Is it better to learn a language in a class or on your own?
By Jeffrey Nelson
With many people out there struggling to learn a second language every day, there are obviously a lot of programs and products that cater to them. As most people embark on their language-learning journey, this very question comes to mind: Should I learn a language solo or find a classroom/formal education option?
The language learning community is fairly split on this issue; guys like Benny Lewis of Fluent in 3 months are definitely advocates of learning by speaking, self-study, and actual human interaction in a non-classroom setting. While this method has apparently worked very well for him, it isn't necessarily the end-all-be-all either.
Richard Simcott, a famous polyglot who made an epic video of himself speaking 16+ languages several years ago, actually spends quite a bit of time in formal education classes. He is currently learning Chinese and Japanese in a formal setting.
As varied as the approaches are the learners; some tending to be more well-suited to learn solo and some requiring more of a class room setting. Knowing what type of learner you are helps greatly.
Are you a solo learner?
If you are naturally curious, driven, sufficiently motivated, and love to figure things out on your own, then perhaps studying at your own pace would be the road for you to take. Self-study has many benefits as well as drawbacks; each one uniquely helpful or detrimental given the attitude of the learner.
Studying alone is better for people who value being able to:
- Study at your own pace
- Use whatever materials you want
- Learn what interests you
- Flexibility - no schedule to adhere to or classes to attend
- Cheaper - not having to pay a teacher definitely helps save some money
Do you prefer formal study?
Formal study, as I call it, is in a typical classroom setting. The most common would obviously be in a school or university with an actual teacher being paid to sit in there with you. Teachers in America don't make a huge amount of money, so it isn't necessarily a guaranteed that you are going to get someone who will dedicate their life to your study. Normally, it's more of a factory-like setting designed to get people in and out.
That being said, however, there are definitely good teachers out there in the language community.
Formal study is better for those who:
- Have a hard time staying self-motivated
- Like structure and the additional interaction with classmates and instructors
- Want correction and help with difficult things and would prefer not to spend time looking up answers someone else already knows
- Isn't necessarily trying to learn the language as fast as possible and perhaps enjoys the journey as well as the end result
A lot of people who learn on their own don't necessarily want to bask in the fun of learning a language, they just want to learn the language as fast as possible.
Another thing that may play into your decision could be what your end goal is. If your end goal is to simply be able to speak a few sentences on a trip to Columbia, it may not be worth the extra money and time commitment a formal education program would require.
However, if you're goal is to someday become a foreign language teacher yourself, you may want to get into the classroom groove in your own studies; a degree is also required to actually teach foreign languages as a professional educator.
Or perhaps, like me, you are motivated to learn another language because you married a foreigner. Whatever your reason, additional languages only enrich your lives, regardless of how you learn them. One of my favorite optimistic quotes is by Lucille Ball:
"One of the things I learned the hard way was that it doesn't pay to get discouraged. Keeping busy and making optimism a way of life can restore your faith in yourself."