Why Language Classes Don't Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (Plus: Madrid Update)

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Coffee shops vs. classrooms – who wins? (Photo: eye2eye)

This is one of several articles planned as supplements to the original “How to Learn (But Not Master) Any Language in 1 Hour.” This piece focuses on acquisition of new material; for reactivating “forgotten” languages and vocab, I recommend also reading “How to Resurrect Your High School Spanish… or Any Language.”

Let us begin…

From the academic environments of Princeton University (Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian) and the Middlebury Language Schools (Japanese), to the disappointing results observed as a curriculum designer at Berlitz International (Japanese, English), I have sought for more than 10 years to answer a simple question: why do most language classes simply not work?

After testing the waters with more than 20 languages and achieving conversational and written fluency in 6, I have identified several cardinal sins that, when fixed, can easily cut the time to fluency by 50-80%…

1. Teachers are viewed as saviors when materials are actually the determining factor.

Teachers are merely conduits for the material and sequencing.

By analogy, it is better to have a decent cook with excellent easy-to-follow recipe than a great cook with terrible recipe. It is the material that will restrict or elevate the teacher, and a good teacher forced to follow bad material will hinder, not hasten, learning progress. I don’t sit in on classes or otherwise consider a school until I’ve reviewed both hand-out materials and text books.

Judge materials before you judge teachers, and no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language (e.g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish). This approach reflects a school’s laziness and willingness to hire monolingual teachers, not the result of their search for the ideal method.

2. Classes move as slowly as the slowest student.

Seek a school with daily homework assignments that eliminate—effectively fire—students from the class who don’t perform.

The school should have a strict curriculum that doesn’t bend for a minority of the class who can’t cope. Downgrading students is only possible in larger schools with at least five proficiency levels for separate classes—beginner, intermediate, and advanced is woefully inadequate. Students can only be moved if the jumps between classes are relatively small and there are a sufficient number of students at each level for the school to justify paying separate teachers.

At the Hartnackschule in Berlin, Germany, where I studied for 10 weeks after evaluating a dozen schools, there are at least 20 different skill levels.

3. Conversation can be learned but not taught.

Somewhat like riding a bike, though unfortunately not as permanent, language fluency is more dependent on practicing the right things than learning the right things. The rules (grammar) can be learned through materials and classes, but the necessary tools (vocabulary and idiomatic usage) will come from independent study and practice in a native environment.

I achieved fluency in German in 10 weeks using a combination of grammatical practice at the Hartnackschule (four hours daily for the first month, two hours daily for the second) and daily two-person language exchanges with students of English.

Grammar can be learned with writing exercises in a class of 20, whereas “conversation” cannot be learned in anything but a realistic one-on-one environment where your brain is forced to adapt to normal speed and adopt coping mechanisms such as delaying tactics (“in other words,” “let me think for a second,” etc.).

Separate grammar from conversation practice. I recommend choosing one school for grammar and several native books or comics to identify sticking points, which are then discussed in one-one-one language exchanges, where your partner provides examples of usage and does not explain rules.


Getting into trouble in Greek and Chinese in Athens with the help of Stefanos Kofopoulos, ouzo, and wine.

4. Teachers are often prescriptive instead of descriptive.

Many teachers take it upon themselves to be arbiters of taste and linguistic conservationists, refusing to explain slang and insisting on correct but essentially unused grammatical constructions (e.g., “with whom were you speaking?” versus “who were you speaking to?”).

Progress will be faster when you find a teacher who describes rather than prescribes usage. They should be able and willing to explain, for example, how Konjunktiv II is generally used in place of Konjunktiv I in German, even though it is technically incorrect. They should also be able to save you time by explaining what to practice based on actual frequency of use, not inclusion in a grammar text. For example, the simple past is almost always used in place of the perfect tense in Argentina, but some teachers still spend equal time on both.

To avoid those who act as defenders of language purity, it is often easier to target 20-30-year old teachers and those who are good at teaching inductively (providing examples to explain principles). Ask them to explain a few common colloquial grammatical constructions before signing up.

In conclusion—the learner is the problem (what?)

The above sins certainly inhibit the speed of learning, but the principal problem is the learner his or herself, who—more often than not—uses classes as a substitute for, and not supplement to, real ego-crushing interaction.

Classes are easily used to infinitely postpone making the thousands of mistakes necessary to achieve fluency. In boxing, they say “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Well, in language learning, we could just as easily say that “everyone has the perfect conversation in mind until they speak to a real native.”

Don’t waste time on more than learning more than a handful of conjugations for primarily first-person singular (I) and second-person singular (you) in the past, present, and future tenses, along with common phrases that illustrate them. Throw in a few auxilaries (to want to V, to need to V, to like to V, etc.) and jump on a plane before learning any more of what you’ll just need to relearn anyway. Even after you land, you do not need more than two months of classes in-country, and remember that, like training wheels, the goal is get off of them as quickly as possible.

Don’t go to classes because you have no social network outside of class, or because you want the illusion of progress with a coddling teacher who understands your Tarzan attempts at her language. If you are taking classes because they are enjoyable, fine, but understand that you are better off spending time elsewhere.

Make it your goal to screw up as often as possible in uncontrolled environments. Explicitly ask friends to correct you and reward them with thanks and praise when they catch you spouting nonsense, particularly the small understandable mistakes. I was able to pass the Certificado de Espanol Avanzado, the most diffucult Spanish certification test in South America, in eight weeks, which is said to require near-native fluency and years of immersion. How? By following the above fixes and making more mistakes in eight weeks than most make in eight years.

“An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes which can be made in a very narrow field,” or so said Physicist Niels Bohr. Luckily, you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to use his advice. Choose schools carefully and then, once they’ve served their purpose, abandon them.

The real world is where mistakes are made, weaknesses are found, and fluency is achieved.

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Some random videos:


A promo for bookstores in Spain. It’s not easy to suppress my Argentine accent.


For German Amazon.com – some of you have seen this before.

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Odds and Ends: Update on Madrid party location this Thursday!

For all you readers and friends in Europe, come have a glass or bottle with me! The space will be on a first come first served basis, so register early. So far, there are 132 people coming — it’s going to rock.

Play hard with us 6-9pm on Thurs., Sept. 25th in Madrid. Location:

RESTAURANTE LATERAL
Centro Comercial Arturo Soria Plaza
Calle Arturo Soria 126
28043 Madrid, Spain
Tel. 91 300 36 01

Get your free ticket here.

Espero que nos veamos pronto!

Follow Tim in real-time on Twitter

Posted on: September 22, 2008.

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160 comments on “Why Language Classes Don't Work: How to Cut Classes and Double Your Learning Rate (Plus: Madrid Update)

  1. @Tim: “…making the thousands of mistakes necessary to achieve fluency.”

    This is certainly transferable to many learning pursuits. This is why ‘on the job training’ or ‘hand on experience’ is often times more effective than any kind of formal education.

    BTW, did you write this before BWE or did you crank this one out on the flight home? :-)

    Like

  2. Hey Tim,
    From your recent Tweet Kim and I picked up the Pimsleur language series to prepare for our next mini retirement to Buenos Aires. It’s been incredible. Fun and easy! We’ll combine those lessons along with your instruction here and be in great shape for our next trip.
    Pure Vida,
    Rob

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  3. Hey Tim,

    Just looking at your Twitter and thought this was relevant to the discussion perhaps, but there is not much explanation. Care to elaborate or will there be a post on it?

    Here it is:

    “Once again comparing www-supermemo-com with Pimsleur and Michel Thomas for foreign language vocab acquisition…”

    Also, I had a look at supermemo-com, is this a good website to learn about “learning”?

    Thanks.

    Like

  4. Wow, hardcore stuff. One of the few things I have trouble learning, but really want to, has been foreign languages. I’ve been to plenty of countries, even lived in Korea for a year, and still didn’t learn more than a few pleasantries. Mainly, I guess, because I didn’t know how to go about learning effectively. I’m loving your language posts, keep em up!

    Like

    • There are some sites where you can pratice writing. I use Lang-8. Bascially the idea is that you write in the language you are learning and a native speaker corrects it. I am better at writing, so I have used this approach in the early days of taking up Spanish again.

      Like

  5. You sound just like an Argentine! Although sometimes native Spanish and Argentine spanish can sound very similar. Even some Peruvian Spanish can be confused with Argentine Spanish with the exception of the vos and “LL”.

    Like

  6. A ver Tim cuándo te ponés las pilas y sacás el libro en Castellano para Argentina!!?

    You know, probably there are lots of people willing to read your book here, but they don’t understand a word of english!

    Un abrazo y check my blog on productivity, time managment and learning techniques for students!

    Yes, I’m trying to become the argentine you eventually! LOL :-D

    always thankfully,

    Ar

    Like

  7. Hey Tim,

    Great post! I love to learn languages and am going to be spending 6-9 months in France in a few months. After my trip I am planning on staying in Spain for several months. I don’t know the language at all and am wondering what you think of Rosetta Stone software stuff?

    Like

  8. Tim (or any other linguistic people following this thread…)
    My friend from Mexico tells me that in general I have a very good accent in Spanish, but I have a MAJOR problem speaking fluently in Espanol, Italiano, or any language that requires rolling the R–I cannot do it at all. It is very frustrating! Do you happen to know what are the most common reasons for not being able to do this, how can I learn it, do I need to see a speech therapist…any ideas?

    Like

    • Hi Clare

      Ref: your problem with the RRRRRR in spanish. Why don’t you try the following way:

      Place your tong against the the inside top of your mouth and then try to pronounce the word root the followin way:

      rrrrrrrrrrrroooooooooot.

      After you manage it, after a lot of practice, it will become automatic.

      Cheers,
      Wellington

      Like

  9. As I’ve discovered over the years of losing my ability to have a coherent conversation in Spanish, the language I learned parallel to English, your language is like a muscle and must be exercised well. Classroom language is really weak. I could learn Chinese tomorrow in class, but without someone to exercise it with, it disappears quickly.

    Like

  10. “no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language”

    I prefer to not have textbooks that use my native language, except of course, for the translation dictionaries, etc. I feel the constant switching back and forth between the languages trips me up more than helps me when starting out with a new language, especially when starting out.

    Also, if learning languages quickly is your goal, I would recommend not trying to learn them in regions that are known for thick accents or use of sentence structures / verb tenses not widely used outside of their borders. That is, if you have the option to pick where to study.

    Like

  11. Tim – really, really great article.
    My main background is theatre 35+ yrs. After Uni at age 40 I taught ESL for a few years. I got into it by teaching Thai women and a few guys how to swear at a warehouse I worked in prior to Uni. After they did (laughingly), workplace tensions dropped away. Because of my theatre background I was an unusual teacher, a clown in a suit. Students were taught by a native speaker who couldn’t spell and didn’t know grammar. I took students into dept stores hunting and trapping native speakers and going to as many counters as possible asking for information and advice. I had two exercises that were done daily: mimicking me loudly as a I talked about my life and silently for the rest of the class, using their mouth muscules; magic pen writing – to write continously for 10 mins in English. All my work (thanks to the theatre practice and theories of the amazing Keith Johnston) were based in modelling and the creation of an environment for safe “mistakes” to be normal, everyday occurances. Most of my colleagues (ex librarians and Lit types) thought I was weird and couldn’t figure out why my students learned faster than theirs.

    An idea Tim: Translate this inspiringly excellent article into the other major languages of our wonderful world and make the party, this adventure, life, bigger.

    whoohoo!

    Like

  12. I’ve been trying to learn German on my own for the last two years. I’ve learned tons more than I ever learned in school, but I’m at the point now where I actually need to talk to people in German if I am ever going to get any better. I spent a month and a half in Germany last summer and I learned a lot, but now that I’m back in the States my progress has slowed. So… I’m making the move and will be spending 5 months in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland this winter. I’m taking my work with my and living “The 4-Hour Work Week.” My goal is to return from the trip and be fluent (or nearly fluent) in German (and have my business making more money than ever). Thanks for the tips Tim! Keep up the good work!

    Like

  13. Excellent pronounciation in your Chinese, Tim!

    My wife is chinese and I’m Filipino-American.

    I feel like I’m starting to turn the corner in my ZhongWen. The pivotal paradigm shift is really transplanting your thoughts.

    What helps me is… before I give up and say something in English.. if the phrase doesn’t immediately come to me in Chinese… I think hard about how to re-arrange my thoughts to see if I can express them in a different way that *is* easy to express in Chinese. It’s these baby steps that really add confidence that I think makes a difference. Even if using simple sentences, it’s a tremedous feeling to 100% form your thoughts in a different language and be able to communicate to a native speaker.

    Like

  14. Hi Tim, yo soy español y vivo en Turin, Italia. ?Para cuando te dejas caer por aquì? Con un amigo italiano estamos siguiendo tus teorìas en la realizaciòn de varios proyectos, entre ellos una microcervecerìa artesana en Turìn, que serìa un sitio ideal para una de tus fiestas-evento.

    Saludos

    Like

  15. I agree. When learning my second language, every six months I would visit the corresponding country. Two actions would always result from these excursions.

    (1) My language skills increased dramatically.
    (2) Women dig the American accent.

    Hey Tim, have you checked out pageonce.com? I stumbled onto it the other day.

    Cheers.

    Like