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Learning English is not easy. It requires years of focused study, active learning, and a positive attitude. And even when you have those things, it can feel a bit like guesswork.
What should you study? How should you study? What sort of materials should you use? Can you build your own English course?
You might be tempted to try to make it easier by enrolling in an English language class or getting a private tutor. After all, the teacher probably will speak English fluently, correct your mistakes, and take the guesswork out of what, when, and how you should study. Why not, right?
Well, as a language teacher, I know that there actually are some really good reasons you shouldn’t learn English in a classroom. The idea that you must take an English course or get a private tutor is a common myth about learning English, and it’s not right for everyone.
Still, English lessons can be useful, especially for certain people or in certain situations. Having taught English and learned several languages, I really believe the most effective way to learn English is by consistently engaging with it in a way that interests you (like by listening to interesting podcasts in English).
But for others, English classes might be a really good idea.
In this guide, I want to help you decide when the cost of English lessons might be worth it, and when it probably isn’t.
When to take English lessons
Whether taking English lessons is right for you depends on your situation.
Here are some scenarios where taking English classes could be a good investment for you.
When you learn better with more structure
It’s not difficult to build your own English immersion programme, but it can still feel overwhelming for some people. Especially if this is your first time learning a language, you might prefer the structure that an English class or a tutor gives you. Instructors usually follow a structured curriculum designed to gradually introduce new concepts and develop your skills. Since they’re designed to build slowly over time, they can feel more comfortable for some English learners.
When you have trouble studying alone
Group English classes can be a blessing because they help motivate us to put in the work. If we know that the teacher is going to check our homework, we might be more inclined to work harder. If we know that our classmates will be doing the work, we are more likely to actually do it.
And knowing that there will be a test is motivation to study. If you have trouble motivating yourself to learn English, a class or a tutor could help.
Of course, another option is to find activities that you enjoy! The more you like an activity, the less motivation you need to do it. Not choosing activities that interest them is one of the most common mistakes people make when they start learning English.
When you like to ask questions
When I was in school, I constantly had my hand up. If I didn’t understand something, I wanted someone to explain it to me. With the internet, it’s usually pretty easy to find answers to our questions… but sometimes it’s not as satisfying as asking someone directly. If you like to ask lots of questions, an English class or a tutor might be for you.
When you’re just starting to learn English
When we’re right at the beginning of our English journey, it can be nice to have a nudge in the right direction. English classes and tutors can help to give you a good foundation and positive experience with English that you can build on as you go.
There are plenty of people who have learned English completely on their own, from beginner to advanced level. Hats off to these people, but for many, taking a few English lessons can be helpful when you are just starting out.
When you’re studying for an exam
You might be learning English to pass the IELTS, TOEFL, or another English exam. If so, taking a class could be a good investment because the instructor might be able to help you identify better what you will need to know on the exam, and what you should work on. Feedback and test-taking strategies from the instructor could help you get a higher grade.
When you have very specific goals or are at a very high level
There are certain instances where you need to learn a very specific form of English or you need to learn it to a very high level. In these cases, you might really benefit from a language coach.
For example, maybe you’re an actor and you need to be able to speak with a British accent for a role you’re in. In cases like this, you may not improve enough simply by listening to Alastair’s welcoming voice or watching Netflix. Instead, you’ll want to work with a very specialised English teacher.
When you’re wealthy
If money is no object for you, then by all means, take lessons. Take lots of lessons. Why not even travel to the country and take lessons there?
When not to take English lessons
There are lots of people that think that they should take lessons when they really don’t need them. For many people, taking English lessons isn’t the right choice, as they are unlikely to be the most efficient way of achieving their goals.
Here are some examples.
When you’re going to rely on them exclusively
If you're looking for English lessons and expect them to be your only source of learning, then a one-on-one tutor or group lessons in an English course may not be the right option for you.
Acquisition of a new language is complex and requires a lot of effort. If you believe that simply listening to a lecture, reading your teacher's material, and doing your homework will be enough to make you fluent, then I have some bad news: you’ll be wasting your money. That’s just not how learning a language works.
In the recipe for language acquisition, one of the main ingredients is being actively engaged.
You can’t just go to class twice a week and get fluent; you'll need to review classes, revise concepts, and memorise new words. You’ll also need to expose yourself to real English content. You won’t get all that from only an English class or tutor.
I’m sure you have come across the person who has been doing years of English lessons but says that they haven’t made any progress.
You probably have also come across someone who has never taken an English lesson in their life, but is at a much higher level.
The difference? It’s probably that the first person relied on the lessons for everything, and the second person put their head down and studied hard.
When you want conversation
An English course may not be the best option if your main goal is to practise conversation. Most English classes are actually not designed to offer much speaking practise. And while online or face-to-face tutoring can offer more conversation practice, it really depends on the tutor.
If what you want is conversation, there are other very effective methods of practising speaking English—even when you don’t have a partner.
When you want to develop fluency
If you’re already at an intermediate level and are trying to get towards fluency, lessons may not be that helpful. At this point you may know most of the grammar points and already have a “feeling” for English.
What you really need is to use it. You should focus on listening exercises, speaking English, reading it, and maybe even writing it. Doing these things will be much more effective for getting you towards fluent than English classes or tutoring would be.
You don’t need to take English lessons
Most people really don’t need to take English lessons.
There are a lot of self-taught English-speakers out there: students who are able to organise their own learning strategies and have enough discipline to stay committed to their studies without needing a teacher to hound them to do their homework. These students are doing it out of their own interest, move at their own pace, and often make faster progress.
Studying something new is always challenging and having guidance from a teacher can be very important to get you on the right track. Lessons can be very useful. But they can also be expensive. And if you don’t put in your own effort, they can end up being a waste of time.
My advice is this: establish your goals for learning English. Then create an English-learning programme that fits your needs. Then, if you still think they would be useful to you, try English lessons as a bonus. They can help, but they should be part of your bigger learning strategy.