girl writing
• "Are you wasting your money on language classes?" Olly Richards, "I Will Teach You a Language" <>

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


comments powered by Disqus
Subscribe now
and never miss an issue!

In this issue:

Missed something?
Find previous issues in the archives.

Become a Patron and help support us


Subscribe to Parrot Time!

Copyright © 2013-2018 Scriveremo Publishing