In the field of language learning, there are often two broad lines: take classes and self-study. This distinction has the disadvantage of being too simple, because both of these two options actually hide a huge diversity. However, the question many people who want to learn a new language ask themselves is also very simple: “Should I take classes or study alone at home? “. The answer is complex and depends on each person. Let’s try to clarify this.
1) Learning in class or by yourself: what’s the difference?
The reason why it’s so difficult to decide is because both ways have their pros and cons. Before going further in the reflection, it’s important to define what constitutes the difference between taking classes and self-studying.
Taking a language class: the human assistance
The particularity of a class is obviously the presence of a professor in person. Whether the course is individual, with a group or through Skype, someone is there to give you knowledge and monitor your progress. This is the advantage of the class: you are not alone, a person is there to guide you and make sure you stay on track.
In addition to providing a comforting framework, a teacher is (usually) an expert in the language he teaches. He can answer your questions, you can try to imitate his good accent at will, and he is able to make you understand the smallest nuances of a sentence. Conversely, when you learn alone, you regularly find yourself facing a wall of unanswered questions.
Self-studying: a lonely trial
Regarding self-studying, it’s the opposite: you don’t have any teacher, or rather, you are your own teacher. Learning by yourself doesn’t mean that you have to renounce to any teaching material: the language methods and other software exist precisely to replace the presence of the teacher.
The problem of self-studying is obviously the loneliness it implies: you are left alone with yourself and you don’t have anybody to motivate you or to consult whenever you have a doubt. It’s not surprising to see that this way of learning frightens beginners so much. At the same time, well-experienced polyglots will tell you they prefer to study alone, given the flexibility self-studying provides.
2) The perfect way to learn a language doesn’t exist
The point of this article is not to promote one way to learn instead of the other. That would make no sense at all. I learned foreign languages (English and Portuguese) as much in class as by myself at home, and I’ve benefited from both. Instead of trying to find the best way to learn the language, ask yourself which way to learn fits you best, based on your current situation. Let’s check out what are the pros and cons of these two types of learning.
Advantages and disadvantages of taking classes
The advantages: the assistance and the group competition
The presence of a teacher guarantees you will be supported during your learning process. Some people think private lessons are the ultimate solution to all their problems, but I don’t think so: if you are in a small group of really motivated people, it will have a positive impact on you. However, if you can afford the services of a personal experienced teacher, you should do it, because he will focus all his attention on your needs and difficulties.
Regarding the group, it’s always motivating to go to a regular meeting where you can be in contact with people who share your interests and passions. If loneliness is something you struggle with during your learning process, then you should seriously consider taking classes.
Next, a teacher is a professional of education by definition. In addition to his knowledge of the language, he has the ability to explain complex grammar rules in a very simple way and he can give you useful tips to progress rapidly.
Another point that shouldn’t be taken lightly when you learn a language is the sounds which don’t exist in English (or in your native language). When you learn French, if you don’t have someone to correct you when you pronounce French words, you may pronounce them in a wrong way without even noticing it. You will probably develop bad habits, and it may be very difficult to get rid of them afterwards. If you have a professor though, he knows when your pronunciation is correct or not.
The disadvantages: a possibly restricting and inadequate learning process
First of all, it’s not that easy to register to an evening class. There is often a high demand, especially in big cities, and the deadline to register is often very short, so you are never sure to find a spot. You usually have to pay quite an amount of money, with prices ranging from 200 to 600$ for group lessons of several months, and even more for private lessons. Not everyone can afford that.
Besides, you usually have to accept restricting commitments: when you register to a class, you agree to be present each week at a certain hour and too bad if your availability changes on the way. Private lessons provide a greater flexibility, but your professor has to be available when you are free as well.
Geography can also represent a problem: indeed, if you live far away from the place of your language class, you will dedicate even more of your time to this project.
Many people criticize language classes in middle schools because of excessive overhead which prevents pupils from participating in classes. The same reproach can be addressed to evening classes for adults. I have so many friends who registered in languages courses at university and who gave up within the first year. It’s impossible to learn in classes filled with so many people.
It’s true that small groups can have numerous benefits, but never go to a class accepting too many students, unless you like to compete against other people in order to speak.
Advantages and disadvantages of self-studying
The advantages: a complete flexibility
In comparison with classes with a teacher, self-studying has a huge advantage: you can learn whenever you want, wherever you want. You are free to organize yourself like you want. Even better: you are not limited to scattered lessons during the week anymore, you can study without additional cost as long as it seems necessary for you. Let’s talk about money by the way: unless you chose a very costly method, self-studying will cost you much less than taking a class. That’s right, you don’t have to pay the teacher!
Another great advantage: you are free to try different educational material and to choose the one that fits you best. Imagine you don’t like a grammar book, you can get another one whenever you want. Whereas in a class, it’s a bit complicated to ask the teacher to adapt his way of teaching based on your personal needs.
The disadvantages: loneliness and a lack of direction
The main problem when you study by yourself is obviously the fact that you are alone… Because of that, it’s often difficult to keep the motivation to learn for more than several months. It took me a lot of time to really master Portuguese, without demotivating myself or not knowing how to progress anymore. But don’t worry, I give lots of advices in this blog for you to succeed much better than me at the time!
Then of course, another major problem is the absence of native speakers. In a classroom, you have in front of you a person with whom you can practice and who will correct all the mistakes in your pronunciation. However, if you chose to self-study, it’s your job to find native speakers to have conversations with them.
3) Taking classes and learning by yourself: the same battle?
In hindsight, I’ve come to the following conclusion: no matter which way of learning you choose, it won’t really change your project eventually. Let me give you a personal experience: right now, I am studying Chinese mandarin at university. I have a very nice Chinese native teacher who gives great lessons. So you might say I have everything I need to reach a fluent level in Chinese. Even though I have an honorable level, I still struggle a bit to organize myself to study regularly everyday outside of the classes, like I was doing with Portuguese during my last year of high school. I am very busy with many stuff like my other subjects at university, my exams, writing this blog…
If I tell you this, it’s to make you understand that in any case, you will have to study by yourself no matter what. I always recommend to study a little bit every day (it’s true for me as well ^^’): so if you take a language class once a week, you must absolutely study by yourself in the remaining six days.
Learning a foreign language: a personal project with multiple faces
Thanks to Internet, the materials to learn and practice languages have considerably increased: it would be a shame for you not to take this great opportunity. Even if you are doing a major at university to learn a language with a very busy schedule, don’t rely only your classes: keep on revising your vocabulary regularly, meet native speakers, immerge yourself in the culture of the country, and go for a trip there if you can afford it.
To go even further in the reflection, let’s talk about a field you might not know: blended learning, which has the particularity of mixing classes with a teacher and self-studying with a software. With this, we can clearly see that the borderline between the two ways of learning is disappearing.
I encourage you to consider your learning process as a personal project and to view your lessons or your method as part of other components of your project. Even with the best private teacher in the world, you won’t progress rapidly with two hours of study a week. However, if you regard these two hours as the most important session of the week, and that you add other activities to practice the language, it’s a very good starting point.
Conclusion: language classes and course methods are a tool, not an end in themselves
The two main ways of learning both have pros and cons, so I’m not going to recommend one or the other. The choice is yours, and you will make it based on your needs and your means. Whichever way you choose, always keep your independence and diversify your activities as much as possible. In the end, the class you are taking or the course you are studying at home is just a springboard to reach your goal. It’s up to you to use it to make that jump towards a more complete and lively learning process.