Self-Study is better than Classroom Learning

Even though I want to be a French teacher, I do not want to teach in a traditional classroom. Why? Because students learn best when they are not in the classroom. I feel that the classroom has a very limited role in language learning, and that teachers are mostly responsible for designing quality lessons and materials, providing support and feedback, and motivating students to become independent, autonomous learners. All of that can be done online.  When it comes to foreign languages, there is only so much a teacher can do – each and every learner has to put enough effort into remembering the new vocabulary and grammar concepts. The teacher cannot magically make that happen.

In 2008, the NYTimes reported on a study that found “Online Education Beats the Classroom” and once again a new study confirms that self-study (either alone or in conjunction with some classroom time) is much better than classroom time alone. Most universities in the US have introductory language courses that meet 3-4 hours per week, and some require students to spend time in the language lab.  I want to teach French to North American university students, but I do not want to teach one of those classes.  I want to teach classes that are either entirely or mostly online.

The ideal language “classroom” would be online so that students can access the material from anywhere at anytime. Language labs are nearly obsolete thanks to computers and mp3 players. And for students who work during the day or who simply cannot make it to campus at certain times (and therefore cannot enroll in language classes or use the language lab), being able to access all the material online at home would be a huge help. Especially for insomniacs like me who prefer to study at midnight!

I do think hybrid classes work best though because not all students are extremely motivated and they need that extra push to get the work done. Perhaps meeting once a week for an hour as a class, or even just having weekly meetings with the teacher, would motivate certain students. To me, the classroom should be reserved for teaching students HOW to study languages and HOW memory works and HOW to manage time in order for the students to become autonomous learners. In the classroom, we should learn how to learn, but the bulk of learning actual content takes place outside of the classroom.

I’ve heard complaints that online learning is not social enough, especially for language learning. I don’t agree with that either because there are plenty of language learning social networking sites. Even simply using Facebook or Twitter is enough to keep in contact with speakers of other languages, and IM and Skype are useful for writing and speaking to each other synchronously. We have all of the tools already – we just need to exploit them better. Another problem I have with this line of thinking is that everyone who learns languages wants to be social and speak to people in that language. That’s not entirely true either. Plenty of graduate students have to learn 2 foreign languages – but they are only required to have a reading knowledge of the language. Some people only care about understanding music and films and not so much about having a conversation. We all learn languages for different reasons.

Another reason why I prefer online classes is so that students can spend most of their time listening to the language (authentic, native language!) because it is the most important part of learning a language. Usually classroom time is reserved for explaining grammar in the native language or repeating vocabulary words that aren’t used all that often or reading dialogs with other non-native speakers, none of which is useful for everyday language. We don’t always use proper grammar. We don’t speak one word at a time. And we certainly don’t learn to speak another language by interacting with other learners at the same level. In fact, attempting to speak a foreign language with someone who speaks your native language is sometimes detrimental to your acquisition because you repeat the accent and mistakes that they make.

Listening to native speakers in natural settings is best, and the easiest way to do that is through online classes.  Teachers can produce or select the materials and base exercises on the grammar and vocabulary used. Most textbooks used in the traditional classroom do it the other way – explain grammar and provide vocabulary lists and then write fake dialogs or scenes to go with them. But that is not authentic language. I don’t want to down-play the importance of non-native speakers or teachers either, because there are plenty who have gained near-native status. And non-native teachers can actually provide more support and understanding for students who speak the same native language. I feel like I can teach French well to English-speakers because I know what it’s like to learn French – I’ve already gone through the process and I know what mistakes are likely to be made and why.

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  • Matt

    I agree entirely about language being a self motivated journey through native materials. Perhaps you are unacquainted with the infamous AJATT (All Japanese All The Time) blog? It’s more or less the same philosophy by a guy who taught himself Japanese to fluency in 18 months through the same methodology, albeit in to an extreme extent (native audio playing 24hrs/day for 1.5 years for continuous simulated immersion). It applies to anyone learning any language though, you should check it out.

    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/all-japanese-all-the-time-ajatt-how-to-learn-japanese-on-your-own-having-fun-and-to-fluency

  • Matt

    I agree entirely about language being a self motivated journey through native materials. Perhaps you are unacquainted with the infamous AJATT (All Japanese All The Time) blog? It’s more or less the same philosophy by a guy who taught himself Japanese to fluency in 18 months through the same methodology, albeit in to an extreme extent (native audio playing 24hrs/day for 1.5 years for continuous simulated immersion). It applies to anyone learning any language though, you should check it out.

    http://www.alljapaneseallthetime.com/blog/all-japanese-all-the-time-ajatt-how-to-learn-japanese-on-your-own-having-fun-and-to-fluency

  • http://www.ukuleleinrouen.blogspot.com/ Kinzie

    I definitely agree with a lot of what you said here– I learned more in one month in a host family than I did in four years of high school French, that’s for sure! But, that said, I think something that is lacking in an online education is facing the fear of speaking the language you’re learning in front of many people, face to face, the way you would in a country where that language is spoken. For me, it seems a very different thing to talk to someone who is in a screen, while I have headphones on, than it is to talk in front of an entire class, with a teacher who knows more than I do. No, those listeners might not have an accent any better than my own, but it’s a different sort of feeling speaking to lots of people – something you might experience in a cafe, where people at the table next to you might hear what your’e saying as well. This is an interesting post, though, and it made me reflect back on my French education…
    .-= Kinzie´s last blog ..Good news, bad news. =-.

  • http://www.ukuleleinrouen.blogspot.com Kinzie

    I definitely agree with a lot of what you said here– I learned more in one month in a host family than I did in four years of high school French, that’s for sure! But, that said, I think something that is lacking in an online education is facing the fear of speaking the language you’re learning in front of many people, face to face, the way you would in a country where that language is spoken. For me, it seems a very different thing to talk to someone who is in a screen, while I have headphones on, than it is to talk in front of an entire class, with a teacher who knows more than I do. No, those listeners might not have an accent any better than my own, but it’s a different sort of feeling speaking to lots of people – something you might experience in a cafe, where people at the table next to you might hear what your’e saying as well. This is an interesting post, though, and it made me reflect back on my French education…
    .-= Kinzie´s last blog ..Good news, bad news. =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com/ Zhu

    I think online learning works great for language because you can use so many different tools to break away from static classroom situation!

    I always felt awkward at school practicing dialogues with my classmates. But when I started traveling and actually had to speak English or whatever language, it just worked great. Students need incentive. Most see English as boring and useless, but if they realize they will be able to work abroad, understand song’s lyric, read their favorite books in the original language they will see it differently.

    I study best on my own anyway, that’s how I work.
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..10 Myths About Canada =-.

  • http://www.correresmidestino.com Zhu

    I think online learning works great for language because you can use so many different tools to break away from static classroom situation!

    I always felt awkward at school practicing dialogues with my classmates. But when I started traveling and actually had to speak English or whatever language, it just worked great. Students need incentive. Most see English as boring and useless, but if they realize they will be able to work abroad, understand song’s lyric, read their favorite books in the original language they will see it differently.

    I study best on my own anyway, that’s how I work.
    .-= Zhu´s last blog ..10 Myths About Canada =-.

  • Pingback: Self-Study is better than Classroom Learning | Jennie en France | OnLearn

  • http://casserdoeufs.wordpress.com/ Lindsay

    Thanks for the link Jennie. And yes, this post speaks perfectly to what I also feel about the language acquisition process. The teacher would do better to teach students HOW to study, rather than what to study. This goes not only for languages but also for conducting effective research, interpreting resources and literature, constructing a sound argument…it scares me to see, in the US, how many graduating college students cannot effectively communicate and defend their opinions in writing. This stuff is important, no matter where you’re headed career-wise. It is only clear communication that will help us to improve our society. And the more languages you know how to do that in, the better.
    .-= Lindsay´s last blog ..What a way to start the weekend =-.

  • http://casserdoeufs.wordpress.com Lindsay

    Thanks for the link Jennie. And yes, this post speaks perfectly to what I also feel about the language acquisition process. The teacher would do better to teach students HOW to study, rather than what to study. This goes not only for languages but also for conducting effective research, interpreting resources and literature, constructing a sound argument…it scares me to see, in the US, how many graduating college students cannot effectively communicate and defend their opinions in writing. This stuff is important, no matter where you’re headed career-wise. It is only clear communication that will help us to improve our society. And the more languages you know how to do that in, the better.
    .-= Lindsay´s last blog ..What a way to start the weekend =-.

  • http://laprochainefois.blogspot.com/ cathy

    i have to agree! i also think it’s important to learn the language with materials that interest you. for example, i used cookbooks to learn french. although it sounds odd, it worked pretty well. and now, not only is my french better, but i can make a good quiche too! :)
    .-= cathy´s last blog ..butter =-.

  • http://laprochainefois.blogspot.com cathy

    i have to agree! i also think it’s important to learn the language with materials that interest you. for example, i used cookbooks to learn french. although it sounds odd, it worked pretty well. and now, not only is my french better, but i can make a good quiche too! :)
    .-= cathy´s last blog ..butter =-.

  • http://jpack.me/ Justin

    Great post Jennie! I am going to be looking at more of the social language learning sites for sure once I return to the US. I need to find a way to keep active with the language because I really would hate to lose all the progress I have made while here. Luckily, I do work for a French company and we have quite a few French people in our US office. I have already told a few of them that I would like to continue to work in French with them when we are not working with other Americans. I already have a working relationship that is comfortable while speaking French with them, so it will definitely help me to not regress as quickly. I know it is going to take work and strong motivation on my part!
    .-= Justin´s last blog ..Paris Hôtel de Ville… =-.

  • http://jpack.me Justin

    Great post Jennie! I am going to be looking at more of the social language learning sites for sure once I return to the US. I need to find a way to keep active with the language because I really would hate to lose all the progress I have made while here. Luckily, I do work for a French company and we have quite a few French people in our US office. I have already told a few of them that I would like to continue to work in French with them when we are not working with other Americans. I already have a working relationship that is comfortable while speaking French with them, so it will definitely help me to not regress as quickly. I know it is going to take work and strong motivation on my part!
    .-= Justin´s last blog ..Paris Hôtel de Ville… =-.

  • http://eileen.likeafrog.org/ Eileen

    I dunno, Jennie, I think a lot of the things you’re criticizing are often true of the classroom but are not inherent to the classroom. Textbooks don’t have to be that way, and teachers don’t have to use textbooks (although they do simplify their lives). I would definitely like my students to take advantage of the English they run into in their daily lives and the proximity of English-speaking countries to them—but a lot of people (myself included) need the motivation of a classroom and what’s more, I think the classroom is where you can take advantage of getting people to speak. I don’t think online learning has caught up yet in terms of productive skills, and being able to listen doesn’t necessarily lead to being able to speak.

  • http://eileen.likeafrog.org Eileen

    I dunno, Jennie, I think a lot of the things you’re criticizing are often true of the classroom but are not inherent to the classroom. Textbooks don’t have to be that way, and teachers don’t have to use textbooks (although they do simplify their lives). I would definitely like my students to take advantage of the English they run into in their daily lives and the proximity of English-speaking countries to them—but a lot of people (myself included) need the motivation of a classroom and what’s more, I think the classroom is where you can take advantage of getting people to speak. I don’t think online learning has caught up yet in terms of productive skills, and being able to listen doesn’t necessarily lead to being able to speak.

  • http://www.angelaineurope.blogspot.com/ angelaineurope

    But what about those of us who are incredibly lazy when it comes to self-study? I do so much better with a mixture of both and I like the competition of the classroom.

  • http://www.angelaineurope.blogspot.com angelaineurope

    But what about those of us who are incredibly lazy when it comes to self-study? I do so much better with a mixture of both and I like the competition of the classroom.

  • Kathy

    I agree with what you said but like others have said, there are those of us who do not learn well online. No doubt, I have learned a lot more through online study such as pronounciation, which my teacher never bothered to correct and said was fine when it obviously wasn’t (who doesn’t tell their students that the -ent in the third person plural isn’t pronounced?). I am extremely lazy when it comes to learning online and since there are plenty of resources for French, I jump from one to another. The only online program which has really worked for me is http://www.parla.cat . It is an online course for learning Catalan and it works for me. At first I thought it useless since I skimmed through it and failed to notice the notes and grammar lessons found throughout the course. I really like it because it is interactive and the site is just visually pleasing (at least to me). Even though you’re not learning Catalan I think you should check it out since it offers an insight at what online learning could be. It is a site set up by the Catalan government and even though they ask for an identification number I simply typed in my 8 digit high school ID number and was good to go. The program is free if you choose self study and 90 euros if you choose to have a tutor. They have an audio dictionary of the words covered and a whole section on grammar where they cover each grammar point in Catalan. They also have a section called the virtual rambla where there is links to games, audio, music, articles and selected reading all in Catalan to help the student advance their knowledge on the side. This to me seems like an incredible way to learn online and I just wish that something like this was available for French. I found this site to be better than the very well done deutsche welle site. Parla.cat is aimed at people who already have a knowledge of Catalan and those who have knowledge of another romance language (I speak Spanish). Anyway, if online learning was like this, I would definitely choose it over classroom learning so I feel that you’re on to something.
    P.S. I also find myself studying in the middle of the night as well, I have no idea why although they do say you retain information better before you go to sleep.

  • Kathy

    I agree with what you said but like others have said, there are those of us who do not learn well online. No doubt, I have learned a lot more through online study such as pronounciation, which my teacher never bothered to correct and said was fine when it obviously wasn’t (who doesn’t tell their students that the -ent in the third person plural isn’t pronounced?). I am extremely lazy when it comes to learning online and since there are plenty of resources for French, I jump from one to another. The only online program which has really worked for me is http://www.parla.cat . It is an online course for learning Catalan and it works for me. At first I thought it useless since I skimmed through it and failed to notice the notes and grammar lessons found throughout the course. I really like it because it is interactive and the site is just visually pleasing (at least to me). Even though you’re not learning Catalan I think you should check it out since it offers an insight at what online learning could be. It is a site set up by the Catalan government and even though they ask for an identification number I simply typed in my 8 digit high school ID number and was good to go. The program is free if you choose self study and 90 euros if you choose to have a tutor. They have an audio dictionary of the words covered and a whole section on grammar where they cover each grammar point in Catalan. They also have a section called the virtual rambla where there is links to games, audio, music, articles and selected reading all in Catalan to help the student advance their knowledge on the side. This to me seems like an incredible way to learn online and I just wish that something like this was available for French. I found this site to be better than the very well done deutsche welle site. Parla.cat is aimed at people who already have a knowledge of Catalan and those who have knowledge of another romance language (I speak Spanish). Anyway, if online learning was like this, I would definitely choose it over classroom learning so I feel that you’re on to something.
    P.S. I also find myself studying in the middle of the night as well, I have no idea why although they do say you retain information better before you go to sleep.

  • http://www.lingq.com/ Steve Kaufmann

    Totally agree. That is why I created LingQ, for myself and for others, and I have been learning languages all my life.

  • http://www.lingq.com Steve Kaufmann

    Totally agree. That is why I created LingQ, for myself and for others, and I have been learning languages all my life.

  • Sue McKenney

    This is a fantastic site – I have enrolled to do a French language course in a classroom but needed back up, this is a fabulous site and helps with so much. thank you.

  • Sue McKenney

    This is a fantastic site – I have enrolled to do a French language course in a classroom but needed back up, this is a fabulous site and helps with so much. thank you.

  • Rebecca

    I agree about the importance of listening to native speech: this is a major aid to both comprehension and production at any language level, but I don’t think a student can learn how to speak or understand from doing so. And trying would frustrate many types of students, no matter how talented or motivated.

    Are you familiar with the theories of teaching/giving input at an N+1 ( = just beyond the student’s attained level, N)? Or of exercises designed to isolate a grammatical structure to allow it to be learned in context, but without forcing the student to process other unknown elements at the same time? [I've forgotten what this last is called and don't have my notes here; grr!] Both of these stem from theories of cognitive limitations on L2 acquisition–and would require lots of corpus work in order to be able to apply them using native speakers and natural contexts.

    I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done–but rather that ideal learning situations are often difficult, even impossible, for teachers to create.

  • Rebecca

    I agree about the importance of listening to native speech: this is a major aid to both comprehension and production at any language level, but I don’t think a student can learn how to speak or understand from doing so. And trying would frustrate many types of students, no matter how talented or motivated.

    Are you familiar with the theories of teaching/giving input at an N+1 ( = just beyond the student’s attained level, N)? Or of exercises designed to isolate a grammatical structure to allow it to be learned in context, but without forcing the student to process other unknown elements at the same time? [I've forgotten what this last is called and don't have my notes here; grr!] Both of these stem from theories of cognitive limitations on L2 acquisition–and would require lots of corpus work in order to be able to apply them using native speakers and natural contexts.

    I’m not saying it shouldn’t be done–but rather that ideal learning situations are often difficult, even impossible, for teachers to create.

  • Pingback: Self-Study is better than Classroom Learning « Translational Communication News

  • http://deuxoutroischoses.wordpress.com/ R

    I thought of this post the other day because there’s a new girl in my class and she asks the most amazing questions, stuff I would never have thought to ask but as soon as she asks the question and the teacher answers, it’s like a breakthrough for me. Stuff that I just never thought of asking but didn’t understand or know, and thanks to this girl and her questioning I feel like I’m learning a lot! So, I think a group environment can be really excellent from that point of view.

  • http://deuxoutroischoses.wordpress.com R

    I thought of this post the other day because there’s a new girl in my class and she asks the most amazing questions, stuff I would never have thought to ask but as soon as she asks the question and the teacher answers, it’s like a breakthrough for me. Stuff that I just never thought of asking but didn’t understand or know, and thanks to this girl and her questioning I feel like I’m learning a lot! So, I think a group environment can be really excellent from that point of view.

  • http://ilearnfrench.org Janette

    That’s one of the major draw backs of online learning. If there is no reward system and true motivation in place it is just natural for humans to to just enough to stay in the game. I have studied languages online, but we always scheduled skype sessions to get us back on the ame page. That worked quite well for me. But I also had teachers that were really responsive. When I sent an essay in, I would get a detailed reply the next day.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100002776969154 Sólo Quiero Unpocomás

    I don’t know whether a person could learn more than 1 language at the same time and become fluent or not, But i found learning one language could also become difficult when you don’t get much time to study(i don’t think 1hr everyday is sufficient to become fluent in any language.)
    I am trying to learn spanish on my own. English is my medium but it’s not my first language.
    And we don’t have any other medium to learn it, so it’s a must to have at least basic knowledge to learn spanish(I don’t think just a basic knowledge is gonna help learn this language or not. 
    And what i feel myself is that learning any language with your first language as a medium is more beneficial and effective.

Why is Jennie no longer in France?

I created this blog in September 2006 when I moved to France from Michigan to teach English. Many of the earlier posts are about my personal life in France, dealing with culture shock, traveling in Europe and becoming fluent in French. In July 2011, I relocated to Australia to start my PhD in Applied Linguistics. Although I am no longer living in France, my research is on foreign language pedagogy and I teach French at a university so these themes appear most often on the blog. I also continue to post about traveling and being an American abroad.

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