If you are not willing to learn, no one can help you. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you. – Zig Ziglar
Should you take a language class, or should you hire a private tutor? The answer to that question is, like the answer to most questions: “It depends”. I’ve both studied and taught languages in both group and one-on-one settings. I’ve also learned languages and seen people learn languages without ever taking a class. So to grossly oversimplify things, there are basically three strategies for learning a language, and which strategy is best for you will depend greatly on your own personality. Let’s take a quick look at what they are.
- Strategy #1: Group Lessons
- Strategy #2: Private Tutoring
- Strategy #3: Into the Wild (Immersion)
Strategy #1: Group Lessons
THE GOOD: If you feel anxious about performing for a teacher, group lessons can really take some of the pressure off. You might not feel like you’re under a microscope if you are in a class full of people to dilute the teacher’s attention. Also, because the teacher is calling on multiple students you get little breaks sprinkled in throughout each session.
Group lessons can also be good for people with a certain learning style. Some people learn best by group discussion. They like to hash things out. It helps them pay better attention and grasp points easier. For example, listening to how the teacher answers another student’s questions can help you assimilate that answer for yourself. Someone else in the class may as a question that you hadn’t thought about asking. So you may fill in gaps in your understanding of the language that you didn’t know you had.
THE BAD: Less student talking time. I use to teach English for a company that would have groups of up to ten people on an internet conference call. The sessions were 50 minutes. That means the students were paying for a 50 minute conversation class, but in actuality were each getting about five minutes of talking time each. If you ask me, that’s not a whole lot of bang for your buck. So if you opt for a group class, be sure the number of students is not big.
Less oportunities for customization. Group classes usually have a curriculum to stick to. So if you don’t plan on opening a bank account in South America, but the class is covering banking terms in Spanish, you’re stuck learning what the group is learning. Granted, for most beginners who just want to get started in the basics of a language, this won’t present a really big problem, since most beginner classes will cover roughly the same kind of things.
Strategy #2: Private Tutoring
THE GOOD: More student talking time. It’s all you, baby! As long as you don’t have a tutor who is a conversation hog, you’re getting a lot more practice time, which leads to making advancement much faster.
Customization. Finally, you really ARE the center of the universe! Make the class about your needs. You can tell your tutor what you’re interested in using the language for. Are you planning a trip to France? Then start with tourist phrases. Do you do business with Japanese clients? Focus on business lingo. If your teacher is any good, they will be willing to adapt to your needs.
THE BAD: Admittedly, some people find it unnerving to be the center of their teacher’s attention for an extended period of time. It can honestly be a little nerve wracking for some at first. If that’s the case with you, you might start with 30 minute sessions at a time just to make it a little easier. And remember, your tutor is human too. So they may be just as nervous as you are!
Staying focused for the whole session can also be a little more tiring sometimes. Imagine four people holding a chair in the air. Now imagine one by one three of them let go until just one is holding the chair. Even though the weight of the chair didn’t change, it feels heavier. Something similar happens when you are the only one “carrying” the session forward. The load on you is heavier than when you have fellow students to share it with. Find a tutor who can see when your eyes begin to glaze over and switch things up or who keeps things entertaining with lots of variety to give your brain little breaks here and there.
Strategy #3: Into the Wild (Immersion)
Some people ditch the idea of a teacher completely. If they live somewhere where they can interact with native speakers fairly often, they get their conversation practice in the community that speaks their target language.
THE GOOD: Authentic speech. You’re interacting with people who are not trained to adapt their speech so foreigners can understand easier. So what you’re getting is the real deal. It’s what people are really speaking in their homes with their family. It’s not “Pardon me, could you please direct me to the restroom.” It’s “Hey man, where’s the John?”
Variety. You’re not just interacting with one teacher. You’re interacting with multiple people, sometimes with a room full of people. Some may have different accents or dialects. So over time, you come to understand many different accents and dialects. They may be interested in a variety of things, so you learn to talk about a variety of things.
THE BAD: Courage needed. At first, this method requires a whole lot of putting yourself out there and speaking to strangers, which can be stressful for some people. It also requires searching to find where people are speaking your language, which isn’t a problem if you live in a country where many speak your target language. If not, you need to ask yourself “In my area, where do people who speak this language hang out? Is it a café? A neighborhood? A bar? A community center?” Then you need to take a deep breath and go hang out there too, regularly.
Don’t skip study day. If you want to become proficient in a language you do need to take your grammar supplements. When the majority of your learning is by social interaction, it can be tempting to let your study of the language slip. You could get into a situation where you’ve learned many words but have trouble stringing them together in a coherent way. When you don’t have a teacher (or someone else) holding you accountable, it definitely takes more self-discipline to regularly spend a little bit of time studying how the language works.
Any or all of these strategies can work. What works for you may not be ideal for someone else. You may even find that what works best for you is a combination of two or all three of these options. But no matter which strategy you feel most comfortable with, you can use it to learn your target language if you are willing to honestly put in the work and do so consistently. If you are determined to learn, no one can stop you.