Why do Classes Suck?

Well the excellent folks at The Language Dojo were kind enough to ask me to write an article for their site, on one condition.

“Anything you want to write about is fine,” they said, “but could you not mention Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk?”

“But that’s all I write about,” I protested.  “Plus those are several conditions, not one, by the way.”

“How about maybe just something on language learning?

“Language learning in prison?” I asked.

“How about the classroom?” they said.

“What about some trucks?

“How about some pedagogy?

Fine.  So I wrote some stuff down and it seemed pretty okay.  Then I sent it to a friend of mine for her opinion, with my typically self-effacing preface that I’d written the perfect article on language learning.  She wrote back and told me it was not the perfect article on language learning, because I’d failed to mention anything about Mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk.

Jeez, you just can’t please people.  Fine.  So I put in a little bit about getting drunk.  But just a little, and no trains, then sent it to The Language Dojo.  Perfect?  Possibly not, but check it out and decide for yourself:  Why do Classes Suck?


17 Replies to “Why do Classes Suck?”

  1. Haha.
    How about a single mom who works as a truck driver and once was in prison where she learned 5 different languages that she can now even speak when she’s drunk?
    When she’s drunk she obviously doesn’t drive her truck, but takes the train. *LOL*

    Gonna check out your article! ^^

  2. Read the article; I think whether a class “sucks” or not really depends on the class itself, and the student’s reason for taking the class. (People who learn Japanese out here usually do so in order to be capable of dealing with tourists who will bring all kinds of interesting…problems…to your attention.)

    I’ve noticed that for people who actually participate, and have a good reason for taking the class, it works far better than studying solo. Especially when the teacher is a native speaker (having pretty much instant feedback, corrections, explanations, etc. is awful nice).

    1. Forgot to mention, with an instructor who’s a native speaker, you’re probably far less likely to say something that might be considered offensive in whatever the target language is etc. People tend to forget that there’s usually a culture attached to the language, and I’ve noticed that causing some problems before (you can’t really learn *everything* from a book afterall).

      1. I’d actually go further than that, particularly with Japanese. I’ve noticed a lot of people who study via anime and manga use rude speech that would offend the hell out of any native speaker, were they to take it seriously. Words like おまえ、ていめい、and 俺 crop up frequently in anime and manga, but they’re difficult to use appropriately in real life, as are swear words in English.

        1. Now that you mention it, the only time I ever really hear anyone using 俺 is in bars, maybe. Or if I’m with my cousins or something.

          1. Yeah, it’s also used by young kids, a fact I was made painfully aware of the first time I attempted to use it in real life. I used it with a woman I’d just met, who then said to me, “Ore? You sound like a five year-old.” After that I didn’t use it for a couple of years.

    2. I agree completely. Having access to a native speaker is extremely valuable, and students who take full advantage of speaking with teachers and teaching assistants, either outside of class or as part of class, can make great progress.

      It also goes without saying that solid reasons for taking the course and a willingness to participate are requisites for getting anything out of a class. But that’s also true for studying on one’s own too.

  3. Read the article and left a comment. A very, very lenghty comment.
    I probably should have written a separate article, actually, but I hadn’t realized my comment had grown so long. Nor did I predict it.

    In short, I agree with a couple of points, disagree with several other and with your conclusions, but still enjoyed reading your article.

    It was missing something about prison, though. Or a mention of big, big trucks with five hundred wheels. But I guess you have to work with what you have, right?

    1. Thanks for reading and adding to the discussion. I understand your points and I don’t necessarily disagree with you. I’ll add one thing, however.

      Think about learning from a another point of view. You’ve considered it from the student’s perspective; now think about it from the viewpoint of an Education Manager. If you were in charge of educating several thousand people (as I’ve been), what program would put together? How are you going to ensure that all the students who enter the program will be able to listen, speak, and read well at the end of it? If you had a year to get everyone to a high level of competence, what would you do? Send them home and have them watch movies? Tell them to read comics? At the end of that year, what percentage will have made good progress?

      I’ve tried it, and I can tell you, the results are miserable. People don’t watch the movies, don’t listen to the music, and don’t read the comics. They slack off. You could give an assignment to lay in bed and eat Haagen-Dazs and they’d fail that too. But no surprise, right, because we all went to high school and college, and we screwed off whenever we could too. Or maybe it was just me.

      Now, what I hear a lot of people saying is, That doesn’t apply to me. I’m self-motivated. I’m disciplined. I can go faster on my own without a class dragging me down.

      And maybe you can. No one can tell you what you’re capable of. But as general advice for language learners, it’s terrible advice. Just because you and three friends are capable of turning yourselves into Navy Seals by carrying logs on the beach all night and drowning each other in the neighborhood swimming pool doesn’t obviate the Navy’s program. But maybe I’m wrong and the Navy’s new approach will be to replace Seal training with several weeks where recruits self-study themselves into shape.

      Look, there are millions of people in the world who want to learn a foreign language. For those who embark upon Japanese, a lot aren’t going to succeed, and not because they didn’t watch enough episodes of Dragon Ball. If you want to help the maximum number of people learn a language, don’t just send them home with an enormous bag of popcorn and a stack of DVDs. Help them out. Get them into class.

      1. You have a point: I considered learning only from a student’s perspective. To be even more exact, I considered it from the perspective of only a sub-set of students – those who have an outlook on language similar to mine.

        Generally speaking, you are completely right. If you want to make a certain amount of people advance in a language in a certain amount of time (e.g. a year), especially if it’s for a specific task, your best bet is to place them all in a class and teach them. That’s most likely the reason why schools of any kind exist, because they work – even if not perfectly and not for everyone.

        It was a failing of mine not to mention at the beginning of my comment who my method is for, and I didn’t realize that at the time, so I’ll remedy here.

        My advocation of self-study over class learning (which are not, however, mutually exclusive, of course) is for people who possess the following characteristics:

        1) They want to learn a language. This might seem stupid, but it’s not: many people don’t actually want to learn a language, they’d simply like to KNOW the language or they NEED to learn it for some reason. It’s a big difference. For my method to work, you need to actually want to learn and like to learn. Otherwise, like you mentioned, you slack off, lose motivation and generally couldn’t care less about making progress. If you need to learn the language, and fast (e.g. for a test, or for business, or whatever) then follow a program. It can either be an actual class, or just an organized textbook(s) – the latter is cheaper but might be harder, of course, depending on your learning style. Which brings me to the second point.

        2) Their main reason for learning the language is that they want to learn it. This means that they don’t have pressing time constraints (e.g. I need to know this and this in two months’ time), or “theme” constraints (e.g. I need to be able to write about diets, even though it’s a topic I couldn’t care less about).
        They also shouldn’t have short-time performance evaluations looming – studying the way I do is more effective on the long term, but it’s much much less structured and “focused” on the short term. For example, if you must pass a test on the passive form in two weeks, my method won’t help you. But in a year’s time (or two years, or six months, or five years, it’s a variable depending on what you do, how you do it and many other stuff) you’ll be much more proficient than those who studied for that test – not only at using the passive form, but at Japanese in general.

        3) They don’t like textbooks, especially traditional ones focused on grammar. I personally find them very dull, because they usually only provide single sentences; even those which do provide a narrative (inherently more entertaining) usually fail at providing an interesting one. The Assimil series is one of the few exceptions, in my opinion. Books that teach you grammar rules also feel “forced” to me, because in real life you don’t have to know grammar rules – just how to use them. Which is something you learn better by ignoring most grammar rules (some are actually really helpful, usually foundational and simple ones at the very beginning of your studies), as demonstrated by the fact that most of us speak our native language correctly but don’t actually know that many grammar rules.

        Those are the people I’m speaking to (I did oversimplify a little on the three points, but I hope it conveys the idea). It’s only a minority of language students, not the maximum number of people you mentioned (and probably thought I was addressing). Saying this at the beginning would have definitely saved some confusion… but I hadn’t thought of that, so I apologize.

        Getting back to your perspective of needing to teach thousands of people within a year, my method would fail while yours would succeed. But that’s not because one is intrinsically better than the other – it’s only a matter of being context-appropriate. For the context you mentioned, your way is vastly superior. But it’s not right for me, nor for the people who have the above-mentioned three characteristics.

        It’s not about being self-disciplined either. Very few people are so self-disciplined as to keep doing something they don’t enjoy just because they know or think it’s good for them. If you’re trying to learn a language and you find yourself constantly slacking or putting off things to do, I think there are two main explanations (oversimplifying again, sorry): 1. You’re not following the right method for you, or 2. You hate the journey, or see it as a waste of time: you just want to be at the end point (i.e. knowing the language).
        If your reason is the second, then self-study is not for you. You need someone to keep you on the right path, because by ourselves we (almost) always stray from uncomfortable paths – even when we know they’re good for us in the end.
        If your reason is the first, then correct the method. I find it very difficult to slack, because I enjoy what I do. I read books I like in Japanese, so I have fun, which means I rarely feel like putting it off (it does sometimes happen, but I think that’s inevitable in practically anything). It’s not just reading or watching of course, I use Anki to store learned sentences, but they still come from things I enjoy doing.

        The “work” component is largely stripped out, and the fun component makes up most of the learning time. So you need about as much self-discipline as you would need to play on the XBox… which is not too much, I hope. =P

        The problem with this, is that it can’t be assigned in a classroom setting. You can’t tell a large group of people “read this week’s Shonen Jump”, because then it becomes forced. The student must decide for himself what he likes and wants to read/watch. Otherwise, it just feels like homework. And when it comes to homework you slack off, like we all did in high school…. heck, I slacked off for my first year-and-a-half in university too.

        1. Thank you for your well-reasoned ideas. I think that you and I probably hold very similar views on language learning. I like the methods you outlined, and I have no doubt that they’re effective for an even wider audience than the one you indicated.

          You know, one of the reasons I wrote this piece was because I so often hear that “classes suck,” without any further discussion. Often this notion is advanced by people selling their own self-study methods–similar to the “correspondence courses” that used to be sold in the backs of comic books. Maybe they still are—I haven’t read a comic book in ages. At any rate, there’s no consideration about class type, class size, course content, instructional methods, anything—as if there were only one type of class in the world, with the prototypical quality of suck. Worse, there’s no honest comparison between learning methods, because it seems evaluation is anathema to self-study: “Yo, I don’t need your freaking tests, man. Like, I know when I’m making progress because like, I feel like I’m making progress.”

          And here’s what I’m saying: We’re not writing to the people who are interested, committed and, God forbid, disciplined. We’re writing for the entire world. There are so many people out there who want to learn a language, and who could learn a language if they weren’t—I’m gonna say it—being lied to. They’re being told that a) it’s easy, and b) they can do it on their own. (To be fair, a lot of languages are much easier than Japanese.) But even still, the message is that doing it on your own is the best method. So they try, and when they fail, who do they have to blame? Themselves. If you try on your own, then when you fail, who else is there? It’s not fair to leave people hanging like that. There are better ways to learn.

          See, I’ve got a ton of friends—like myself, with our MacBooks and university degrees—who studied Japanese on their own. On average, I’d say they lasted about a year and a half before slowing down or giving up. These were disciplined, motivated, and intelligent people, with considerable life accomplishments. Conversely, I also know a number of people who study at language schools, many from third-world countries and very poor circumstances. They study like hell, and they become good fast. They don’t screw around, because they haven’t got that luxury. People complain classes are expensive, but seriously, Are you kidding? These guys sleep six to an apartment. Their idea of eating out is an onigiri at the convenience store. They came to Japan because it offered the chance for a better life, and they’re determined to make that a reality.

          So there’s a disconnect between this “silver spoon” idea that you can learn a language easily on your own, and the people who are actually sitting in class for hours every day doing it. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t necessarily like classes. I just think they work.

          1. I so completely disagree with your reasoning that, like matter and antimatter colliding, we might actually annihilate one other at the atomic level if we met. But I so completely dig your writing style that, like peanut butter and jelly mixing, we might form the most delicious literary sandwich spread ever (nothing weird (you know what I mean (sex))).

            Seriously though, thanks for writing this article, it’s cool to read an opposing viewpoint from someone I respect. I still wouldn’t be found dead in a classroom (my body is rigged to explode, dead or alive, if it comes within proximity of a language classroom), but different strokes for somethingsomething.

            Okay, time for a slick sign-off. Come on brain, you only get one shot at this…


            “Stay kewl”


            1. Ha, that’s funny, and it’s cool. Even the leader of the free world wasn’t voted for by half of his own country, and he’s far more charismatic than I am. Classes 2012! Yes we can! Too late? Ah, nuts. Anyway, thanks for always reading.

  4. Hi Ken, just wondering about what you said in the article. Did the girl you were talking to say how many years she had studied in class to achieve her level of competence? I’m considering studying in class (4 hours a day, 5 days a week) for one year.

    1. I don’t recall how long she’d studied, but I’d guess that it was at least a couple of years.

      Depending on a variety of “factors,” I’d say most people take two to five years to become reasonably competent in Japanese.

      What you’re describing—20 hours of study a week—is ideal, especially if it’s in a language school, in Japan. Throw in an hour of homework every evening (for 25 hours a week), and within a year, you’d be able to manage most normal conversations.

      Trying to study that many hours on your own would be a challenge. But if that’s the case, I’d recommend committing some minor crime and getting sent to prison for a year. Pretty sure that’d help.

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