Why Do We Always Think Language Classes Are The Only Way?

In this guest post, Lindsay Dow talks about the weaknesses of class-room style learning and opens up the idea of self-studying your way to fluency.

Note from Kris: This is a guest post by Lindsay Dow from LindsayDoesLanguages. If you're interested in submitting a guest post for Actual Fluency, don't hesitate to get in touch with me via the contact page. Over to you Lindsay!

For most of us, our first experience of learning another language, maybe even our first exposure to the idea that not everyone speaks how we speak, is school. This seems pretty natural, right? After all, school is the place we're supposed to learn new things. It's the place we do learn many new things and are exposed to them for the first time.

However, the problem comes when languages are presented in a way that doesn't inspire. No reason is given as to why we have to learn it, we're moved on through the syllabus too fast for most to keep up, and, before you know it, 90% of the class have lost all interest and motivation.

This is often not the teacher's fault. Of course it can be, but I've met far too many teachers who care passionately about languages but may as well be talking to a brick wall when their class are sat in front of them numb from whatever has dulled the experience for this to be the case in the majority of situations.

So we leave school and we're put off. Our distorted view of languages leaves us awestruck by someone who can speak more than one language. Yet, I stand by the fact that anyone can do it. Anyone can learn a language.

And more often than not, people experience that second wave of inspiration and set out to learn another language once and for all. They enroll in an evening class, they clear the foreign language shelves of their local bookstore, and they feel inspired.

But the inspiration doesn't last long. The class progresses faster than things did at school, everyone else seems to be way better than them, and before long their attendance is falling slowly but surely.

Why is it that people return to classes despite it not working out before?

Well from a class, we get a sense of community, motivation, and accountability, regardless of how good or bad the class itself may be.

But what about the other way? What about self-study? Can you really teach yourself a language?

Of course you can.

But many people last even less time with this option due in part to those three key factors that we get easily from a class: community, motivation, and accountability.

How to Succeed with Self-Study

To actually make self-study a viable option, we have to fill the voids left from the lack of those three factors we get from a class. Let's look at how we can do that for each one.


Ok, major self-study bombshell about to drop. You ready?

The worst thing you can do as a self-studier is stay completely alone.

I know. It sounds contradictory, right?

But when you're in charge of your studies, you're in charge of who you involve. Instead of the one in the class that understands absolutely everything with minimal effort, you can find a study buddy who is at your level.

Find yourself a tutor that works with you and your goals, not a general goal of fluency that's designed to please the masses. Find yourself a language exchange partner who is as good at your language as you are at theirs – learn together and encourage each other's progress.

Creating a community around your language on your own terms is crucial for the next two factors too.


Once you've got yourself a cheerleader (so to speak), getting to that next finish line will be so much easier than if it's just you and your goldfish spurring you on.

Speaking of finish lines, you're going to need to set yourself some serious goals. Notice the plural?

When a goal is far away, it's hard to achieve because there is absolutely nothing to motivate us to take the steps to get there.

Instead, set yourself smaller, more regular goals so that you're constantly accomplishing things and making progress with your studies.


Great. You've set yourself some goals but what's that worth if you're not going to do anything to actually get there?

You need some accountability, my friend! But how can you get that when you're studying alone?

Make your goals public.

Tell your friends, put it on Facebook, bet your boss. However you do it, just make it public.

I know that sounds ridiculously scary and you'll look like a right fool if you put it out there and don't do it. But you know what? That's exactly why you should do it.

Who wants to look like a fool? Not me. And I'm guessing not you.

Language classes aren't evil!

But remember, language classes aren't evil. They're not the enemy and they can be very useful! They just need to be approached with a prepared attitude that language class or not, your success will rely on how much effort you put in, not how many classes you attend or how much you pay for classes.

Free Webinar this Saturday

If you're studying alone or in a class, I'm hosting a webinar this Saturday (23.1.16) with Kris called How to Find and Maintain Language Learning Motivation Even Without Fellow Students where we'll be sharing so much more on this topic. Yay!

We'll be going live at 5pm GMT (12pm EST and 8pm MSK) and you're invited! We'd love for you to join us.

Even if you can't make it live (although you'll get access to some exclusive bonuses if you do!) still reserve your spot because you'll only get the replay link if you're signed up.

What do you prefer? Language classes or self-study? Share your thoughts in the comments!


  • Thanks for letting me post on Actual Fluency, Kris! I’m looking forward to Saturday! 😀

  • Stanzzii says:

    Great reminders! It’s definitely important to remember that classes are a tool like any other resource and that you can use them and supplement them however you want.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Well said! I’m thinking about joining a class here in Budapest to leave my comfort zone a bit – it’s not an official class but I think it will do me good anyway to get a more balanced approach.

      I guess it’s important to underline that there’s nothing wrong with classes, it’s just really strange that when you tell people you’re learning languages they immediately assume you must be taking classes somewhere. This is one of the myths I hope we can change as a movement 🙂

      • Stanzzii says:

        Yeah I totally agree! I’ve learned most of what I know without classes. My high school Spanish classes were not great, and my university French classes were okay, but it’s hard to tell how much I learned from them since I was doing so much self-directed study at the same time 🙂 On the other hand, if I decided to learn a crazy rare language, classes would be the best way to have access to resources. And classes would force me to speak, which I am loathe to do on my own…

  • Dave Prine says:

    Great post! Although there can be many good things to be said about language classes, I can definitely relate to the description above. I took 4 years of high school Spanish (because a language was REQUIRED thus making it seem like chore) and although I learned enough to ace the exams and homework, I graduated with no conversational skills and forgot about 95% right away. I loved my teachers, but I was never taught the value of the language. It was only when I had reasons to learn the language (travel and community) that I found ways to stay motivated and maintain the language. But I will say that the classes taught me how to learn a language. So there’s that.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Hi Dave, thanks for your comment! I think a lot of people echo your experience of doing well on tests or exams but not being able to really use the language for anything.

      The forced thing/chore feeling is definitely also something that I experienced all throughout my school years. Although I was really happy about English and German I had a ton of class mates who saw the classes as pure evil and didn’t participate much. Once I got to middle school I had a worse German teacher and I was so tired of school my new French classes weren’t interesting either.

      Now that I’m an adult I could definitely see myself being way more interested in language classes – because it’s a choice and I know why I’m doing it. As a kid being forced it’s rarely fun, plus the usual methods of forcing vocab wasn’t exactly the best either…

      • Dave Prine says:

        So true. When you choose to learn, and especially when you have a personal reason to learn (and not just an obligation), it really flows. And if you have a specific reason to learn a language, that gives you a much better focus & direction. And if you’re lucky to get a good teacher, all the better!

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