“I studied Chinese for six years in school but still can’t say hardly anything in the language.”
“If you learn on your own, you can become fluent in just a few months.”
Reading online, it’s easy to get the impression that language courses are for the stupid masses and independent self-studying is for the enlightened few. This view is built on a few key misrepresentations (accidental or deliberate), and the truth is as usual not black and white.
I know many people who have reached an advanced level of Chinese largely in a formal educational setting. I also know people who have done the same without ever setting foot in a classroom. I have a ton of academic credits in Chinese, but I’ve spent as least as much time learning on my own.
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Clearly, both ways are viable, along with hybrid approaches between the two extremes. That doesn’t mean that all approaches are equally good in all situations for all students, however, so in this article, we’re going to explore the pros and cons of enrolling in a Chinese course, and then contrast this with going at it on your own. By understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each approach better, you can create your own hybrid version that’s optimal for your personality, your goals and your learning environment!
Six benefits of enrolling in a Chinese course
Let’s start by looking at some of the benefits that come with taking a formal course. Please note that I will deliberately focus on the positive aspects first and that many of these have potential downsides too, but we’ll get to these later.
- Access to guidance and structure – A formal course has a curriculum developed by someone with considerable more experience than you have. It might not be perfectly suited to you as an individual, but some thought as been put into the choice of teaching materials, the order the content is covered, and the general structure of the course. As a beginner, this would be extremely difficult to replicate on your own, since deciding what to study and how to do it requires knowledge that you only acquire after successfully learning the language. Having options and choosing for yourself is good in theory, but having to choose everything at once right from the start is bad, especially since the research you’ll have to do will be in English and won’t help you learn Chinese directly. I have tried to provide a basic structure for beginners in my course Unlocking Chinese: The ultimate course for beginners, but that still requires you to be active, and not all students visit Hacking Chinese, regrettably. The more advanced you are, the less important guidance becomes, but for beginners and intermediate learners, the guidance and structure offered by a formal course is quite helpful.
- Listening and reading on your level – Provided that you’re taking a course aimed at your level, you can count on most reading and listening exercises being at that level. Sure, you could try to find all these on your own, but that’s not easy! I have spent a lot of time finding and trying out reading resources, for example, and I still think it’s hard to find good resources to recommend for beginners. What are you supposed to do if you are a beginner? How do you evaluate if something is good if you can’t already read it? Your teacher is in a better position to either find or create reading and listening resources on your level. With broad experience teaching a certain level, teachers also become very good at adjusting their own Chinese so it becomes comprehensible.
- Feedback, corrections and answers – Having access to a teacher means you’ll get some feedback and that you have someone to ask when you get stuck. How effective feedback and corrections are for your learning is still a hotly debated topic in second language acquisition, but in my experience and opinion, it’s essential to get feedback early on when it comes to things like pronunciation. The problem is that without feedback, you have no way of knowing how you’re doing, unless you study in an environment where you get implicit feedback from interactions with native speakers, but even then,verifying that your fundamentals are solid is important. The same goes for more advanced skills such as text composition, presenting information clearly and arguing a point. Enrolling in a course doesn’t guarantee that you get good and honest feedback, but it makes it much more likely.
- A high bar for minimum effort – Language courses have certain requirements, and to meet them, you have to make an effort. For most people, having a healthy amount of external pressure, even if undertaken voluntarily, is beneficial. Even I, who is viewed as self-disciplined and having a fair amount of grit by people who know my personally, benefit from taking courses for this very reason. Unless you have a truly extraordinary motivation to learn and the rare ability to maintain this for months or years on end, taking a course will probably mean that you spend more time and energy on learning than you otherwise would have. And there’s nothing that stops you from learning outside of class, naturally! Anyway, going to class helps you avoid slumps, which can be very detrimental for learning.
- Supportive environment for learning – A classroom can be a great environment for learning, especially if you’re the more introverted type like me. It’s a safe place to try things out in, to engage with the language at a level you feel comfortable with, together with other people in the same situation as you. It can also be great for motivation to study with other people, to keep each other accountable, and help each other out in various ways. If your classmates don’t speak your native language very well, it’s also a natural, low-pressure situation in which to communicate in Chinese. Native speakers typically use words you haven’t learnt yet and might have little in common with you.
- Credits to prove what you have learnt – This ought to be obvious, but perhaps the main reason many students enrol in courses instead of just learning on their own is that they want proof of the effort they have invested. This could be required for professional reasons or maybe to unlock other parts of the education system. If you want to teach Chinese or become a translator, for example, it might be that you actually have to have academic credits in Chinese. Depending on where you live, proficiency exams like the HSK or TOCFL can stand in for credits, but this is not always the case. Earning credits is also required for most scholarships and might be tied to student loans and benefits. I have personally taken several courses in Chinese with the main intent of earning credits rather than learning more Chinese.
It should be clear that if you find the right program for you, enrolling in a course can be very beneficial. I owe a lot of the Chinese I have learnt to former teachers and classmates. If you want to read more about my own journey, I wrote a series of articles about that starting here: How I learnt Chinese, part 1: Where it all started
It should also be noted that taking a course is the default option for many students, especially for those who get a chance to learn the language in school. This brings us back to the quote at the beginning of this article:
“I studied Chinese for six years in school but still can’t say hardly anything in the language.”
The number of such statements I’ve come across over the years seems to argue against enrolling in a formal course, but while it could be the case that courses are just bad in general, the truth is not so simple. I would argue that the main reason most students don’t learn much in Chinese class in school is because they don’t spend much time learning, not because the course is bad.
To show you what I mean, let’s make some quick calculations. If you study Chinese full time as an adult for three months and are serious about it, you might rack up maybe 500 hours (that’s roughly 40 hours per week, so not a stretch if it’s full time). If you’re living in an immersion environment and are really dedicated, you can almost double that.
Compare this with a typical foreign language course in school, which might only consist of a few one-hour lessons per week and maybe an extra hour of homework. This yields around one tenth of the study time compared to the full-time case above. Taking term duration and breaks into account, it would take more than three years to reach 500 hours and six years to match the serious immersion student. As usual, learning isn’t counted in the number of years and months since you started, it’s counted in hours and minutes spent engaging with the language.
How long have you studied Chinese? 290 years or 58 992 hours!
Six reasons why taking a course might not be so good after all
The above arguments don’t mean that taking a course is always the best option, however. Like I said, I deliberately focused on the benefits and thereby omitted many of the shortcomings of formal courses. And there are many of those!
First, let’s scrutinise each of the benefits above to see how they might not apply to you, or how they can even be outright disadvantages in some cases. The heading for each item is the same as above, but the arguments are in the opposite direction.
- Access to guidance and structure – While it is generally good to not have to go and find everything for yourself as a beginner, the guidance and structure you get from a course might not be what you actually need. Furthermore, you can’t blindly trust an institution to provide you with everything you need. If that were the case, Hacking Chinese wouldn’t exist and it certainly wouldn’t still be popular more than a decade after I first launched the site. The sad truth is that most courses provide you with a structure, but not a good one. The bottom line is that you need to take responsibility for your learning, regardless if you take a course or not! You also need to be aware of how your personal goals for learning Chinese aligns with your course. If there’s a very close match, fine, but what if you want to learn to speak, but your course forces you to spend half your time on writing characters by hand, or you struggle with listening, but all you do in class is reading? This is something I cover in two courses: Unlocking Chinese (for beginners) and Practical Guide to Learning Mandarin (for the rest).
- Listening and reading on your level – Level-adjusted input is unarguably a good thing and input (listening and reading) you can make sense of is a key component of language acquisition. The problem here is not that it’s not good, but that teachers might not provide it or might do so only in a limited fashion. Many beginner courses at universities around the world are taught in English, with only occasional words and phrases in Chinese, and it’s not uncommon for lessons to focus on translation and learning about the language, such as discussing grammar, pronunciation or characters in English. This problem becomes less severe on more advanced levels, but then the need to get comprehensible input from a teacher also diminishes. Another problem with classroom input is that it might be irrelevant for your situation: if you want to use Chinese for professional purposes, you don’t want to spend all your time with a textbook that focuses only on campus life.
- Feedback, corrections and answers – Like I said above, the role of feedback is still debated, but even if we assume that getting feedback is beneficial, you might not get the kind of feedback you need. In my experience, most teachers actually don’t provide corrective feedback where it matters most, such as when it comes to tones. That’s why people can study for years without realising that they have basic problems with pronunciation, such as the third tone (I’m speaking from personal experience here). Depending on how many classmates you have and how overworked the teacher is, you might not receive much useful feedback on your assignments either, maybe just a grade. When it comes to answering your questions, are you sure you should spend so much time asking questions? Maybe you’re better off listening and reading more than trying to figure out what the difference between 可以, 能 and 会 is in English. In some cases, the answer you get from your teacher might even be outright wrong!
- A high bar for minimum effort – I maintain that this is one of the biggest advantages with taking a course, but only if the bar is at the right height. Aim for the stars and reach the moon; aim for that tiny hill over there and you might end up in the gutter. Likewise, the bar being set too high can be demoralising and even make you quit learning out of frustration. Personally, I’ve had great success enrolling in courses that were too hard for me at the time, but that requires a lot of time, motivation and support. A demanding course also makes it more likely that you will neglect things that lie outside the curriculum. That way, you might spend all your time learning vocabulary whereas you’d actually be better of just listening more or working on your pronunciation. What I said about goal alignment above is very important!
- Supportive environment for learning – What if your classroom is not supportive? Maybe your classmates aren’t very nice or don’t speak any Chinese outside the classroom? What if the teacher doesn’t love teaching Chinese, and doesn’t really care how much you learn? Or maybe you’re in a class with twenty or even thirty other students and they take up so much of the teacher’s time that there’s little left for you. Naturally, the more students there are, the less personalised learning becomes. In a class of four people, the teacher can, at least in theory, cater to each student’s preferences, but in a class of twenty, they have to aim at an average. Furthermore, communicating with other second language learners in Chinese can be good, but this shouldn’t be a substitute for native speaker input; you don’t want all the Chinese you here to be from people who make the same mistakes as you do.
- Credits to prove what you have learnt – In general, credits and test scores are merely represent your Chinese proficiency, usually in a vague and inaccurate manner. In the real world outside the formal education system, real ability is what counts, not how many semesters you have studied. As I discussed in a recent article, it’s perfectly possible to study for a long time and still not learn much. This is particularly true if you put blind trust into a course! The truth is that nobody really cares about how good your Chinese is unless it’s really good and it’s needed for a job application or similar, and then the company is likely to verify your ability anyway. Naturally, credits are sometimes essential and can open many doors, so this is one of the reasons to take a course that is hard to dismiss: if you need credits, take a course. This is especially true if the education system where you live won’t allow you to count non-credited experience. For example, in my native Sweden, even native speakers of Chinese need to have a certain amount of credits in the language to teach it, and there’s no test you can take to get around this.
Second, there are a few extra downsides worth considering:
- Courses cost money – Depending on your situation, this might be a deal breaker or not important at all, but for most people, money is an important factor. Even if you have decided to invest both time and money into your learning, not taking an expensive formal course means you have more money left for other things, such as hiring a private tutor or enroll in self-studying courses online, including courses that I provide, naturally! Some things can be done for free, but some things really are worth paying for.
- Courses might clash with your schedule – If you study full time, this is rarely an issue, but most people try to combine learning Chinese with leading a normal life, and that might make it hard or impossible to enrol in the courses you want. When you study on your own, you decide when to study and what to study, without having to take other people into consideration. This allows you to study in an optimal way. You also control the pace completely, which great provided that you have a strong motivation and some self-discipline.
- Courses might be inaccessible for other reasons – Formal education is its own ecosystem, which can make it hard to enter it from the outside. Even if your Chinese is quite good, you might not be able to get into the course you want because you don’t have the necessary credits, because the course is locked for students in a certain program, or because it’s only offered in a location you can’t physically get to. There are many extremely good programs for learning Chinese in the world, but can you get into them?
- Courses often focus too much on explicit learning – I touched on this above, but many courses simply teach you things that you don’t need, or that might only be indirectly useful. If your course is largely about being able to explain characters, grammar or pronunciation in English, you should look for another course or just go at it on your own. This problem can be extreme in some countries and seems to be more serious at universities than on lower levels of the education system. Learn Chinese implicitly through exposure with a seasoning of explicit instruction.
So, does that mean that the second quote at the beginning is true, then?
“If you learn on your own, you can become fluent in just a few months.”
No. The truth is that learning Chinese takes a ton of time and energy, regardless if you do it in a classroom, on your own or both.You can make the journey a bit smoother by trying to make use of the benefits of each setting and mitigate the potential risks, of course, so let’s round this off by looking at how to do this.
Conclusion: Should you enrol in a Chinese course or are you better off learning on your own?
It should be clear by now that there is no simple answer to this question and that the best approach is to pick a solution that’s optimal for your personality, your goals and your environment.
If you are an extroverted learner with strong motivation and a willingness to do a lot of research on your own, maybe you might not need a course, even as a beginner. You can always choose to enrol in very specific courses, such as my pronunciation course if you find yourself struggling with tones, initials or finals. If you don’t trust yourself to be able to spontaneously invest time and energy, a course can provide a solid foundation. Nothing stops you from learning outside class in parallel!
If you have money to spare, you should also consider hiring a private teacher, tutor or coach, because that can give you many of the benefits of formal education while staying clear of most of the problems. If you’re the only student, the curriculum is what you want it to be, and if you’re okay with learning online, you can make sure you find a teacher you get along with and teaches in a way that matches your needs. You can get a lot of value from a private teacher if you make sure you’re prepared for lessons and only use them to focus on things you can’t do on your own! If you want more advice about how to get the most out of your teacher, check out the series of articles that starts with Training your Chinese teacher, part 1: Introduction.
The most important factor for choosing whether to enrol in a course is your Chinese level, though. If you’re a beginner, do yourself a favour and either enrol in a course or make sure you follow a guide that will get you on the right path. Sure, you can reinvent the wheel over and over, and gradually figure out how to learn Chinese over months and years, but looking back at your own learning, you will feel frustrated that you didn’t realise some important things until it was too late. You might then launch a website to help others figure these things out earlier. Perhaps you might call it Hacking Chinese!
What do you think? Do courses help you learn, or do you prefer to study on your own? Have I forgotten an important advantage or disadvantage with either classroom learning or self-studying? Leave a comment below!
For more information on how to choose the right course for you, keep reading: Which Chinese language course should you take?
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Some good points, and it’s definitely not an either/or situation. I’ve generally had three main reasons not to enrol in a formal course so far:
1. They’re not cost effective against an online tutor. This might depend on where you live and I’m currently in a high-income country, but online tutoring is often cheaper on an hourly basis than a classroom course, and no matter how good the course it’s often inferior to one-on-one time with a half decent tutor.
2. You’re usually forced to learn the write the characters. This might be fine for some people, but it requires a huge amount of time be expended for something you probably won’t end up using, and that’s time you can’t spend on reading, listening, or speaking.
3. It’s hard to evaluate the quality until you’re in the classroom. For a newbie it’s even harder.
I’m sure there are courses or learners to which none of these issues apply, but this is what’s held me back.
I’ll also note that plenty of online tutors provide a structured approach for their students similar to a formal course – you’re not limited to simple conversation practice.
Yes, agreed! To add to number three, the same school and the same program can be very different depending on what teacher you have, so even if you hear other people saying that it’s great, it might not be when you get there. Of course, I’ve also heard students recommend programs that I think are really, really bad. 🙂 I’m not saying I know everything there is to know about what good language education looks like, but I do know more than the average beginner! The main difference is probably that I compare programs and courses, as well as how these match what we do know about second language acquisition, whereas most beginners evaluate their learning on their experience in the course, including things that are largely irrelevant for other people, including how well they got a long with the teacher, how the course was presented, if it felt safe because it was all in English or whatever. It’s hard to evaluate something if you only have experienced one single instance of it.
Oh yes definitely, I’m sure we’ve all experienced this in other subjects well! There’s a lot to be said about why it’s hard to identify a good course, but I think the biggest thing is taking control of your learning, through which you’ll figure out what works (for you and in general).