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Brave Language Learning Bonus: Why I still believe in language classes

This post is a free bonus chapter to go with my book “Brave Language Learning.” You can get the full book here.

It’s 2017 when I write these words, and you can now apparently learn a foreign language using your laptop, phone, audio player, tablet, e-book reader…and so on. So why haven’t we shut down all language schools yet? Here are three possible reasons.

0. Language classes vs self-made polyglots

Before we begin, an honest declaration: I’ve been in lots of language classes, as a teacher and a learner. And I’ve also tried to learn (and teach) languages to self-starters and digital maniacs. There is a time and a reason for trying just about anything when it comes to language learning (maybe except attempting to learn to speak in your sleep). This just felt like something that needed to be said before I start telling you about the benefits of face-to-face interaction in a foreign language class. It’s not one-sided here, it rarely ever is. In fact, you can expect the next post about polyglot matters to cover the second side of this debate…Now, let’s get to it.

1. Language classes give you tons of social context

Learning in a virtual environment can be a weird, out-of-body thing. You sit there in front of your screen, and there’s a voice – and some writing on the virtual whiteboard. Sometimes there’s a face. All this comes to you via an internet connection – so the voices of the other students, and of your teacher, are never 100% real-time, never fully human. Maybe your experience will vary; most online classes I taught and learned in looked like this.

A brick-and-mortar school still encourages people to walk in. Students and teachers share the same space, discuss and work in the same room. Sometimes they’re excited, at other times – they’re bored. Sometimes there’s a friendly discussion, sometimes just silence and tiredness. But all these things add lots of context to the language you are learning. You’re picking up Josh’s tone of voice as he speaks his Spanish to you – his facial expressions, gestures, all that. Josh is picking up yours. And your teacher is giving you even more as they model the language.

This is how meaning is built. This is how all people in the room can become responsible for a conversation. I’m not just making this up: there’s plenty of research which looks into the benefits of social interaction in language classes.

2. Language classes make you write, and remember things better

Why do you still need to bring a print coursebook to your language course? Why do you still need to write in paper notebooks? You’ve got all these wonderful digital tools at your disposal. Hey, I wrote about some of them, and I still love them dearly. So why with the pen and paper? Is there a magical connection between your language learning and hand-written scribbles?

Well, for some languages where the alphabet is vastly different from yours, this is actually non-negotiable. My Saudi students in my English class had to go through writing practice, and at early stages it really felt to them like having to learn to hand-write from scratch! It was exactly the same with me and the Chinese characters I tried to learn.

But there’s more. The connection between hand-written notes and better memory has been studied. It would appear that making digital notes means you don’t remember as much – and that scribbling things down still makes you remember more.

3. Language classes motivate you to learn more

I heard it recently from somebody who did lots of research into the way people learn English in Brazil. Many students, she said, are frequently too tired to come to class after work and college. They would happily swap their face-to-face training for something online, she thought, but there was one thing missing: the motivation and the discipline. Being an online student, she found, meant that it was just your responsibility to show up, to learn, to do the work.

I thought about this and did my own research. My colleague was not alone in reaching these conclusions. Some researchers actually found that having language learning peers motivates you to do more – even before the class begins!

A face-to-face language class can become like a support group, a project meeting, a great chance to celebrate what works, and to fix what doesn’t work. It’s up to the teachers and all learners to make the meeting worth everyone’s time. Once this happens, the steady rhythm of motivation just keeps giving you the strength you need to come back, and not to be missed!


What other benefits can you think of? Does this make you change your mind about real-time classes?

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