If you failed to learn a language at school, chances are part of the problem was what was going on in your group language classes.
Yet many people when they want to start or improve a language think about taking yet more group language classes. Erm, just like at school. Except that, this time, you’re going to have to pay for it.
Classes certainly do come in for some stick among us independent language learners and in this post, I’ll be reminding you exactly why. Yet should we dismiss group sessions out of hand? There are two sides to the argument. We need to balance with cons with undoubted pros to see whether – and if so, how – we might profit from attending a group language class.
Down at the bottom of this post, you can find my video on the subject, from over on the Howtogetfluent YouTube Channel.
The typical weekly language class
By group class I have in mind the typical once (or maybe at most twice) a week session of an hour or two. It’s the typical night class or weekend session. You’ll find these sort of offers as the mainstay of adult education centres, cultural institutes or private language schools.
These are what are known in the trade as extensive classes, as opposed to the intensive group experience, such as a full day or several days, weeks or even months where you’re signed up for the duration. I’ll come back to those in another post.
I’ve actually done my fair share of extensive group classes in my time.
By the way, I’ve taught quite a few too in the past (English for foreigners)….and will do in the future.
As an undergraduate, I attended a weekly lunchtime session in French at the my university’s language centre. When I was starting to learn Russian, I attended night classes during my gap year Aberystwyth (when I was mainly focussed on learning Welsh). Then I attended some “Reading Soviet newspapers” class once a week when I was back Oxford beginning my doctoral work in Russian history.
When I was living in German I did night school classes in Hungarian and a weekly senior undergraduate class in Russian (both through the medium of German….yay!).
A couple of summers ago, when I had my sights on sitting the advanced Russian TRKI 3 certificate, I did a weekly evening class in that language.
For the first two plus years as a Basque learner, I attended the London Basque Society’s evening classes on a Tuesday night after work.
So while I’ll not hold back in pointing out their downside below, you can see from my history that I think that they have their place.
Let’s dig a bit deeper into the pro- and anti-class debate.
It’s true that there are some obvious downsides to group life.
The teacher’s attention is divided
Simple mathematics dictates that once you’re sharing your teacher’s attention with a group, you’re not going to get as much of it. More than this, certain students will demand more than their fair share.
We’ve all come across the gobby showman in class who insists on hogging the airwaves…and the teacher’s attention.
Weaker students hold you back
In a group, some students will be more enthusiastic and committed than others.
Who hasn’t been frustrated by the person who hasn’t done their homework and thus can’t take part in the next group exercise properly?
Who hasn’t wanted to kick out the student who’s in out of his or her depth, maybe overpromoted from the group below. You know: the one doesn’t seem to follow the most obvious things and requires more personal attention than the rest of us?
Both these characters can hold you back.
So can other frustrating types.
Some people may do the written work but not want to speak…so that the teacher ends up speaking English again.
I’ve been in classes with people who clearly just don’t want to be there, whatever their innate ability.
Perhaps they’ve been sent by an employer or exasperated partner but they’re really just going through the motions.
Some people are happy to be there but for them it’s just a social event. A way to get out of the house. They’re not really focussed on learning the darned language.
You’re stuck with one teacher
Some classes alternate a team of teachers, though that’s much more common in intensive (full-time) course.
In the typical extensive class set-up, you’re stuck with one teacher.
However good your teacher, his or her personality, personal strengths and weaknesses will permeate the whole experience.
In the Basque classes, we had a great teacher for the first two years. She became a personal friend.
Then, as was bound to happen, she left London for the Basque country. It was very up a and down after that with a parade of different teachers.
Even the best teacher only has their own, personal accent and rhetorical style. You, though need exposure to a variety of soundz n styles from the front of the room 🙂
You’ll have the same problem with one-to-one tuition but, with the advent of the internet, you’ll generally have more teachers to choose from.
When I’m learning on-line, what I like to do is have several teachers. That’s not only because each one occasionally goes away or falls ill. It’s for that variety.
There’s no location flexibility
If you’re able to find a class in your area, it may still not be that convenient for you to get to it.
You’ll also lose the travelling time.
My Basque class took place an additional distance beyond the office in the wrong direction for home. It was only a twenty-minute walk after work – actually a welcome chance to stretch my legs. However, going home in the evening then took an extra thirty minutes when I was tired and it was getting late.
Some one-to-one teachers will travel to you, or you can meet on mutually convenient neutral territory, such as in a coffee shop.
With one-to-one lessons you may still have to travel, as I did when I took these at the Russian Language Centre before my Russian exam. It was frustrating to have to sacrifice and hour and a half extra to travel each time I wanted a lesson.
For a limited period, with an exam looming, I thought it was worth it. For longer term one-to-one it would be out of the question for me though. The flexibility of online tuition wins in the time stakes every time.
There’s no scheduling flexibility
With group classes the time is fixed. My weekly Basque class was initially on a Tuesday evening, then they moved to Wednesday…
Ok, these changes weren’t capricious. They came at the beginning of a new year or term. Still, the new day was not so convenient and there was sometimes a clash with another regular commitment I have on the first Wednesday of a month.
There tend not to be enough breaks
Then there’s the question of the length of the lesson and breaks.
I like half-hour slots for my online, on-to-one online beginner and lower intermediate language lessons. They’re easier to fit in quickly before work. I can stay focussed. I can do an hour in my advanced languages. Even with Russian or German, though, I still prefer 45 minutes.
Good luck with any of that in group classes! They’ll be at least an hour-long, probably quite a bit more.
My Basque classes were two hours long, without a break. Without even standing up. It’s bad for health to stay sitting so long. It’s bad for the brain as well. Movement matters. It’s pedagogical madness.
After a day at work and with a drag of a journey home afterwards. I took to arriving half an hour late with the excuse that I got held up in the office. Not respectful of the teacher or the rest of the group, I know, but hardly less disruptive than leaving early. Arriving late rather than leaving early also meant that I got closure with the group (and the homework) in the normal way.
My summer Russian lessons were two-and-a-half hours long, though there was a fifteen to twenty-minute break. Those breaks were good for a bit of informal chit-chat, especially as we had coffee in a side room with people from the group below and the staff (using our Russian in a relaxed way).
I get why evening classes are long. From a marketing perspective, it has to feel worth our while to travel to attend. We want to feel we’ve “had our money’s worth”. If the teachers are paid by the hour, it has to be worth their while too (something it’d be easy for us students to overlook but – hey – it’s an organisational aspect of “the system” that is difficult to avoid).
Some of you may have the stamina for the two-hour group session. I’m just too much of an introvert for that….unless I’m really fired up by the session.
The “cons” are only half the story, though. Let’s move to the “pros”.
Group classes are cheaper
If it’s a toss-up between one-to-one and a group classes and funds are tight, it has to be the group.
That said, if you have this-and-this to spend, maybe you’d be better crushing it with some individual study and then having a smaller number of one-to-one sessions to work on recurring personal language problems you’ve come up against yourself. Unless motivation is an issue (see the next point).
You’re forced you to study
This is the flip side of lack of flexibility. Once you’ve signed up and paid, you feel that you have to go.
Ok, so you might be able to bunk off occasionally but perhaps you’ll be less likely to do this. Especially if you’ve formed a bond with the teacher and the group.
Now, I’d argue that you can get this effect more efficiently by boxing yourself in with individual teacher bookings and creating your own accountability.
But I would say that, wouldn’t I? I’m generally a highly motivated language learner. I’m a strong introvert as well.
When it comes to motivation, know thyself. If the framework the group membership and accountability that comes with a physical class makes sense to you, exploit it to the full!
The camaraderie of the group
Even I can see that the group dynamic adds a whole new dimension.
It’s true that I’ve attended classes where people rubbed each other up the wrong way. (I’ll tell you about some of the fireworks I experienced in my intensive eight-week group Welsh course another time). Far more often, there’s been a great group dynamic.
In my Basque class, there were a number of characters. We’d rib and joke with each other. Then, after class people would go off for a drink together. We also met up for enjoyable meals on weekends. Life is not just about maximising learning efficiency and if this sort of thing keeps you engaged when you’d otherwise have given up, then, hey, it’s efficient!
In my advanced Russian classes there were only four of us. We all had quite a bit in common (not least many years of engaging with Russian up to a highish level). Plus, we were reading interesting native-level material, giving short presentations (high intensity language production). Everything was only in Russian, including all the interaction with the teachers (who were yet more interesting people to talk to).
The content is taken care of
Beginner and lower intermediate students all have to cover basically the same stuff. That’s why I recommend a textbook or two as a backbone to your self-study. No need to reinvent the wheel. You can see a class as part of this process of becoming familiar with the basics from different angles.
If it’s a binary choice between one-to-one tuition on the one hand and group classes on the other, I’d go for the former every time. If you can’t afford one-to-one though, or if you value the group dynamic, it’s clear that you can get a lot out of the experience. If, that is….. (see the Verdict, below).
What you put in is what you’ll get out
Never was the old adage more true. If you don’t really take part, you’ll get so much less out of the class.
That means piping up.
It means being game for group work.
It also means reviewing and recalling, preparing, doing your homework, coming with any questions and getting an answer.
All this makes so much difference with one-to-ones as well, as I mused here (from my fave Portuguese cafés):
The proper place for classes
Here’s the thing, though: any tuition only makes sense as part of your learning. Your teacher can explain and introduce the main structures and vocab but your teacher can’t learn them for you. That’s as true in a one-to-one context as it is in a group.
The best teachers will be giving you relevant tuition, feedback and practice but they’re really in the business of motivating you to teach yourself, showing you what (else) you need to be doing and guiding you in that process.
The best teachers are also coaches and mentors.
To get on top of a language you need hundreds of hours of input and production practice.
Maybe you can get this on a full-time course like those that diplomats are sent on. You certainly can’t get it in classes, group or one-to-one.
The successful language learner understands the name of the game: it’s all about taking responsibility to see to it that you get that input and practice.
If you see attending classes a part of a wider drive to get fluent, they have the potential to be very valuable.
If sign up to classes expecting more than they can deliver, you’re going to be disappointed….and your time and money really will have been wasted.
When it comes to classes, are you a friend or a foe? Let me know your experiences in the comments below!