How (not) to choose an English language school – part 4 of 4

Over the last three weeks, I talked about some of the myths surrounding foreign language learning. I chose to talk about this because I believe my mission as a linguist and foreign language teacher goes beyond simply teaching verb forms to an intermediate class. It’s also part of my job to advise and inform those willing to take up a new language. If I’m able to prevent at least one single person from being lured by false promises of a money-making focused language school, I’ll already consider these posts to be successful in their purpose.

I’m well aware of the fact that the market is unlikely to change. There’ll always be tons of old and new companies trying to sell their own secret weapon for fast, best, effortless language learning. In a time when we’re constantly bombarded with all sorts of information from everywhere, it’s becoming more and more difficult to filter out the bad bits so we can take whatever is actually useful. That’s why I’ll keep writing about how languages are (not) taught or learnt, hoping that someone may get my message and make informed decisions about their own language education.

In the first post of this series, I tried to show that there’s no such thing as innovative, brand-new methodologies of foreign language learning. Virtually all of the schools make use of one or more methodological principles that have been around for decades already. So now you know what to tell that friend of yours when he comes up with a leaflet from a school and its revolutionary cutting-edge ninja-secret never-seen-before method that will make him fluent in 8 months.

In the following post, I brought up another widespread idea about language learning: the earlier you start studying another language, the better. I said there is some truth to it, but it doesn’t work the way most language schools try to convince you it will. For English learners in a foreign language learning environment such as Brazil, it makes very little difference whether they started learning at age 3 or 10. In the end, the most important thing to consider isn’t really the kid’s age, but his parents’ expectations.

The third post was about native speakers. And I must just once again restate I’ve got nothing against native speaker teachers. What I can’t stand is the unfair and distorted way some language schools advertise the fact that their teachers are native speakers of the language they’re teaching. In my text, I showed how having a native speaker teacher might be great, and how it might actually get in the way of your learning process. There are more important questions to be asked than whether the teacher comes from an English-speaking country.

So I’ve just spent three weeks debunking everything everyone thinks they know about foreign language learning, but offered no options?

Not quite. In the first of the four posts, I said that I had no intention to come up with the ultimate solution for effective language learning. Instead, I just wanted to clarify a few distorted ideas. Now, I’m going to give you a few simple hints about how to choose your English (or another foreign language) school.

A (PERSONAL) MATTER OF METHODOLOGY

There are several different methodologies and approaches to foreign language learning, and one is certainly the best. However, not for everyone. Each of those methodologies is the best for someone. While your girlfriend might love her listen-and-repeat classes, you might feel you yield your best results in immersive conversation lessons with no or little repetition. And there’s no reason to believe that your lessons would be the best for both you and your girlfriend. People learn in different ways.

REALISTIC EXPECTATIONS

You will not become a proficient speaker of English in 18 months. You just won’t. Accept this truth, as bitter as it may sound. Learning a language takes more time than money, and there aren’t any shortcuts. You’ve got to go through all the stages, and beat all the big bosses, and in the end, if you still have energy in your health bar, you’ll realise this game of foreign language learning has no end. It’s a loop. And this is awesome!

LANGUAGES IN CONTACT

No matter for how many years you’ve studied English, no matter how many nice compliments about your English you’ve heard from Americans, you don’t and you’ll never speak like a native speaker. You may be one of the few (less than 1%, to be exact) that may be mistaken for a native speaker, but at some point in your speech or writing or behaviour, you will eventually be spotted as an alien. But don’t worry, as there doesn’t seem to be any bad consequences (in most cases). There’s no way you can turn off your mother tongue when learning or using a foreign language. Learning another language means putting two or more languages in contact in your mind and, believe me, there are very few better things you could do to your own brain. Just embrace this reality and take advantage of all your knowledge (including your mother tongue) to learn the new language.

AND, FINALLY…

  • Gather information about all your options of schools. Try to learn about how their methodology works, the materials they use, the background and qualifications of their teachers. This will take some of your time, but you’d rather take some days or weeks to make the right choice than spend years having classes in a place that will teach you little and drain your pocket.Which way to go?
  • Contact current and former students of the school you’re analysing. Their various opinions will give you the client’s point of view of the service the school advertises.
  • Whenever possible, take a trial lesson. This will give you a better idea of what it may be like to study in that school. Don’t forget to watch the other students, though, as their reactions and behaviour may also give you valuable information. For example, if your classmates, who have been studying there for a while already, look somewhat uneasy or confused during the lesson you’re attending, it could be an indication that the lesson might have been tarted up only because you are there.
  • Don’t go for prices (high or low) or promises. While lower-ranked schools with low prices may mean low-quality service, there may also be great places with honest and qualified professionals. And while high-profile expensive language school chains may give the impression that they’ve got the best of everything for you, most of them work like slot machines and will try to keep you studying there forever. As for the promises, run away from “be fluent in 18 months” and “guaranteed results” ads. When it comes to language learning, no one can guarantee anything, and if sh*t happens and you don’t become fluent with them, they’ll try to convince you that it was because you didn’t work hard enough.
  • Consider tutoring. Private language teachers have the autonomy to shape courses and lessons to your own personal needs and will be able to monitor your development more closely. Be careful, though. Make sure the private teacher you chose has good qualifications and try to contact his former or current students. If you would never sit on a dentist’s chair to get your teeth cleaned by someone who’s learnt to do this by himself, there’s no reason why you would have English language lessons with an Economy undergraduate whose the greatest teaching qualification is to have lived in the U.S. for a couple of months. Well, I know teeth are usually more important than language proficiency, but I’m sure you got my point. Find a tutor (at least) with a teaching degree from a university and an advanced level of fluency certified by a recognised international institution such as Cambridge ESOL.

I hope this series of posts was useful for you. Although many of the things I said are based on scientific knowledge, there are also some bits that reflect my own personal opinion as a foreign language teacher and linguist. Feel free to express your own views in the comments, whether you agree with me or not.

See you next time.

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