I can’t count the number of times a student has asked me how many English classes they need to take. Yet I always have a hard time answering the question. The truth is a person doesn’t actually need any classes to learn English or any other language. Neither do they have to live in a native speaking country. Technology can help you learn any language you want, wherever you are. So why do people still take classes? Why do we still need teachers?
This has turned into a rather controversial issue since Sugata Mitra began writing/speaking on the subject. If you haven’t read about or watched any of his presentations, just check out one of his TED talks: http://www.ted.com/speakers/sugata_mitra. While I agree with his basic idea of people being capable of learning on their own, I do think he takes it too far. His ideas are interesting, but I do think they overgeneralize and oversimplify the matter. Some people are perfectly capable of learning on their own, but there’s still a definite need for well-designed courses led by talented teachers.
Learning on your own requires a number of things- resources (now easily found online), desire/motivation, organization and the ability to evaluate yourself. There are of course many other factors, but these are the ones that come to mind first. What most students lack is related to organization and ability to self-evaluate.
When you sign up for a class, you commit yourself to studying that subject on specific days at specific times. If you don’t attend, your classmates and teacher will ask you why. You feel accountable to others, not only yourself. Committing certain hours every week to studying is harder for most people if there’s nobody holding them accountable. It’s the same reason why a lot of people find it easier to finish a class at a gym than an exercise video at home. At home, nobody knows if they sit on the couch and watch the video instead of actually doing it. At the gym, as long as everyone else is spinning, they’ll keep spinning too. Say you’re able to commit yourself to studying at specific times on a regular basis, how do you know what to study? How do you know what to study first? Why would you know that you should study past simple before present perfect? For some people, it might seem more logical to study all the present forms first. People need guidance on setting up a study plan of what to study in what order. It’s the same way that even if you manage to find time to workout at home, you still look to an exercise video or other resource for guidance.
What about the ability to evaluate yourself? Why’s that important? No matter what line of work you’re in, I’m sure you’ve come across somebody who thinks they’re really amazing at their job, but who actually isn’t. As an English teacher, I often come across students who feel that they’re really advanced in the language. These students need a teacher to give them an accurate picture of their true strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, they won’t work on improving the things that need improvement. This isn’t about breaking their confidence, it’s just about helping them recognize where there’s room for improvement and what they should focus on.
My conclusion: Yes, people can learn at home. No, people don’t have to take courses for 4 years to learn English. With some guidance from a teacher to help form a study plan and identify strengths and weaknesses, a person can make a lot of progress on their own. Proof of this is in students who take one or two classes and make a tremendous amount of progress over a short period of time. How do they do it? by taking advantage of their class and teacher as a guide for how and what to study and spending extra time at home studying on their own.