If you are:
a) learning a language, and
b) not being raised by wolves in a cave somewhere,
then you’ve heard it time and again: classes suck. Everyone knows it. You can learn a language faster and more enjoyably on your own.
Yeah well, everyone knows a lot of stuff. Like water drains a different direction in the Southern hemisphere, and sugar makes kids hyperactive. But somewhere in Australia right now there’s a five year-old with a mouthful of Hershey’s Kisses, calmly wondering why his sink’s draining counterclockwise.
But where was I? Oh, right, classes. So do they suck, or do they work? I found the answer, naturally, in the place I find most of my answers: a bar. Now, you probably know that I hang out in a lot of bars. What can I say? The alternative is sitting on the floor of my tiny Japanese apartment studying Japanese, watching crazy Japanese TV, and drinking malt liquor by myself. Actually, it’s not as bad as it sounds, since the malt liquor here in Japan is awesome. Anyway, so I was in this Irish pub and I noticed a group of foreigners standing at a table, talking to the Japanese folks at the next table, in Japanese.
What it takes to be awesome
I hate to say it, but the number of foreigners here who speak decent Japanese is close to zero. That doesn’t mean discussing hobbies and preferences for pizza toppings–enough people can do that. I mean real, substantial conversations, like whether Batman could beat Ironman in a fight. Stuff that matters, you know. And these foreigners were killing it. They carried on an effortless conversation in Japanese with the next table, and amongst themselves, for over an hour.
I was like, Whoa. So decided to embark upon some investigative journalism with the prettiest girl of the bunch. Mostly because “investigative journalism” sounds a lot better than “hit on.”
“Your Japanese is really good,” I said. Hands down, the world’s most original pick-up line.
“Thanks, I think,” she said. “We all go to language school together.”
“No way!” I blurted out. “Me too!” Though to be honest, I would have said the exact same thing no matter what she said. “So maybe you can help me understand this horoscope,” I continued, and handed her a folded-up newspaper clipping written in Japanese.
“Hmm. It says here that love is in your future.”
“That’s crazy. Such a coincidence,” I said. “You read really well. How many days a week do you have class?” Suddenly, I was sincerely interested. Apparently, there’s a first for everything.
“Monday through Friday, four hours a day,” she sighed. “Plus homework, and a lot of it.”
“Whoaaa,” I said. “That’s heavy. Here, let’s see what your horoscope says . . .”
Actually, it didn’t surprise me that they took classes. I’ve rarely met anyone fluent who hasn’t. That doesn’t mean that people who are awesome haven’t studied a ton on their own as well. The winning combination seems to be doing both. Because, as much as we hate classes, we need them. Sure, you can do anything by yourself: save a million dollars of dimes in pickle jars, build freakishly large muscles doing pull-ups in the park, become a Rodeo cowboy by riding your neighbor’s great dane, whatever. But you probably won’t, for the same reason that it’s hard to learn a language on your own. Because that stuff’s hard and it takes a long time. It’s good to have support, a schedule, and some structure.
After the fizzle’s gone
Everyone’s balls-out to learn a language at first. It’s fun and exciting, and you’re willing to devote lots of time to it. And then, well, even Coke goes flat eventually. I call it the Year-and-a-Half wall. People who are disciplined and committed seem to last about that long, and then slow down. Reality sets in. You thought you’d find a shortcut, like somehow you wouldn’t have to learn all those tens of thousands of words, plus all that grammaticalization stuff. Yuck. Well, you don’t have to—you can quit any time. Worse, if you continue to study, real life also happens—weddings, vacations, illnesses. So you take a day off. Then two. Then maybe a week. And five years later you’re that guy who says, “Yeah, I used to know a lot of French, but I forgot most of it now.”
Whose class is it, anyway?
Part of the problem lies in the way we’ve conceptualized classes, thinking that the teacher possesses knowledge that students wait to receive in measured doses. Maybe that was true in the Dark Ages, but it’s certainly not anymore. Today, you can access the same knowledge your teacher can, quickly and easily, right from home. Home? Sorry–how 2006 of me. I meant, from your iPhone. Anyway, this leads to the conclusion that, Hey, what do I need the teacher for? I can do it myself.
Sure you can. You don’t need to join Weight Watchers; you can just eat smaller portions. You don’t need Nicorette to quit smoking. While you’re at it, you can cut your own hair, raise your own chickens, and build a windmill out of bicycle parts so you can charge the MacBook you soldered together from tin cans and a picture frame. You can do lots of stuff on your own, that’s true. But there’s probably a reason you don’t live in the middle of a forest with just three language textbooks and a WiFi connection. Or maybe you do. How’s that campfire working out for you?
Why classes suck and what you can do about it
Now, I happen to be an expert on how much traditional classes suck. In college I actually majored in Boredom. Not a lot of people know that. And minored in Could-this-Course-Possibly-Suck-any-More? It’s printed right on my diploma. Doesn’t look as good on a resume as I thought it would. In hindsight I probably should have chosen something practical, like Communications, but oh well. But if classes are so great, why do people bag on them so much?
1. Classes are slow
I remember hearing a girl say, “My Japanese Class sucked. We only learned 50 kanji all semester.”
Say what? Okay, who’s sucking here? The teacher didn’t confiscate your textbook and tie you to a tree to prevent you from learning more. If you can learn more, do it. The class is the baseline, not the limit. Freaking learn 50 kanji in a week, if you can. Do it in a day. Knock yourself out. And if the class is too low for your abilities, move to a higher class. But let’s say that, for whatever reason, you’re stuck in a class that’s really too easy for you. Okay, so what? Out of 730 hours in a month, how many hours is that class taking up? 12? And during that time you’re at least doing something in the language you want to learn. You probably spend a lot more time than Facebooking. I still can’t believe that’s a verb.
2. Classes are boring
First of all, don’t confuse hard with boring. Sometimes learning stuff is hard. Hey, we all want to consume jelly donuts and champagne three meals a day, but broccoli and a couple of carrots sticks might occasionally be a good idea. So yeah, it would be great to learn a language simply by playing video games and watching movies, just like it would be great to learn how to swim by reading Aquaman comics. Who wants to get in the pool when it’s so . . . wet? Eeew. Actually, I heard that reading Aquaman was how Michael Phelps perfected his butterfly. Little known fact.
Now, could your teacher do a better job? Probably. Could the course be structured better? Sure. Would it be great if your dog pood vanilla ice cream? Perhaps. Hey, it’s an imperfect world. But here’s something you’d better check: Are you sitting in the front taking notes and joining in, or sitting in the back groaning whenever the teacher asks a question? You know that heckler in the back of the comedy club shouting out how much the comedian sucks? Everyone’s there to have a good time and a few laughs, but it only takes one dick to ruin it for everyone. Don’t be that guy. The classroom is a collaboration, and if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem. It took me years to realize that the amount a class sucked was in exact proportion to how much I was convinced it sucked. The moment I started actually participating, my classes improved. Some of them were even, I hate to admit it, interesting. In other words, my classes didn’t suck all those years. I did.
3. Classes don’t teach real language
In college, when I wasn’t sitting in class thinking how much everything sucked, I worked in a convenience store. And that sucked too. Of course, back then I still had hopes and dreams and thought the world could be a better place, a condition experts refer to as “being young.” Anyway, one day I was complaining to one of my father’s friends that I wasn’t learning anything useful, like all I’d succeeded in mastering was touch typing on the cash register. This dude had some crazy gray and black hair, like seriously bushy. And he looked up from under this mop of fur and said something that still sticks with me: “All knowledge is useful.” It was profound, because until then, I just thought of him as a delivery vehicle for this ferret-like creature perched atop his skull. But he was right, because I later used that typing skill to become a data entry operator, which led me to becoming an astronaut. Yeah, an actual space astronaut. Which proves that there’s no such thing as unnecessary knowledge. Wait, did I say “astronaut”? Okay, I meant “programmer,” but anyway, I think the point still stands. So don’t complain if your class teaches you how to speak like a midwestern newscaster when you wanted to sound like Tommy DeVito from “Goodfellas.” Be thankful. Now go home and get your shinebox.
4. I can learn faster on my own
On your own? What’s that? Sounds like homework without the class. That’s like the harder way to learn, not the easier.
But okay, let’s say you’re determined to do it on your own. How do you compare self-study to classes? Can you eat more grapes than watermelons? Sure, and maybe you can learn more Spanish by reading two hours of Spanish comic books every day than you would in three hours of class per week. But if you took two hours of class a day? Now you’re comparing grapes to grapes, and between the two, I’d bet on classes. And on grapes, mostly because they make better wine.
More to the point: study methods aren’t mutually exclusive. Learning a language requires a lot of different activities. You read books, take classes, watch movies, Skype with people. They’re all good, and they all help. The difference is that, with a class, you actually have a plan and measure your progress, which is an excellent thing. And unlike Skyping with your buddies, you can’t take refuge in only comfortable topics or carelessly miss a few days. That’s also a good thing.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Hey, sometimes the truth hurts. Learning anything takes time and work, and languages are no exception. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, at least in the same way that people like painting houses, running marathons, and being tied up and whipped by large women in teddy bear costumes. The latter group always seems to study Japanese for some reason, but whatever. What was my point again? Oh yeah. Learning a language is big endeavor. It takes years, so it’s good to have some backup to keep you on track and keep you going. That’s where classes come in. If you’re serious about learning a language, then take every class you can. Do the homework. Raise your hand, speak, and actually freaking try. Remember–There is no do. There’s only freaking try.