Should Self-Taught Language Learners Take Classes?

If you haven’t gotten the main theme of my blog, it’s that I love learning languages on my own, mostly through reading. In fact, I love learning most things on my own. I love that resources like iTunesU and Coursera exist because I can jump right into nearly any subject.

Despite this, I’m not a product of unschooling— I attended school right up through my law degree, and thus, I have taken my fair share of language classes. I took Spanish classes in high school when I wasn’t focusing on Spanish at the time, and I took French classes at university, when I was deep into immersion and learning on my own.

Because immersion-heavy blogs like All Japanese All The Time speak so strongly against classes, a lot of serious language learners are wary of them. But, like with most things, it’s best to think of classes as a tool, one among many. If you have the resources to take classes, they can be helpful or a waste of time, so it’s best to be informed!

I thought I’d share a little bit about how classes affected my French and Spanish learning to give you an idea of how classes can be a part of self-directed learning.

High School Spanish Classes

Unfortunately, my formal Spanish studies were indeed a waste of time. I took four years of Spanish classes, from 2003 through 2007. My teacher, while very enthusiastic about the Spanish language (and I think he was quite skilled, too), spent a lot of class time having us watch English-language, Spanish-themed movies. (John Lithgow’s Don Quijote, anyone??) Of course, that wasn’t so helpful.

However, I’ve always been pretty decent at grammar rote memorization, so I did have a pretty good handle on that, as well as the basic vocabulary. When I started Spanish back up in the spring of 2013, I still remembered chunks of grammar and it was pretty easy to build upon the bits of my prior knowledge. I certainly wasn’t starting Spanish from scratch, so maybe the fact that I had any Spanish exposure at all means that the classes weren’t a total waste of time.

University French Classes

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, French is my strongest adult-acquired language. I ended up minoring in French, which turned out to support my language abilities more than I knew at the time. I transferred to my university my sophomore year and signed up for French II. The problem was that I had never taken formal French classes and had only dabbled in the language a little bit during my childhood. So, I did what any language maniac would do, and I immersed myself in all things French so that I could catch up and bypass French I. I discovered AJATT around this time and SRS’d sentences like crazy on Anki.

As you might expect, I overshot the mark. American university students in lower-level French classes aren’t at a very high level, and I was really excited that, despite never formally studying the language, I was good with grammar and vocabulary. I attribute this to my heavy use of French media– listening and reading a ton helps me remember new words since it builds a sense of familiarity.

Anyways, classes like French II and French III weren’t academically taxing. I found the homework and exams to be a little tedious, actually. Nevertheless, I found that all of my classes nicely supported my immersion environment (I kept studying on my own even after starting classes). The textbooks provided opportunities to learn the kind of everyday vocabulary you don’t run into if you spend all of your time reading fantasy books and watching kids’ movies in French. My professor provided all sorts of cultural information that was really nice to know. And, when I started taking Francophone film and poetry classes, I was introduced to media that I would not have come across without the classes.

Finally, all of these classes provided opportunities to speak in French in a low-stakes environment. I’m really shy about speaking languages, and I’m not really motivated to do so. I prefer reading, understanding, and enjoying, thank you. However, in a classroom environment, it’s easy to talk to other people who are also learning. I even got to talk to a native speaker– a Haitian woman was in a couple of my classes (clearly she was there for the easy A) 🙂

Obviously, my French experience was better than the Spanish one. I’ve learned that classes aren’t something to shy away from if you like to learn on your own. They’re expensive, but if you’re already attending university, they can be a great way to access resources and to get some extra practice. However, I think you can get the best results by, again, treating the class as just another learning resource to add to your arsenal.

You don’t want to depend on the classes for everything, or you might turn out like I did after my high school Spanish classes– not even able to confidently read a newspaper! If you go into a class thinking that following the lessons and passing exams is enough, you won’t be happy with the results, unless you only wanted an overview or basic knowledge. If you want to achieve any sort of fluency, whether it’s the ability to read anything you want or to talk naturally and easily, you need to support classes with plenty of outside study and immersion. Looking back, I think my university-level French classes might be one of the reasons why my French is as strong as it is.

If I had the money, I think I would really like to take a language class again. At times, classes can be the best way to access less popular languages (indigenous and endangered languages in particular come to mind), and it would be nice to have a relatively easy source of media, authors, and even textbooks, since sometimes you need the university to order those expensive things!

Of course, this is only my personal experience with classes and language learning. Feel free to share your own language classroom stories!

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