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.

###

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.

###

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

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

  1. Great article, however I couldn’t disagree more forcefully with this point: “no matter what, do not begin with classes or texts that solely use the target language (e.g., Spanish textbooks in Spanish).”

    As someone who’s achieved fluency in 5 languages, I can say with certainty that the best language classes are those where only the target language is spoken. I highly recommend Berlitz courses for this reason above all others.

  2. Hi Tim, I really enjoyed your article ‘The Art of Wrapping Your Mouth—
    Literally—Around a New Language’. I want to ask a related question. Do you think it is possible to achieve a native-like accent in your L2 even if you began learning it as an adult? Reading the compliments on your Argentine spanish from native speakers suggests that it is. Is it a case of vocal practice and living in a native environment?

    Keep being an inspiration!

  3. Here is an open question to any language learners reading this blog.

    I have always felt that all those mistakes are necessary to achieve fluency and while the threat of making mistakes stil inhibits me from speaking sometimes I don't feel I've really gained that much from the mistakes I've made. The corrections usually go in one ear and out the other.

    Is it a matter of making the same mistakes again and again until they sink in, or would a more pro-active approach be the wiser option, for example – fastening a notepad and pen around my neck to write down those corrections as they arise?

    Any ideas out there?

  4. Oddly this post has been just as helpful as a years worth of TESOL courses. but i guess the TESOL courses arent too terrible since I get credits out of them and they are generally enjoyable classes. I used the basic sentence structure a couple times now and its been more effective for tutoring Japanese students english than any of the instruction material the university has given me, then again Im of the general impression that my schools teaching system has huge flaws in it to the point where I can be completely fluent conversationally and have JLPT2 qualifications but not be able to pass an intermediate class.

    Also I had a similar experience with Japanese the first time I tried to learn it, IE embarrassing myself in front of an entire school.

  5. I am fluent in Brazilian Portuguese (lived in Rio de Janeiro for 5 years – my wife is Brazilian) and now live in Mexico City. More than my fear of the swine flu, I am terrified that my Brazilian Portuguese is going to get stomped on by Spanish because they’re so similar. I am afraid that I will lose my pristine Brazilian Portuguese.

    This fear is keeping me from really learning Spanish. So far I’ve been using Portuguese with a Spanish flavor and getting by ok. But my job partially depends on my ability to communicate well in Spanish, and so I have to get serious here and learn it.

    Any advice on how to keep two very similar languages from interfering with each other, or minimizing and/or easily reversing this effect when it happens?

    Abraços
    Kevin

  6. You have some of the most sensible ideas on language learning I’ve encountered. I speak German, Spanish, and Russian, in that order of fluency, plus odds and ends of others. I have good spatial visualization and the Latin-esque approach of tables of case endings and conjugations works for me (though I fully realize it doesn’t work for others). I have absolutely no patience with the “learn 1000 cute phrases” approach of Berlitz. I want structure and organization.

  7. I accidentally cut myself off (fortunately after a complete sentence). After lunch with some Spanish speakers yesterday, my wife, who is near native fluency, credited me with helping her get there because I just speak and make mistakes. It got her over the “perfection is the enemy of good enough” hurdle. So I couldn’t agree more with the need to just jump in and make mistakes. If we applied Pareto’s 80/20 rule everywhere it could be usefully applied we could either do 5 times as much or work 1/5 as long, whichever you want (I draw the line at landing my plane safely 80% of the time!).

    I’m working on Arabic (which I learned a little of in the military) and am encountering problems I haven’t found in European languages. The limited variety of initial sounds (lots of vowels and m’s) makes the words blur in my mind. I would seriously like to find a text that builds vocabulary around the triliteral root system but have not located one. Even well organized texts like the Hippocrene and Teach Yourself books (Teach Yourself used to be utterly abysmal back when they were the little blue hardbound books but they totally revamped and are now quite good) treat grammar in such a fragmented way it’s frustrating.

  8. Thanks for the tip to Pimsleur, Tim. I’ve used Rosetta personally just to try it out, and found the flashcard method to be tedious and pretty ineffective. My visual associations with random objects might be better for it, but not my ability to converse or haggle in a market!

  9. If you’re interested in language please check out Michel Thomas’ programs. They are great! Pimsleur is good but nothing compares to Michel.

    Daniel

    Shiga, Japan

  10. Your method sounds vaguely Socratic. interesting. The rub I’m finding here is the positive that anyone can rapidly acquire language proficiency. However, the situation of devoting 4+ hours daily for one month, etc, is the challenge to most anyone. It would be interesting to see how these kinds of ideas of accelerated learning can be applied to those without the luxury of time–though it’s probably antithetical to the aims of your practices. What I like about this, it allows one to move rapidly though the skut-work of basics, and jump into the more context-interesting areas of language within the context of exchanging ideas–where the real learning begins.

  11. Hi Tim,

    Great post. I perfectly agree with you when you say that things go well after practicing rather than after learning them. I studied for about three years Spanish in college and I thought I “knew” it. But I was far from the truth. When I traveled to Spain I discovered that it was absolutely impossible for me to know Spanish, because I had only learnt it and skipped an important part – PRACTICE.

    Now, I practice Spanish every day with my virtual Spanish friends on http://www.fluentfuture.com, an exchange language website for people passionate about foreign language. And, just by seeing how helpful this is, I realized that learning and practice must go hand in hand in order to come to master a foreign language and effectively use it.

  12. I speak fluent French and fluent English, with a bit of Swedish thrown in and progressing through my second year of classroom-based intensive Mandarin at a prominent American university. What you say about the need to make as many mistakes as possible — even when you know a correct way of articulating something — could not be more true. I do worse in classes, but ultimately learn better, because I try to incorporate new words and grammatical structures when speaking with my professor.

    As an aside, your Chinese sounds like that of someone who lived in Wuhan when they were young and then moved to Beijing. Crystal clear, although the only accurate descriptor that comes to mind is ‘not heavy’.

    Chinese midterm in twenty minutes. ??????????????, ???????…

  13. Just one more suggestion – look for language groups on meetup.com. If you live in a reasonably large city, you are likely to find groups representing a wide array of languages, and you will usually find native speakers with whom to practice, not just other learners.

  14. Nice videos. I liked your Spanish video, you did a good job of masking the Argentinian accent, only at “secillos” you kinda gave it away.

    I agree that classes are not the way to learn a language. You should use them as a tool to get started. However as soon as you

    When i went to Spain i took classes but also signed up immediately for a couple of intercambios. Another method i use is self-study.

    During the self-study i see a lot of grammar and vocab on a fast pace.
    The classes are good for feedback on my accent, questions about grammar, to find out expressions, …
    Intercambios are excellent for practising. Ask anyone how they became good at something, the secret is practise (effeciently).

  15. One methodology that worked really well for me was to force myself think in a foreign language. I’d carry a small dictionary with me and when I couldn’t “think” of a particular word I’d look it up in a dictionary. Also translating what others say to you in your native language into the foreign language works really well as well.

  16. Tim,

    You mentioned the Hartnachschule and that you took classes for 4 hours a day to start….but you didn’t say which classes you took there. I am looking to study German in Germany and am getting very confused by all the courses they offer. Which courses did you take through them?

  17. Wow Tim,
    I am impressed. I have always had a talent for language. I learned this when living in Germany, and picked up Spanish easily. I am not fluent in either and would love to get fluent in both languages, and perhaps others. i would love your advice. You are an inspiration.

    I do have levels one and two Rosetta Stone, Latin Spanish. I am not a firm believer in the way language is taught in University. I had an unpleasant experience in the last class. It was interesting because I always excelled but according to the most impressive powerful teacher I should give up. Never. I know what I am good in. Thank you for this.

  18. I think you’re right but it’s easier to break it down than your description.
    In my opinion, there are only four parts to language acquisition and they can all be done in a class or they can all be done by yourself. They are the following:

    1. Vocabulary acquisition of the minimum corpus to understand and communicate using the 80/20 rule

    Though this can be done in a classroom, probably this is one that’s most amenable to just sitting down and studying hard by yourself. Repetition is key here. If you learn a word in your class and never repeat it, you will forget it a week later and it will be lost.

    2. Grammar acquisition using the same principle – 80/20 rule
    Personally I think grammar is the least important. Children are understood when they say “me eat” and pointing. Adults can be too and there’s no reason you can’t speak in a pidgin to begin with. That said, probably grammar is best learned in a class.

    3. Listening practise
    This can be learned in a class or by watching TV or listening to the radio or chinesepod or some equivalent.

    4. Speaking practise
    This can not easily be learned on your own. You need exposure to a live speaker who has some degree of fluency so as to be able to check you can be understood and receive corrections.

    Personally speaking, however, I avoid classrooms altogether. I find them to be too slow. I learned Spanish fluently from a combination of the TV, memorization of about 5000 basic vocabulary items, some study of grammar and a once weekly practise with a native Spanish speaker at the library.

    I’m fluent with a generic Latin American accent now.

    I plan to learn French using the same method.

  19. Tim, I enjoyed your article on language learning. I have tackled four languages myself but would like to know if there is a fast track to learning vocabulary other than standard flash cards. Much of what you have said applies to conversation but, for instance, studying for conversational german is much different than reading philosophical/theological german. Do you have a prescription for learning a language with the intention to read academically? Your help would be much appreciated. Thanks, Bryan

  20. Tim, for learning Mandarin in China or Taiwan, what do you consider the best school to go to? I’ve considered the ICLP program (formerly known as the Standford Center), the Taipei Language Institute, BCLU and a few others. I’m willing to travel to Asia for 9 months and do some hardcore learning including full immersion. Do you have any suggestions?

  21. Hey Tim ! Great stuff, as usual. Would you by any chance have any tips or tricks on how to better learn (and speak) a language for a person who stutters ?

    I’ve been stuttering for my whole life, and even though it did not really prevent me from learning English (I am French), it didn’t really help me speak properly either !
    Now the frustration is high, because I know that my linguistic skills are good, I do fine with writing but i am still stuck with the speaking because of that freaking stuttering… :-/

    • Just an idea and I’m not a specialist here, but have you tried different rhythms and melodies for saying certain things? I once heard that that might help stutterers..

  22. Great tips indeed! Learning languages particularly require that the student needs to be proactive in studying and not be reliant on materials to be able to master a foreign language. Teachers may or may not even fully comprehend the material that they are teaching either so that can make it hard for some students to be able to master that.

  23. WOW! Your spanish is so good! I am amazed! I am trying to learn Mandarin. I know spanish already. Do you recommend any online course/software? I need to start deconstructing Mandarin…

    Thanks.

  24. Nevermind my previous post. I read in the comments that you recommend “Michel Thomas and Pimlsleur (though I find the latter slow at times) get my vote every time”….is this still true?

    Un abrazo gordito para ti también…

  25. I have taught English in Taiwan, Korea and China. And I have to say that the slower learners can slow the rest of the class down. But it depends. I teach kids and if the classes are fun and educational then everybody is getting involved and learning.

    And yeah sometimes even with that some may learn slower, but then it’s a good idea to focus on the majority and not let a minority interrupt or slow down the class.

    • Ian I was just wondering, what do you think of the idea of getting your best students to help the slowest? Have you tried it, had any experience with this? I have many great memories of playing games in language classes such as Taboo, and I figure that could be great encouragement for sharing new knowledge among students.

  26. As an English teacher and language learner, I couldn’t agree more. Language is about communicating, and that takes guts. Sure, classes can help. But getting out there and using it is the way to learn it. Thanks for sharing this!

  27. Wow, Tim, I’m impressed. I came to this blog article expecting you to thrash the “traditional methods” of language learning and advocate some kind of ninja secret, but instead you surprise readers with intelligent observation and a good rundown of facts which represent nothing but truth. I very much agree on your points regarding the way languages are taught – it’s part of the reason why I consciously decide to advocate 1 to 1 classes over teaching groups. I would rather provide the best teaching that I can than have a higher margin on teaching several people who might hold each other back. Having said that, I’m beginning to see the downside and will start hosting get-togethers for various students so that I can get them talking TO EACH OTHER.

    I love your description of avoiding the “ego-crushing moment of having to speak in a foreign language”. It’s the absolute key thing in so much learning to give a lot of positive encouragement but avoid giving your students the idea that they can be perfect right away. Everyone makes mistakes, you need the confidence to persevere anyway.

  28. Thus far I couldn’t agree more with you. The Spanish class I am in has much too many students, and hardly any time. . . Not to mention the fact that I want to learn Spain’s version(Castellano), which unfortunately is not going to happen.

    I’m willing to put a lot of time into this, and any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Why do you find that the size of your class is stopping you from progressing? Is it that you feel like it’s slowing you down? It could be okay to repeat exercises a few more times than necessary because that really anchors them in your memory. On the other hand, if you felt bored and frustrated then of course that would ultimately stop you progressing at all.

      I studied both Castellano and South American Spanish and never found them that different from each other, except in the pronunciation of the c – but that’s quickly corrected so don’t worry. You won’t go 20 miles the wrong way, you’ll be able to course correct.

    • Because the class is so short and has too many students…

      Yes they aren’t much different, but I’d prefer to learn in Spain’s version. I’m planning on living in Spain soon, and it would be nice to have a solid understanding…

      When in Spain I’m planning on taking classes to improve my Spanish, but i’d prefer to have an already good knowledge of the language at this point, and if I learn the Latin version I’d have to start taking the beginner classes to get the pronunciation differences down. + Money is always a factor.

  29. Please tell me know what do you think about Effortless English? Thank you very much!! I desperately needed to learn English in three months, but do not know which method to study the effectiveness. I research some method and hear that Effortless English is very good, but It also say that It will teach me to think in English, and speak English automatically, what do you think about it?

  30. Hey Tim,
    Love your work. I was just wondering what were the most important words you used to learn spanish? Like the key 100 from another language article and if I should buy the 4HWW or the 4HCHEF if I am primarily interested in learning a language?

  31. Hey, Tim!

    You’re incredible. Your Spanish, Chinese and German sound amazing, I mean – where is any accent???:)

    Your book inspired me, a lot. After 4 years of the lifestyle that was very similar to yours (4 different countries to live in and 6 langues), I felt a little bit lost, asking myself where It could lead me, or should I chose some definitive destination. And especially – how could I continue this fun beeing financially independent and without this torture with visas every time I chose a new country (hey, It’s not the same for USA or European citizens than for Russians for example).

    I still have not the answers, but your book teased me. Your approach isn’t perfect for everyone, It stays rather masculine and doesn’t cover the female need of security, comfort and smoothness (how will you pack 15 pair of basic shoes for your travel, for example?:) But the most important is that it cleans out all the stereotypes from the head, so that everyone can do his own ideal
    design.

    Thank you a lot for sharing all these great ideas.
    It’s a pitty I couldn’t participate in this 20dates-in-one-weekend marathon that you spoke about. Could you please keep your readers updated about a new round?:)

    Nina

  32. 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.

    –> Maybe this is the reason why spanish from Argentina sounds too bad ;)

  33. They are useful for gaining knowledge and that´s about it To make it stick you have to go out and apply it as with many things. I probably would have not started Spanish again without the foundation I gained with the Spanish classes I took in school. However, if I had known what I had known about the importance of outside practice regardless of your level. I would have taken up my former steamstress´s offer to pratice. I might have been times better than I was now.

  34. Tim,

    I’m an army linguist but I’m having trouble maintaining my language since I left DLI. We are expected to pass a proficiency test once a year but with little time to study and few resources for my particular language I don’t know where to begin as far as maintaining my language goes. Should I focus on listening and reading comp or make an effort to get the speaking side down pat in hopes that the other two will fall into place?

  35. You nailed it Tim, I’ve found that once you get the basics of grammar and vocab down, the only way to progress is to start talking to people. Otherwise you get stuck in that academic never-land where you know the book learning perfectly but you can’t hold a simple conversation.

    Great post!

  36. The last part of this post could almost be used word for word to describe how to learn any social skill (making friends, selling a product, speaking a language, picking up someone of the opposite sex)…prepare to make mistakes, be embarrassed and have your ego crushed, and just go out there and start doing it! Thanks for a good post.

  37. I found your articles to be very inspirational and will sign up to receive your blog!

    Being a member of the over 50 crowd and living in a Germanic country for over six years (and struggling terribly with the language), I am now inspired to begin again learning the language. I appreciate what you are doing for so many and grateful to have stumbled upon your talk on The Next Web.

    Cheers to you!