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Do Big Language Schools Work?

  Tags: Language School
 Language Learning Forum : Advice Center Post Reply
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United States
Joined 3394 days ago

38 posts - 58 votes 
Speaks: English*, Spanish
Studies: French

 Message 1 of 10
15 July 2015 at 9:23pm | IP Logged 
I know many of us here are part of the do-it-yourself crowd, and many of us study
languages independently, but are we missing something by not studing with "qualified"
language teachers.

I'm not talking about high-school or university language classes. I'm talking about
schools that specialize is nothing but the teaching of those languages, such as the

Alliance Française (for French)
Gothe Institute (For German)
Instituto Cervantes (For Spanish)

When you register for classes at these schools, you get textbooks that are rather
complex, audio supplements, and your teachers plan strategic class exercises.

I generally allow my interests to dictate where I focus my attention, instead of
following a strict book, or program.

But in the end, I always wondered if the traditional way offers you a more solid

I'd love to hear your comments on this .... if you think studying alone is better or
worse that studying in a major language school.
2 persons have voted this message useful

United States
Joined 3606 days ago

43 posts - 50 votes
Speaks: English*
Studies: German, Italian

 Message 2 of 10
16 July 2015 at 2:25am | IP Logged 
For me it depends on the language level

You can easily pass the A1 level for French, German, Spanish on your own
Get the right resources plus Pimsleur & Michel Thomas and/or Assmil
The same thing can be applied at the A2 Level

At the intermediate level B1 and above I think at the is stage if you go to the language schools you are getting your money's worth.

4 persons have voted this message useful

Senior Member
United States
Joined 3424 days ago

361 posts - 921 votes 
Speaks: Portuguese, English*, German, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Swedish, Esperanto, French
Studies: Mandarin, Danish, Russian, Norwegian, Cantonese, Japanese, Korean, Polish, Greek, Latin, Nepali, Modern Hebrew

 Message 3 of 10
16 July 2015 at 6:34am | IP Logged 
I wouldn't worry about missing anything. Big language schools work, but the results they get are comparable to
what we see people doing by themselves, as long as they are motivated. It's true, many people's self-study involves
following their interests, but there's nothing stopping you from doing a strict systematic study plan on your own for
free or for the price of books.

If self-study is working for you, and you're making significant year-over-year improvement, language schools offer
no additional results that you aren't already getting. There might be a small quantitative difference in learning
speed, but if there is it's hard to demonstrate, and we wouldn't even know if it would favor schools or self-study.

I think a lot of people don't function so well in self-study, so if you are in that category, you will probably benefit
from the schools.

Edited by robarb on 16 July 2015 at 6:34am

4 persons have voted this message useful

United States
Joined 1831 days ago

7 posts - 29 votes
Speaks: English*, French
Studies: Spanish

 Message 4 of 10
16 July 2015 at 10:24am | IP Logged 
The fact that a language school specializes in the teaching of languages does not mean that its teachers and
classes will necessarily be better than those in universities or other settings. In six months at Goethe Institut, I
had one fantastic, one terrible, and one pretty good German teacher. The teacher I had in an Alliance Française
class wasn't nearly as dynamic or effective as the excellent French teacher I had at university. It isn't just
"qualified" that you want in a teacher--it's "so good that they're worth my spending all this time and money to be
in the same room with." Of course, different people can have vastly different criteria as to what makes a teacher
"good" for them.

The materials used at name-brand language schools also aren't necessarily top quality. At Goethe-Institut we
used the Themen textbook series in level A2, not too shabby, but some reading selections were a bit dry, as
will happen in any book that tries to be all things to all people. In level B1, the same school used Lehr- und
Übungsbuch der deutschen Grammatik
, which was so boring that I wanted to kill myself. You really can't make
blanket comparisons at the institutional level. The quality of your learning experience depends much more on
which particular teachers you are lucky or unlucky enough to get. Famous-name language schools probably do a
better overall job than other institutions of vetting their teachers to make sure they have jumped through all the
requisite professional hoops, such as having a master's degree (or its equivalent) specifically in the teaching of
that language as a foreign language, having substantial classroom teaching experience, etc. At least I
assume that is the case--all of the horror stories I've heard about unqualified teachers all took place in U.S.
high schools and colleges, never in the "Big Three" language schools you mentioned in your post. Has anyone
had a different experience? (The terrible teacher at Goethe was terrible not because she didn't know her stuff--
she did--but because she was lazy and unimaginative and just had us go through exercise after exercise in a
course book, which I could easily have done at home, saving myself $2000. THAT is what you want to avoid.) (By
the way, it's a lot more than $2K now.)

Even in my Goethe-Institut and Alliance Française classes, some students made tremendous progress in a short
time while others did not. Since we were in the same classes, the only differences could have been "language-
learning aptitude" or…personal effort (i.e. self-study) and determination. As in any other school, some students
worked really hard while others were lazy. Some did the homework while others didn't, apparently expecting their
proficiency to improve just by virtue of the fact that their body was in a classroom for four hours a day. (Nothing
works that way, especially language acquisition.) Some students did homestays and surrounded themselves with
the language they were learning 24/7, while others lived in dorms and spent all their time outside of class
fraternizing with other students who shared their same first language. It's not hard to guess which students
made progress and which did not. Just attending a "classic" language school will not make all of the students
automatically successful. Those schools do not have some magic method that all other schools lack.

The real advantage of government-subsidized language institutes is that they have the money and support to
develop some fantastic learning resources. You can register at
Goethe-Institut's public-access learning materials website
for tons of free activities and resources that you can use without having to pay to take one of their classes, and
Cervantes Institute has a similar site. (I don't know if
Alliance Française has one.)

The downside of such prominent schools is that they are usually the most expensive option available for
classroom learning because they are able to capitalize on their brand-name cachet. I wouldn't discount the value
of reputation entirely, but what they're selling, you can get cheaper elsewhere, and at just the same level of

If you dislike "strict books and programs," you might be better off on your own. Following a curriculum in
lockstep is the very essence of a "school," even though individual teachers vary in how much freedom they allow
each student to pursue his/her own interests (but that will still have to be within the framework of the course and
its preordained assignments).

Are you worried about not getting a "solid foundation" because you feel that's what happened to you in one of
your languages? If we're talking about German, Spanish, and French, I think it's not too hard for a native speaker
of English to acquire a solid foundation in listening and reading in those languages through self-study. (Speaking
and writing would require more feedback, and personally, I'd feel less secure conquering more distant languages
like Arabic or Chinese without a teacher, although many in this forum have done exactly that.) At any rate, I think
going to one of the Big Three language institutes for the A1 level is a colossal waste of money. You can achieve
the A1 (and maybe A2) levels of cognate languages easily on your own or in almost any school, not just a super-
expensive one. Many members of this forum have advised waiting until the B1 level to go do an immersion
course in another country. You'll get much less out of the experience at the A1 level (and day-to-day living will
be much more stressful when you know that little of the target language).

A famous name is like insurance. You probably have less of a chance of getting a rotten teacher in a well-
known language school than elsewhere, but you'll pay top dollar for that insurance, and if you do get a poor
teacher, you're out of luck (so maybe it's not like insurance after all, or it's like an insurance company that never
pays out when you really need it). And it will still have all the limitations of the classroom. By definition, no
school can overcome that.
9 persons have voted this message useful

Senior Member
ScotlandRegistered users can see my Skype Name
Joined 3572 days ago

1468 posts - 2411 votes 
Speaks: English*, Italian, French
Studies: Spanish

 Message 5 of 10
16 July 2015 at 11:00am | IP Logged 
I've met some people who've taken classes at the Institut Français for a few years (which I realise isn't the same as the Alliance but I believe the structure is similar), and some who've taken classes with a local teacher who does smaller groups and charges less. The ones who worked with the local teacher seemed to have better results and progress. This is just anecdotal evidence though.

Personally, if I feel that working with a teacher would be beneficial (and that's a whole other debate!) I'd rather just work with a tutor on iTalki or similar. Many cost the same or less than the classes I described, I get individual attention, I can be more flexible with lesson times, and I don't even need to leave the house. I'd say that's an alternative to consider for anyone who is thinking about taking a class.
2 persons have voted this message useful

Pro Member
United States
Joined 3101 days ago

190 posts - 344 votes 
Speaks: English*, German, Portuguese, Japanese
Studies: Spanish, French
Personal Language Map

 Message 6 of 10
16 July 2015 at 7:14pm | IP Logged 
garyb wrote:
Personally, if I feel that working with a teacher would be beneficial
(and that's a whole other debate!) I'd rather just work with a tutor on iTalki or

This. A nine-week, one and a half hour conversation course in San Francisco is $320, a
traditional course is $520. That works out to about $23 or $38 per hour. There are 18
"professional instructors" on italki that charge between $10 and $20, many more that
charge more than $20 but very few that charge more than $38 per hour. I don't know how
the school could possibly be a better choice. Even in-person tutors are rarely more
than $40 per hour!

I suspect that most people simply aren't prepared for the pressure of one-on-one
tutoring. It's a lot more comfortable to listen to other students answer the teacher's
questions before it's your turn, but it shouldn't come as a surprise that it's also
less effective.
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Senior Member
United States
Joined 3495 days ago

1871 posts - 3641 votes 
Speaks: English*, SpanishC2, ItalianC2, Norwegian, Catalan, Galician, Turkish, Portuguese
Studies: Polish, Indonesian, Ojibwe

 Message 7 of 10
16 July 2015 at 9:57pm | IP Logged 
danyal wrote:

At the intermediate level B1 and above I
think at the is stage if you go to the
language schools you are getting your
money's worth.

I agree with this. I've only ever taken
conversation classes (we had to have at
least a basic grasp of grammar and
vocabulary), and those classes were what
got me to a decent speaking level.


1 person has voted this message useful

Senior Member
Czech Republic
Joined 3374 days ago

3277 posts - 6778 votes 
Speaks: Czech*, FrenchC2, EnglishC1
Studies: Spanish, German, Italian

 Message 8 of 10
17 July 2015 at 12:50am | IP Logged 
Institut Francais in Prague is the same thing and organisation as Aliance Francaise, the name is different because of the tradition. I spent two semesters there years ago. One of the teachers was horrible, one was a bit above average.

In general, I'd say there is no difference between small and large language schools. The big ones don't necessarily have better teachers nor worse.

The classes suffered from the same faults as all the classes and the same advantages (even though those advantages are more significant for other types of learners than me).

One of the main problems is that those big schools, followed by the small ones really fast, might take you to the results, but very slowly. They drag you two semesters to A1, while you can get there in a month of dedicated learning. That is part of the reason why people get discouraged. There is really high number of people who give up. Fewer during the semester, because they want to attend for the money, but many just do not sign up for a follow up course because they don't feel like making progress and usually blame it on their lack of talent. I've seen it.

Another disadvantage of the big schools is the price. In just eight years, the prices at Institut Francais here in Prague rose significantly (by approximately 60%) and the number of semesters rose as well (I think now it is two more semesters to get from zero to B2). They are not necessarily the best in the city but they have the big name and all the international marketing behind them.

And about the quality of the awesome textbooks: It varies. When I was at the AF, Connexions was being used and it was really mediocre. And we certainly didn't have the books included in the course price. A good coursebook can be used both by self-teaching students and by those in classes. For example Themen Aktuell used by many big language schools (Not sure about Goethe, but I was in a big, German focused, well reviewed language school in Berlin years ago and it was being used there), is such an example, it is simply good. If you want to use a good quality class aimed coursebook, you don't need to join the class. I've already heard a few class learners say things like "the coursebook was good, that really taught me a lot. But the teacher wasn't much of an added value to it". But most class aimed courses are simply not that good. Either the teacher adds enough value to them or they don't but the books are not something you are missing out on.

Strategic exercises, well that is part of any language class. The problem I have with classes is not lack of the strategic exercises,it is usually a totally wrong strategy they follow.

Audio recordings? Those are heavily underused in language classes everywhere and they are not being given as homework (which is an even better use for them). One recording per week or per class (AF, Cervantes, and Goethe usually have classes twice per week) with no assigned homework listening, that is simply not enough.

No, by not following courses, we are not missing out on anything. Yes, classes used to give solid grammar and vocabulary foundation you could have builted on, in those times before the modern "fun" approach. Classes used to be the best option to listen to a speaker regularily and get language learning material, but that was before the internet.These days, they can work for some students. But the ratio of good/bad students is not significatnly better than that of good/bad self teaching students, from what I've observed.

Really, the group classes offered by these big brands are not any better, in general, than the rest of the language classes. There are better and worse teachers, better and worse classes, but the brand doesn't change anything about that.

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