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When you want to learn something, you take a course. When you want to learn English, you go to an English language school.
Right? Well, not exactly.
If you step back for a moment and think about it, there are several ways that you can improve your English skills. You could certainly try a language school and this is the default option for most people.
Another thing you could do is to “immerse” yourself in an environment where you will be using English every day. For instance, you could travel to London and work in a restaurant for the summer. You would be speaking English to the customers and to your co-workers.
A third option is to learn English on your own.
After all, you could listen to podcasts in English, watch English shows on Netflix, read English novels and look for someone to chat with in English online. Everything you need is freely available.
With these options available, why do people still attend formal English courses? What are the benefits? What are the drawbacks? Let’s dig deeper and find out.
Reasons to go to an English school
When faced with the challenge of improving their English, most people simply don’t know where to start. All that content that is freely available on the Internet is just too much.
They know that if they sign up with a language school, they’ll be given books, assignments and, most importantly, guidance from a qualified teacher.
They’ll be tested and told when they have improved.
Perhaps they’ll get a nice certificate at the end of their course.
And people are social creatures; they like to learn together with others in a community.
If you need structure or motivation in your language learning, a language school may be the best way forward for you.
Reasons NOT to go to an English school
Time and money
The most serious students, or the ones who want to improve as quickly as possible, attend “intensive” courses. These intensive courses typically offer 24 to 30 hours per week, plus homework assignments.
After studying English for 30 hours, most students have little time or energy for anything else.
Part-time courses are mostly in the evening. This means students need to battle through traffic to get there after a long day at work.
Intensive English classes in London may cost you €1400 a week or more. The cost will be higher for specialised classes, such as IELTS preparation.
Do you have the time and money to attend formal classes at an English school?
For many learners, these simple logistical issues put this option out of reach.
Too fast or too slow
Beyond logistical problems, you might find that the speed of the classes is not for you.
Language learning is a soft skill, which means that you may learn more slowly or more quickly than others.
In a language class, you could end up either bored or left behind and quickly become demotivated.
Not interesting to you
What about the other learners in your class?
You may find they are older or younger than you are, with vastly different interests. The teacher will choose topics that appeal to the majority of the class, but these topics may not appeal to you.
For instance, if you are a working adult, you probably don’t want to sit through conversations about teen idols and high school. If you’re retired, you probably don’t want to sit through conversations about the latest office trends.
Whatever your age, you probably don’t want to sit through hours of grammar lessons and read uninspiring textbooks.
What’s more, students who attend language schools may be there in the first place because they lack motivation or because they were never able to master English at school.
To put it bluntly, they aren’t always the most motivated learners.
You will be part of a community, but it may not offer the best environment if you are serious about making progress or if you want to be surrounded by successful learners.
If you are in a big class, you’ll be given conversation activities in groups.
Will you improve?
Or will you pick up mistakes and bad habits from the other participants? In some countries, the teacher may not have perfect English – even in a private institution.
Alternative 1: Self-directed immersion
This brings us on to the second option.
You could travel overseas and immerse yourself in a situation, such as a part-time job, where you will need to constantly practise your English skills.
It seems like the perfect method. Instead of being surrounded by people with weak English, like at a language school, you’ll be surrounded by native speakers and constantly challenged to understand fast, natural English.
However, this method also has its drawbacks. Again, it’s not something that everyone can afford. The average rental price for a room in London is over £700 per month.
Let’s take our example of working as a waiter in a restaurant in London. You’ll be practising English, but within a very narrow range. You’ll take orders, explain the menu and deal with customer complaints. What you won’t be doing is having long conversations with the customers on a range of topics that interests you.
Will you even be speaking with native speakers?
London is a cosmopolitan city, so you might find that the customers and the restaurant staff are not native speakers of English and speak less English than you!
There must be a better alternative.
Alternative 2: Create your own “school”
The Internet hosts everything you need to go it alone and put together your own learning package.
You can listen to English podcasts, rewinding when you want to review some language, and even following along with transcripts and key vocabulary.
You can watch English shows on TV and put on the subtitles if you get stuck.
You can buy English novels and read them in bed before you sleep.
You look up words on Google and use their pronunciation tool. You can read notes on grammar and try some online quizzes.
You can even find sites that will match you up with a speaking partner.
Everything is there for you, but you have to be disciplined and you have to be organised. In a way, you have to be your own language school, because you’re the one who is responsible for putting together your own language course.
Alternative 3: The best of both worlds
Or, what about a hybrid approach?
Alternative courses exist, such as the Leonardo English Academy.
By joining a small, online group of like-minded learners, you can get the benefits of a formal course.
At the same time, the materials used feature specially chosen, real-life examples and topics, so you can be sure each class will be engaging, challenging and packed with learning opportunities.
Students often ask, “What is the best way to improve my English?”
There really is no correct answer because, as we’ve seen, each method has its advantages and disadvantages. In particular, some methods are much more expensive and time consuming than others.
However, learning is never a waste of money.
At the end of the day, the most important factor is YOU.
Only you can say whether you require the guidance, structure and motivation of a formal language course or whether you are able to take advantage of some of the great alternatives that exist out there.