So you want to learn English? A good idea, since English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and is of course the language of business, the movies and – increasingly important – the Internet.
The problem is how to go about actually acquiring this useful new skill. Despite the ease with which we learn our mother tongue – and let’s not forget that we manage to pick up this first language while we are still infants – many people say that they don’t have the capability to learn a new language. That’s just not right. Sure, some people have a natural affinity with languages, but everybody has the capacity to some degree or another. Whether you actually succeed in learning a second language (and even a third or more) depends on two factors – how you learn it and what you do with it afterwards.
There are, of course, many different ways of learning a language and what is best for you will depend on the type of person you are.
The traditional – and probably cheapest method is to buy a book-based course. Often supplememnted by a CD or DVD of additional material, this can be an effective way of acquiring reading and writing skills. But, even with the additional materials, it falls short in developing aural and – especially – oral skills.
A more modern take on this way of studying is the internet-based course. This is an improvement on the book-based concept, in that an interactive element is included. Usually, however, the interactive element is still based on writing and reading rather than listening and speaking.
A step up from the two previous options is the face to face English language course. This can take many forms.
Speaking English online with a native English teacher is one of the most obvious options. Online English classes via skype can be cheap and more importantly convenient.
The first and most ‘standard’ option is to join an English language class. Often called ‘night school’, as typically classes are held in the evening or at night, this type of class has both advantages and disadvantages. The major benefit is the opportunity to speak and listen to other speakers of the language, thereby developing the communication skills that are a priority for most foreign language learners. Reading and writing is usually included in the classes, but because these areas of learning do not need interaction with others, work to develop these skills is often given to do away from the class. English language classes also provide a discipline in which to study. Classes are held at regular intervals, and peer group pressure – plus pressure from the teacher! – can often help students to continue classes long after they would have given up using the ‘self study’ methods described above.
Ironically, this advantage can also be one of the drawbacks. Regular classes – usually at the same time every week – require a commitment that some people are unable to make. Also, classes may not be held at a time or on a day that is convenient.
Another disadvantage is that you will be part of group, who may have different objectives than you. For example, a 50 year old businessman may be in a class with an 18 year old nanny; clearly, what they need to learn in classes will be very different. Group dynamics can have an impact in another way too. Even people who join a beginners class may be at very different levels of ability, and we all know that a group moves at the pace of its slowest member. So, if you are not that slowest member then the pace of the class may not be right for you. And even if you are, if you are a quick learner may be frustrated that the class doesn’t progress as fast as you’d like.
Group classes can work very well, but it is critical that the group organizers are able to match the members of a group appropriately.
Another option is face to face, or one-to-one classes. This is probably the best way of learning a new language. Lessons can be tailored precisely to your needs and the pace of learning will be entirely yours, The discipline of formal classes is there, but there is also flexibility since there are no other students to consider. You will receive the complete attention of the teacher, meaning that all your mistakes will be picked up, all your questions will be answered and so on. The disadvantage, of course, is that these classes can be expensive. Sometimes, intensive classes are offered as residential courses. These can be a great way of acquiring a lot of knowledge in a short space of time but of course the cost of travel and accommodation has to be included. These are either held in an English-speaking country or a cheaper option can be courses held in the country in which you live. These are held worldwide – for example learning English in Spain by this method has become a very popular method for Spanish speakers who want to acquire a valuable extra skill.
A halfway house can be classes by telephone – often Skype English classes, which save on call charges. These offer all the benefits of face to face teaching, but at a distance. It can be challenging to communicate in a second language without any visual cues to help you, so these classes are best for more advanced learners.
Each method has its advantages and disadvantages, but whichever option you choose, learning English is definitely a good idea!