Resources: Notes on Life and Language in the United States

When Is an English Class the WRONG Choice?

Posted by Lindsay McMahon on Tue, Feb 05, 2013 @ 07:23 AM

 traditional English class versus learning English through immersionIs taking a traditional English class always the right choice?

How do you know if it's really the right path for you?

How can you learn to distinguish between what everyone else says you "should do" and what would really help you learn?

If you are planning to move to a place like New York or Boston and you are asking yourself these questions, take a few minutes to read today's article.


Fernanda's Story


Today I'd like to share a story about one of our current students, Fernanda, who is preparing for a big move from Sao Paulo, Brazil to New York City. She will be relocating with her husband, Bruno, also a student of English and Culture. The couple will be living in New York for a few years since Bruno has been assigned to a new position in the financial services industry. Fernanda is a small business owner and she will have to leave her business behind in Sao Paulo.

Last week, Fernanda asked me whether or not I would suggest that she take a large-group, traditional English class while she is in New York in addition to our one-to-one tutoring sessions on Skype. Fernanda wants to make sure that she takes full advantage of her time in New York to build her English skills, but she also wants to be sure that she stays busy and engaged since she will not be working. It can be tough when you first move to New York and if you have a way to occupy your time, you are better off.

The people around her told her that taking an English class would be the right choice. But when we talked about it a bit more, we realized that the answer isn't so clear. Does she have to take a traditional English class? Is that really a worthwhile way for her to spend her days in New York? Is it the only option? In Fernanda's case, it might not be. In today's article, I will tell you why.



News Flash!! You don't have to be in a classroom to learn


learning English through immersion

You grew up sitting in an English class in your home country and you were told that this was learning. How did that work out for you? Do you feel that you learned the skills you really need in that traditional English class?

I think many of us still believe that if we want to learn something like a language or another skill, the best way must be to attend a class and sit in a classroom while the teacher shares his knowledge with us.

There are so many other ways to learn.

Start exploring them!



Learn English by immersing yourself in an activity you love!


Stop for a minute and think. What do you really love to do in your free time? Is it yoga? Painting? Chess? Squash?

Do you love sitting in a classroom and doing English grammar and conversation exercises? If so, then maybe a traditional English class is right for you, but I bet there is something else you love! What is it? 

If you are living in the United States or another English-speaking country, why don't you try learning English by immersing yourself in these activities?!

Take a cooking class in English. Improve your listening skills by following the teacher's instructions, which will be in English of course! Pair up with a native English speaker in the cooking class and improve your conversation skills by cooking something together. What's the worst that could possibly happen? You might burn your chocolate cake. Is that really so bad?!



Traditional English Classes or Learning Through Your Hobby?


Learn about the Pros and Cons in this Slideshow



Who can skip the traditional English class and learn independently?


  • Someone who takes their learning seriously: That's right! If you aren't someone who has self-discipline, then you would be better off taking a large-group English class. But if you know how to stay focused without someone telling you what to do and if you are committed to learning, you really don't need a large-group class. Do you have enough self-discipline to make this work?


  • Someone who likes adventure and takes risks: There is more risk involved in this type of learning, but there is also more potential for reward. Why? Well, if you are learning English through your weekly photography class, you might not learn a thing if you sit in the corner and avoid talking to anyone. On the other hand, if you get involved, make friends with native English speakers in the class, and really immerse yourself in the experience, you will improve MUCH faster than you would in a large-group English class.


  • quote about independent English learningSomeone who knows how they learn best: What is your learning style? It's important to figure this out.  Perhaps you are someone who needs to learn kinesthetically (through physical movement). In that case, a dance class in English would be right for you. Maybe you like to learn by seeing the words on a page. Perhaps a book club and discussion group could work for you instead of using a textbook from a traditional English class.


  • Someone who is at least an intermediate speaker: I believe that anyone can learn English through immersion in an English-only cooking class or knitting class and I think beginners can do it too. However, you will benefit more from this style and you will be able to take more chances if you at least have a handle on basic grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation. Take some time to build this up before you choose this path.


  • Someone who has their goals set: If you have a goal to enter graduate school while you are in the United States and a prerequisite for your program is the TOEFL exam, then you probably want to take a traditional TOEFL class or at least work with a TOEFL tutor. However, if your goal is to understand American culture, explore your own interests and gain a higher level of general fluency in English, then you have a much wider set of options. That might include learning by participating in your hobby.


  • Someone who is curious about the English language and how it works: If you make the decision to take the independent route and to learn through your hobby or other activities instead of a class, you must be someone who is curious about English and someone who enjoys the process of learning. It has to be intrinsically satisfying for you. People who don't find it intrinsically satisfying often need the motivation of a big test or presentation. If you think that you need this to stay motivated, you should take a traditional class.


  • Someone who is careful (smart) with their money: If you plan to stay in the United States for a while, you will want to create a budget. If you throw your first 3 months' budget into a traditional English class under the assumption that it's the "only way to learn," you might be sorry. Think about how you could make your money stretch further while challenging yourself to learn in a new way.



So what did Fernanda decide to do?


Going back to the beginning of the article, I told you that Fernanda was facing the decision about whether to take a traditional English class or to learn on her own, through her hobbies.

She hasn't decided yet, but she is leaning towards trying to learn English through her hobbies by taking classes on meditation and yoga at a local center in downtown Manhattan. She has already found out from the website that she can volunteer and gain free admission to some of the classes! It sounds like she is off to a great start. If you decide to skip the traditional English class too, here is an English-learning routine that you can put together:


  • 2 cups of coffeeSelect your favorite 2-3 hobbies. Visit to find out when the groups meet and what kinds of activities they have planned. Go to the meetups to ask about where you can enroll in a class or how you can get more involved with these communities (photographers, hikers, painters, cooks, etc). Commit to participating in a group activity that involves a lot of interaction at least 2-3 times per week for a few hours each time.


  • Set up a language exchange: A language exchange will be a great supplement to your immersion-learning routine. Find 1 or 2 different language exchange partners (native English speakers) and meet them a few times per week to practice your native language and to practice English.


  • Find an English language tutor: If you feel that you need a little more direction, you can try working with an English language tutor. Your tutor can sit down with you a few times per week and help you plan out your goals. He or she can assess what you need to focus on, assign homework and keep you steadily moving in the right direction. This will be different from a traditional English class because you will be speaking 80-90% of the time and each activity will be geared toward your goals and level. However, even though you sit down with a tutor a few times per week, most of the learning should happen outside of the session when you take what you have learned and put it into real-life conversations.


Remember, you don't always have to do things the "traditional way." If you decide that learning English through your hobby or another form of immersion would be right for you, just give it a try. Nothing is permanent. You can always go back to the traditional class if it doesn't work for you.

Personally, I think we will be moving away from the traditional classroom model and more and more toward self-directed learning in the future so try something new and be a part of the future!





Speak English with Confidence NOW





Photo credits: chichacha

Topics: Advice for English Students, How to Learn English

Speak with Confidence

practice English now with native English speakers

Monthly Newsletter


English Podcast


American English conversation listening podcast

Nominated Top 100

Top 100 Language Lovers 2012

1. Top Language Lovers   Top 100 Final

Business English


Subscribe to this Blog

Free Trial Lesson



"Every day I read the English and Culture blog and I love it."

-Student of English and Culture

Connect with Us

Free Practice Guide


Latest Posts

Resources for You


Student Testimonial

business English student Boston

"My classes with English and Culture have been awesome. I have been taking the classes for almost two months, twice a week and I am really happy about my improvement. Now I feel more comfortable and secure when speaking English and more fluent, too."

-Elkin, Colombia