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  • Do language classes work?

    Posted on January 27th, 2009 Mairo Vergara 13 comments

    classroom-does-it-workSome language learner bloggers have been discussing Tim Ferriss “Why language classes don’t work” article. Street-Smart Language Learning, Aspiring Polyglot and Confessions of a Language Addict gave their opinions on the matter, so I think now it’s my turn.

    I recently started teaching English here in Brazil. The school I work for has an 18 months program which aims atin the method, to be responsible for our students and to give shows instead of simple classes. Excessive grammar and translations are not allowed at all. The students should like you, like the class, like the language, and have fun! If you can do it, you’re in, if you can’t, you’re out. The school and its method (fluency in 18 months) are relatively new here. English courses usually take four or more years and aim at “language proficiency”, which I assume is much more than fluency. Without going too deep into my school‘s methodology and its effectiveness, let me throw out this question: Is it possible to achieve basic fluency inside a classroom? fluency. You’re not allowed to use Portuguese inside the classroom, everything should be taught and explained in English. Sometimes it’s really difficult to explain certain words or expressions, but you just have to find a way to do it. At the initial meeting with other teachers and the school manager, we were told to believe

    I would say, yes, you can achieve basic fluency inside a classroom. By basic fluency, I mean being able to understand native English and communicate at least at a daily conversational level. When students come to my school, they are amazed by the idea that in a year and a half they are going to be understanding and speaking English. “Hey dude, in June 2010 I’ll know English! Awesome!” is what mainly motivates them. I partly disagree with Tim Ferris. Classes tend not to work, because students are lazy and teachers neither know how to teach nor how to learn a language. But it does not mean classes can’t work at all. There are many people that have learned languages inside classrooms, so in some way classes must work.

    In order to work, I think some requirements have to be met inside and outside the classroom…

    A good and motivated teacher

    Perhaps that’s why most classes don’t work. A good teacher isn’t easy to find. Universities don’t prepare students to be good teachers. University teachers themselves usually aren’t good teachers. They are good researchers and thinkers. But teaching is a practical, not a theoretical skill. You don’t learn how to teach by reading books or simulating classes. You learn how to teach by teaching real classes over and over again. If classrooms can work, it absolutely requires very very good teachers, who know their subject and know how to teach it properly. Remember AJATT and Outliersto teaching. 10000 hours thing? The same applies

    Good materials

    Good material really can help. However, I think good materials are those materials that the students can use outside the classroom. Inside the classrooms, the focus should be on the teacher. Even though I just started teaching, I often find myself asking the students to close their books and pay attention to me. I want them to look at me, listen to me. I want them to understand what I am trying to say verbally and non-verbally. The good materials are going to be used at home, for self study. Perhaps a combination of motivating/fun classes with a set of very good materials for self-study could work very well!

    Motivated students

    This depends on students and teachers. Every teacher wants motivated students of course. But what to do with the unmotivated ones? Stimulate them! You can’t motivate someone else, since motivation comes from within yourself, but you can stimulate them so that they get motivated. It is easy to blame students for being unmotivated, but teachers should remember that their role is much more than simply throwing their course material at the students and expecting them to learn it. As I said before, teaching is practical and entails many different abilities.

    In conclusion, I believe classrooms can work in the same way that self-study methods can work. At the same time, classrooms will fail for the same reasons that self-study methods will fail. Every one has his own manner of learning, although certain principles are universal. The hard task is to find and apply these principles, be it inside or outside the classroom.


    13 responses to “Do language classes work?” RSS icon

    • My idea of language proficiency is that it is lower than fluency. To me, “proficiency” is a term to use for yourself when you feel you are not yet up to “fluency” but you still want to convey the idea that you have good abilities in the language and that those abilities will be useful.

      How many hours a day do students at the school you work for spend in English classes? Also, how much outside-class time will the students spend on English?

    • You wouldn’t believe how much I agree with you. I also think that there is a point to classes (or, should I say, because language classes in primary/secondary schools are unavoidable, they can be made in such a way to have a point, i.e. not suck :), so I’m trying to find the best method for working in relatively large groups (around 30 people), using acting, simulations and other fun methods as teaching tools.

      I organized the first experimental workshop in December, with only a dozen students, but the results were great! I’m starting the next one in late February, and I’m always on the lookout for more cool ideas, so if you have anything to say, ask etc. please do :)

      Also, are you going to post progress on your workshop? I’d love to hear what methods you use, what works, what doesn’t work etc.

    • @Keith
      Keith, they spend 3 hours a week inside a classroom. We work with a book which brings a CD for dialogs, I recommend the students to listen to the CD as many as they can. Some of them do listen, some of them don’t. Since I just started working at this school, I don’t know if they will achieve fluency in 18 months, but I believe that if I continue speaking to them only in English, in about six months they will almost fully understand-me.

    • @Relja Dereta
      Hi Relja. It is a nice idea to post my classroom progress. I will think about it. Although I am looking for a way to improve my teaching skills, I still think self-study is the best way to learn languages. However, since this isn’t our school’s model (classroom model seems to make a lot of money, for managers of course, not for teachers =/) we have adapt ourselves. My ideal classroom will combine together self-study and classrooms methods. Classroom would work more as a kind of orientation, the learner would learn the “how to”, so that he can do it by herself at home, or even at the school

    • I just found your blog today through a list by Steve Kaufman; it seems that I’ll be subscribing! As a university student, studying to teach foreign languages (German and Spanish), I’m definitely interested to see what you have to share from your experiences. Continue to write!

    • its an interaction betweem teacher and student and mediun is the material. every thing depends on this interaction as students will follow the teacher . the only condition i agree with you is the devotion from both sides.

    • Learning involves interaction between teacher and student and the medium is the material. Everything depends on this interaction as students follow their teacher. The only condition,i agree with you, is the devotion from both sides.

    • Yes I agree with you hundred percent.

    • yes i agree with you hundred percent

    • I have a dream that one day learning foreign language in class would be something a lot of students would look forward to. Imagine in a small class, half the students play the games the other just watch and listen ( those who watch also learn from other’s mistakes.) You select the character you wish to play in this computer game. The scene of the computer game starts with a shop in Paris, you were accused of taking something without paying. The Police came and you were escorted to the police station for questioning. Or other games like you were working as an au pair in paris when your french host try to sexually harass you. All the games should be progammed with some mystery or something unusual to keep the students attention focus on the language. If your programme is visiting the museum or things like that then most students would fall asleep half way through.
      For this method to work the students have to be somewhere in the intermediate level or advance level. It would be quite interesting because the students are allowed to participate in other words they could speak and answer questions and the teacher would check if the answer is correct.
      Well, for beginners the programme would be something like you walk into a cafe and you order a cafe in french and the man behind the counter speak in a heavy accented french (regional dialect) and see if you can handle that, otherwise there would be no fun in the game. In the game you got the chance to listen to your target language and also you speak it as well, like in real life.
      If you look at the computer games we are playing today, they look quite real and I don’t see why it can’t be programmed to work for language learning.
      Will sosme computer genius tell me why they haven’t come up with this sort of game for language learning?

    • Very well written post however, I would recommend that you turn the No Follow off in your comment section.

      Keep up the good work.

    • A fantastic read….very literate and informative. Many thanks….what theme is this you are using and also, where is your RSS button ?

    • Another good site is

      If your traveling and need a ez language book , that you can print out any where.