Why I DON'T recommend you sign up for English classes, and what to do instead

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"I agree with Dante, you know, who said that the only languages that should be learned in school are the dead ones."

James Heisig – Author of Remembering The Kanji

If you were to ask anybody, "Hey, I want to learn English. What would you recommend I do?", then the other person will most likely say, "Pffttt, what ya think? Get in an English class... moron..." Taking English classes, whether at an academy, university or abroad, is considered the default way (and for many the only way) to learn English. And I wasn't immune to the perpetuation of that belief:

In my childhood I was signed to take English classes in a well known English academy in the city of Bogotá. For 4 years and a half of my childhood I went to said academy every Saturday to take English classes, and I also took intensive courses on each vacation period I had during those 4 1/2 years.

In my teenage years, before traveling to the US as an exchange student, I took another semester of English classes in that same academy, and after coming back from living in the US I took yet another semester of classes there to pass the TOEFL exam thing.

I'll never deny that all that time taking classes was somewhat helpful for my English. As many would say, it allowed me to form a "base" in the language that I could then use to defend myself in the United States, and improve my English there.

But that was back then. Nowadays, knowing what I know about language learning, and having the huge amount of resources that the Internet offers us (resources we didn't have just a decade ago), I realize now that to learn languages we don't need face-to-face classes anymore. Not only that, but by themselves, classes are an extremely inefficient way to try to learn any language.

If you give me a moment, I will show you why nowadays it's not worth it to sign up for an English class, whether paid or free, in an academy, or in a university, or in your neighbor's garage, or wherever. And I will also share with you much better modern alternatives to learn English. You ready? Awesome. Follow me then!

Possible advantages of taking face-to-face English classes

Good teachers

On every English class I've taken in my life (without counting my English classes in school... which don't even count), I had the luck of having very good teachers. These people where good in what they did (or what they do, I don't know if they are dead lol), but not good just because of their English knowledge, but because they were very kind, willing to answer your questions, fun and even funny in their way of teaching, and also in their personality.

From these good teachers I also include my Japanese 先生 (sensei), a very kind and tragically funny man ("Don't worry about me. I'm already dead, oh.", he would say in a joking way xD), and very patient with his explanations towards us Japanese noobs. Teachers like that make you look forward to the next language class with them, which really is an achievement.

If a language class has a good teacher, the experience of taking the class will be more manageable, and even fun.

Now, a class having good teachers is an improvement, but it's not enough to save them. Even with good teachers, classes are still a very inefficient way to learn languages. I will explain why in a bit.

The "pressure" to comply

Another possible "advantage" of signing up for an English class is the pressure to turn in your homework and study for your exams (which usually turns into cramming for your exams). Here the "pressure" would be in the danger of failing, and if you fail you would have to pay again for the course you took... or you would bring shame and dishonor to your relatives and ancestors, I don't know.

This artificial pressure works for some (the ones they call "smart" students), and motivates them to assist to their classes on time, to do their homework and to learn cram to the bone to pass their exams successfully.

Now, this "pressure" to comply doesn't work for all the students. The ones others refer to as "slackers" don't show any motivation to complete the assigned activities, and probably don't even have the motivation to really try to learn anything in English. Maybe they go to class for another reason, like relatives demanding it from the student, or a university requirement.

You interact directly with other people

I've noticed that many learners prefer to take classes instead of using other learning methods because of the social and face-to-face interaction they have with their class partners.

They like to socialize, have more direct interactions with who they are learning with, and maybe do plans like, "Hey, let's go grab a beer!" after class with the girls and guys they might meet there. Learners like that have a mentality of, "Nooo, sitting in front of a computer and speaking with people on Skype, artificially... nah, boriiiiiiiiiiing."

Classes offer more direct social interactions compared to using forums and Skype to interact with other people, that's true. But if socializing is important to you, there are much less restrictive ways to socialize than taking classes, like organized meetings via Facebook or Meetup.com. So you don't have to wait for the class to end to actually do what your group wants to do, and talk about what you really want to talk about (everything in English, of course).

You don't have to research or think about what materials and methods to use to learn English

If you sign into an English class, you don't have to worry about how to learn the language or what tools to use. You don't have to research anything about how to learn English – on the curriculum designed by your teacher there will be everything that you and the rest of your classmates have to do.

In that case, you won't have to worry about how much time per day you have to dedicate to learning the language (what you do in class and doing your homework has to be enough... right?), or what activities do to learn English (let's read chapter 9 in the textbook, and for tomorrow complete all exercises in section 3 of the workbook. And remember, on Friday we have a test about relative clauses, so study!).

All you have to worry about is to comply. If you go to class on time, if you do everything you are told to do, if you do all your homework, if you study to pass all your tests, if you follow this system with discipline for 6 years or so (!!)... the promise academies and classes make is that after all that time and effort... you will master English.

That sounds good in theory. But in practice, it never ends up like that. I'll explain why in a bit. For now, I will show you some things that are a bit problematic with language classes, but are not that terrible.

Somewhat problematic things with face-to-face English classes

The schedule

Learning in a self-directed way gives you maximum flexibility regarding what moments of the day you will use to practice your English, but personally, I don't think that complying with a class' schedule is a major problem. Whether you learn in a class or your own, you need to have an established routine.

You can choose at what times you can take the class, and in some cases, you can take your week's classes at different times each day. If something happens and you can't assist a class, you would still lose that learning time if you were learning English on your own.

You have to be physically present where the class is dictated

Another problem with face-to-face classes is that to take the class all the students have to be physically present in the same classroom, at the same time, and at the exact designed time when he class will be given.

For students for whom the class if physically close, very good. But others have to spend extra money in transportation or gas, and those who have a vehicle have to find a paid parking place where to leave it (if there are no parking places where they take the class).

Exams and "cramming"

There is no school, university nor academy on this planet that doesn't use exams to allow their students to progress within the system, and we know that the vast majority of students don't review what they see in class.

So, when a exam is coming closer, these girls and guys cram the week (or night!) before the exam to fill their brain with as much information as possible that might help them pass the test that's coming.

Then the day of the test arrives, the learners sit down on their desks shaking, sweating and feeling goosebumps, and once they get their exam paper they proceed to grossly regurgitate write down frenetically on it all they crammed in their head the night/week before.

Once that stressful experience is over, those learners don't review what they crammed because meh, the exam is done so they don't need to review anything and can take a break. And thus the cycle of "cramming" repeats itself again and again and again with each exam.

That the students don't review is NOT the system's fault – THAT'S the entire fault of each individual student. They are the ones who don't study beforehand, the ones who don't review what they see in class so they don't have to cram. They are the ones who end up stressed for not reviewing as they should, and they are the ones who will keep being stressed unless they decide to review methodically so they never have to cram again.

If you frequently review what you see in English class you will never have to worry about studying for any exam – all the answers will be in your head. Using an SRS is pretty useful for that purpose of reviewing methodically for your tests.

If you keep reviewing what you've seen, even if you already had a test about those topics, you will be way ahead of your classmates. And if you keep reviewing all that you saw even after your final exam, you will be light years ahead of the vast majority of people who takes language classes on this planet.

Ok, now... here's the thing: If your learning is self-directed, you have an advantage over learning in classes: You don't have to take any academic exam during your learning process.

Instead, you will be evaluating yourself constantly: Every paragraph, every sentence, every word you read in English will be an exam. If you understand a sentence you "pass" the exam, and you keep reading or listening.

If you don't remember a word, you "fail" the test, look up the word you didn't remember in the dictionary, you check it out, and that's it. "Failing" an exam has no penalty in this case – you just keep reading or listening, and you will improve gradually. And your grade is your tangible progress in the language, not a number on a piece of paper.

Generally, academic exam grades only measure how good you are following the academic system, but it very rarely measures well the actual skills of a person in that certain area.

I think that the best way to evaluate someone's skills is to ask him or her to show tangible evidence of said skills. For instance, regarding languages, I can determine if a person knows English if I interview this person entirely in English, and if the other person understands me perfectly and can clearly communicate with me. Or if I ask him or her to read a text or listen to something in English, and then I ask him or her to summarize what s/he read/listened and give me his or her opinion about it.

For me, a better strategy to "reviewing with discipline everything you see in class" is to not have to deal with academic exams at all, and just re-focus all that attention in actually progressing in your English. If you sign up for a class that won't be possible, so... don't sign up for one :D

The greatest problem with language classes: The curriculum

Every class has a curriculum – a list of books, materials, topics and activities that will be worked on each class, all in a specific order that cannot be modified (unless the entire class reaches a consensus), and that all students have to follow at the same time without exception.

A teacher preparing a curriculum for you (and the rest of the students) sounds good. In many cases it's better if an expert can suggest to us how to learn something new and what steps to follow. The problem is that in a class, the methods and materials you have to follow are NOT suggested. If you want to be part of the class, it's mandatory to follow the curriculum just like it's been established.

You don't like a particular material on the curriculum? Would you prefer not to do an activity there? TOO BAD. If you want to pass the class you have to use the materials and do the activities that your teacher says you have to do, whether you are interested in them or not, and it doesn't matter if you are actually learning any English using those materials and methods.

If you are part of a class you don't have the freedom of deciding what kinds of materials NOT to use and what activities NOT to do in your English learning. Want to pass the class? Follow. The. Freaking. Curriculum. PERIOD. Use your textbook and your workbook. Watch the videos about Andrea's first day in some college in Seattle and listen to the audio recordings of Juan Camilo's job interview. Write the essay about your vacations. Make that poster in English with your work group. And study to pass your tests. And if you don't like it, the door is down the hall to the right, you nitwit.

Look, learning English requires effort, dedication and time with your materials, of course. But it doesn't make sense for you to endure doing activities and using materials that you definitely don't like because you have to and that's it. There is a huge universe of materials and methods out there that you can try, test and use to master English. With so much variety you don't have to conform to one method or material that you definitely don't like.

And yes, you could say that the student has the freedom to use all the materials and methods that he or she chooses... once he or she has completed all that was asked for in class. I say, wouldn't it be better to fill ALL of your learning time with materials and methods that YOU want and decide to use, instead of enduring activities and books that you don't like to comply with your class requirements, and THEN use what you actually want to learn? What do you think is more logical? More bearable? And what do you think will give you better results in your English?

Another issue with the curriculum is not only that it's mandatory, but that it's not customized. The curriculum is exactly the same for each and every student.

We all have different priorities and tastes: Some want to learn English to build businesses, others want to be able to access information about science and technology that it's not available in their native language, others just want to enjoy movies and written novels in English, others want to fulfill a university requirement, others want to be able to do talks in English about topics in their field, etc. etc.

Also, we all learn and like to learn in different ways: Some like to use flashcards or SRS programs, and some don't. Some like to read textbooks, while the vast majority of people prefer to read other kind of materials. Some like to practice their speaking and writing soon, and they like to write essays and have conversations supervised by their classmates. For others it's not important to express themselves so early, and they would rather focus on understanding really well texts and audio in English first. Etc.

If the curriculum is the same for everyone, that makes things easier for teachers, and makes classes possible. There's just not enough time in a class for the teacher to attend each and every student individually. And if some students actually like to follow that particular curriculum, good for them.

But for those who don't like things in the curriculum, completing work for the class becomes an annoying uphill struggle where you hardly see any progress in your English skills. It becomes such an annoying struggle that it ends up developing a repulsion towards anything related to learning English.

What really grinds my gears about this system of curriculums and classes is that it's designed to benefit the owners of language academies, but NOT the students. For the reasons I just explained, following a mandatory curriculum in face-to-face classes is a very suboptimal system to learn English, and I strongly recommend that you follow a learning system where YOU can choose what materials (both free and paid) and methods you want to use to train your skills.

Classes are NOTHING if you don't review and do nothing in English on your own

I remember that when I was living in the US I took a specialized class about computer services and networking. There we saw how to format hard drives, how to install Windows XP from scratch on formatted computers, how to make simple animations in Flash, how to configure a computer network, and we even had to read a 1000 pages book about how to repair computers: From the basics about the processor and RAM, to how to free excess electricity accumulated in a CRT monitor.

After finishing the class I proceeded to not do a damn thing with what I had learned, and some months later it turns out that oops, I had no idea of how to really repair a computer, as I've never touched and disarmed one. When I took the class I was under the delusional belief that reading and completing all class assignments would give me the capacity of repairing computers and install networks forever...

And as you see, that's not how things work. And well, I realized that the only way to truly become good at repairing computers was... repairing a lot of computers, and doing it frequently. I can almost hear the palm of your hand hitting your forehead because of how stupidly obvious that is... but in my idiotic adolescence, I didn't know.

The point is that in language learning (and all kinds of learning, really), there's people who believe that if they complete all their class assignments and activities, and pass their exams successfully, then they will eventually master English after not so many years of study.

Sound reasonable, but there's a catch: If you just limit yourself to complete what is asked of you in class, but the rest of the time you don'do absolutely nothing in English, you don't learn new things in English on your own, and you don't review what you've learned in your classes... you will not master English.

It doesn't matter how many "years" (which translate into just a couple of hundreds of hours a year) you spend taking classes, each time you finish a cycle of classes you will forget almost everything you saw. Nobody comes out mastering English just from taking classes and passing them successfully. Nobody. I guarantee it. If you know anybody who CAN work in his or her target foreign language as an adult after 5 years of just completing all class activities and homework, and who didn't train his or her target language outside of the required academic activities, introduce us please.

Maybe you know people who have taken classes for years yet are stuck having a very mediocre level in the language. This is the reason. They do all they have to do for class, but don't do anything else in English outside of them. If you are in the unfortunate position of taking English classes (or classes in another language), promise me that you will not be someone like that (if mastering English or your target language is important to you).

Or better yet: If it's under your control, leave classes and take control of your own learning.

If you are part of a class where you just learn a few new things each day, where a lot of times you have to do "Meh, how annoying" activities, or they require you to practice more output (what you write and speak) than input (what you listen to and read) when you are just a beginner in English...

Wouldn't it be better to invest your time reading, listening and deciphering interesting texts, audio recordings and videos in English about topics that YOU like? If you have the freedom to do it, why not get out of that kind of system, and invest your time and money with the methods and materials that YOU choose to train your English?

If deep down you truly value English and really have the desire to master it, then you don't need teachers breathing down your neck neither the fear of failing exams to train your English daily. You, by your own conviction, will do the daily activities you decide to do to train your English.

Face-to-face classes are obsolete

I understand that before the computer revolution, the most efficient way to transmit knowledge was through face-to-face classes. You put a lot of students inside the same classroom, all hear the teacher at the same time, and they all have to keep up the rhythm established in the curriculum (and if you lag behind... too bad. Hustle you bastard!), and boom, learning!... well, at least for those who reviewed / practiced outside of class to not forget what they learned.

But nowadays, for the vast majority of areas of knowledge (including languages, of course), face-to-face classes are obsolete. In the year 2015+ there is no reason for a group of people who want to learn something to commute at the same time to a physical classroom, listen to a teacher live, make a few questions before time runs out, and then commute back home.

If you have a computer with an Internet connection, you have access to all the free and paid resources you can imagine to train your English: Dictionaries, articles, video-tutorials, ebooks, audio books, shows, movies, websites with guides and explanations, forums, etc. And if you are not used to use the Internet or don't know a lot about computers, it would be a great investment in yourself to learn about the Internet and get used to browse it. Believe me, it's worth it.

If you like the explanation format that classes follow you could take virtual classes, but something that I personally think is much better are the tons of pre-recorded English lessons you can find on YouTube (and some paid membership sites). You can find lessons from many different authors, and you can watch and repeat each lesson as many times as you want – it's not necessary to interrupt the teacher to ask her or him to repeat something.

If you have any doubt about a video you just watched, you can try asking in the comments section of said video, or you can try to search the answer on your own using Google. Or you could also register in a forum like WordReference or in Yahoo Answers, and ask your question there.

If you want to start practicing your output you can use sites like iTalki or MyLanguageExchange.com to find a language exchange partner or a tutor. And if you want to focus entirely on input first (which I recommend), you don't have to worry about any teacher demanding that you speak or write before you've decided to do it.

Lastly, maybe you could feel that you need someone guiding you in your English learning, someone who recommends materials and activities to train your English, and who can help you find interesting materials for that end. Maybe it would be cool for you to count on someone who can answer all your questions about the language, and who suggests activities for you to train your English.

In that case, what you need is a tutor. It's possible to receive free tutoring in English with a language exchange partner if you are willing to give tutoring in Spanish to that person. If not, you can hire a tutor on the Internet on sites like iTalki or ESLTutor.net

A tutor can fulfill the role of a personalized English teacher for you, where you have a lot more control on what materials you want to use to learn English, by using what methods, and about what topics.

I don't think that you will be having daily sessions with your tutor – even with a tutor, you will have to do most of your English training on your own. So a tutor is more like a guide, or like an English "coach" – something like a personal trainer for the language.

Maaaaaan, ok... I hope that I've managed to give you enough reasons to not sign for a face-to-face English class. If you were thinking about paying for one, there are many other paid resources that are much more valuable - just search for more resources on Google.

And if you are in a face-to-face class right now... think about getting out of it if you can. Take control of your own learning, dammit! You can guide your learning process by trying out my recommendations, or Tom's recommendations, or Robby's recommendations, or the recommendations and guides from other authors you can find browsing on Google.

And if you really and truly want to master English, you will have the discipline to work on your English everyday, reading, listening, deciphering... and in a not-that-far future you will be able to do things like reading an entire copy of The New York Times as if it was in your native language, and go to a conference in English and understand practically everything that the speaker says.

You can do it.

Keep progressing, and keep your hopes up!


Face-to-face English classes

  • When they have good teachers.
  • The "pressure" of having to do the class activities, homework and having to pass exams.
  • You can socialize directly with your classmates.
  • Not having to worry about what steps to follow and what materials to use to learn English. Just follow the curriculum.
Somewhat problematic things:
  • Sometimes schedules are not that flexible.
  • You have to be physically present where the class is dictated.
  • You can fall in the trap of cramming to pass your tests instead of reviewing frequently.
The big problem: You have to follow the class curriculum just like it's established, so if you dislike any material / topic / method in it, you can't decide not to do it, or do something different. You can't customize your curriculum to your own tastes and goals.

If you don't train your English outside of what is demanded of you in class, the classes alone will NOT make you master English.

Face-to-face classes are obsolete. Thanks to the Internet you can access to all the resources you need (free and paid) to train your English, including language exchange partners and tutors (with whom you can customize a "curriculum").

If you want direct socialization, why not get together with other learners in a less restrictive environment than a class? Using Facebook and Meetup.com you can organize meetings where you can speak freely in English, if you want.

If you have all the resources you need to learn Englsih through the Internet, why not have the guts to take control of your own learning? If you are in a class, why not get out of it (if you can) and dedicate that time to read / listen / decipher content in English that you DO enjoy, or find interesting, or makes you laugh, or excites you, etc.?

Last updated: May 22 of 2015

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