I have written about ways to study language for free, but the truth is I think that language classes – at least good language classes – are among the best ways to learn a language. Here is why:
1.You are forced to study for a set time every week. It’s easier to tell your friends (or spouse, parents, etc) “No, I can’t get together on Tuesday evening because I have a Chinese class,” than it is to say, “I can’t get together on Tuesday evening because I will be studying Chinese by myself at in my living room.” Your friends are much more likely to respect the fact that you have a class, and you are much less likely to be tempted to ‘skip’ a class than to ‘skip’ a planned solitary study session.
I think this is the most important argument for language classes. I am more motivated than most when it comes to language learning, but I have a hard time studying on my own consistently. When you are learning a language, consistency is crucial to advancing. It is possible that I am less disciplined than those who rail against language classes, but if that is the case, I’m guessing that most people are less disciplined than they are.
2. You are also forced to work outside of class. At best, you have homework that you are expected to do and that will be corrected. If you are like me, you will also be motivated by a sense of competition to do better than anyone else in the class… and that can only be accomplished by studying outside of class.
3. Less decisions. Taking a class can be an easier way to learn because you don’t have to decide what to focus on or what materials to use. You don’t have to decide when to study. The teacher makes all those decisions for you, and you can focus on learning what he or she is teaching.
4. Teachers can answer questions about both language and culture. Unlike most potential language exchange partners, they are professionals who know how to explain the language to learners. As anyone who has taught a language knows, just knowing how to speak a language does not mean you can teach it effectively.
5. Corrections. The best language classes have homework and the best language teachers will correct homework, correct pronunciation and correct your writing. Getting corrections is crucial to advancing in your language studies!
6. Other students. Some of the free resources I’ve mentioned before are very solitary. This really goes against what language learning is all about – it is about being able to talk to people and to communicate with them. Having classmates will make language learning much funner and less lonely.
7. Exams! External motivation can be very effective. I’m guessing that most people study more when they are going to be tested on the material soon, even if the results of the exam are not really that important – as would be the case for most adult learners. Sure, exams might not accurately reflect how well you know a language, but the actual study time you put in preparing for the exam will help you in the long run.
I don’t think that language classes are perfect, and I think there is a limit to how much you can learn in a classroom setting. But I also don’t think classes should be dismissed as way to learn a language, especially for beginners.
The biggest problem with language classes is that they are quite expensive. In my opinion, that just means that there should be inexpensive language classes, not that language classes are worthless. When I lived in Paris, I took Arabic classes through the city of Paris that were very reasonably priced, and I felt like I learned a substantial amount in the year, given that I was only studying once a week.