Spanish Class Rip Off: Is it Worth it?

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Are Spanish classes the fastest way to learn a new language?  Many people try to learn Spanish and wonder if books, CD’s, college classes or a private tutors are best.  After trying everything to learn Spanish, here is what you need to consider before investing your time and/or money in a Spanish college class or private lessons.

After I finished my MBA several years ago, I had two feelings: first was the satisfaction of finally completing my education and earning some initials after my name to stroke my ego a bit.  Second, was a bit of dissappointment about how ineffecient schools are at teaching students usable, real world skills.  That is a topic for another post, but at the time, I vowed to never again set foot in a college class, but instead continue learning from mentors, books, and real world experiences.

Now fast forward to today, and here I find myself in a college classroom again — Spanish 102.  So why the change of heart?  Years ago I took up the hobby of trying to learn Spanish.  I studied religiously for about six months using CD’s, books, group and private classes and now have strong opinions of what is best.  To keep this post brief, I’m only going to compare group classes to private lessons.

Undoubtly, the fastest way to learn a new language is with private lessons when compared to group classes.  That said, why have I decided to take a college Spanish class?  Private classes offer the benefit of the instructor being 100% focused on your needs.  The instructor is able to quickly assess your level and adjust the lessons to your level and push you beyond your comfort zone.  But the real value of private lessons is that you are engaged in Spanish conversation 100% of the time.  If you are not listening, you are speaking.

You will learn Spanish 100 times faster with private lessons than in a college class, but there are draw backs.  The first, and most obvious, is price.  Prices will vary a lot depending where in the world you take private lessons.  I’ve paid as much as $20 — 25 U.S. per hour in places like Columbia and resort towns in Mexico, and as little as $6 U.S. per hour in smaller cities in Mexico.  This can ad up very fast. (As a side note, higher price does not necessarily mean better instructors).

So is there any value to group classes?  The answer is maybe, and here’s why.  I’ve finally accepted that language learning is a marathon, not a sprint.  Anyone or any product that claims you can learn a language fluently in days or weeks is lying.  So since you’ll be studying or a while, if you only take private lessons, you may get burned out if you don’t first run out of money.  Private Spanish classes are exhausting.  After every private Spanish lesson I’ve taken, I’ve been exhausted.  Your brain is working hard to absorb everything.

When taking a group class it’s much easier to coast a bit and daydream when you get board.  That is the down side of group classes because it will obviously take longer to learn, but you will have the stamina to last much longer–months or years, verses days or weeks.  Most people who take private language lessons do so for very short, intense, periods during 1 or 2 week vacations or language imersion programs.

The major draw backs to college classes is that not everyone is at the same level, nor is everyone there for the same reason.  Especially in college classes, most people are not there to learn Spanish, but instead are there to get required credits.  This combined with varing language levels, forces the instructor to teach to lowest common denominator, so classes seem to be a bit slow for a dedicated student.  But if the class is difficult for the student, the opposite can happen and lead to frustration if the student cant keep up.  These problems don’t happen in private lessons.

So here are some real numbers to consider.  On Average, people with little Spanish background become fluent in 3 to 6 months of full time living and study in a Spanish speaking country.  So if you move to a Spanish speaking country and only take private lessons, 2 hours a day ($15 per hour) for 3 months, will cost you about $1800 U.S.  Or $3600 if you study four hours a day or 2 hours per day for 6 months.  Depending on you experience, most people will be profecient with this level of study while living in a Spanish speaking country surrounded by native speakers.

But not everyone has that kind of freedom to pack up and move to a forign country for 3 to 6 months.  So another choice is to study at home, but expect it to take much longer to become profecient.  This is when it’s especially important to view language learning as a marathon instead of a sprint.  When studying at home, without the benefit of total imersion, it’s easy to become distracted or get burned out because the learning curve is much flatter.

This is when taking a group class may be beneficial.  A class creates an environment of consistent Spanish study with mandatory homework, goals and benchmarks that is hard to replicate on your own.  Then you can supplement your college classes with occassional private lessons or short imersion programs during vacations to Spanish speaking countries.  This model will take much longer, but it’s probably more practical for most people.  Obviously the time it will take will vary depending on your commitment, but expect to study for at two years or more before you’re fluent.

So how much will this cost?  If you took four semesters of Spanish classes at a junior college, it shouldn’t cost much more than $200 a semester.  So your total cost over two years will be about $800.  Then add in 3, one week vacations to Mexico, taking 2 hours of private lessons during each day of vacation for a total of $225.  I’m ignoring the cost of the vacations because presumably you’d take vacations anyway.  Your total cost for two years of study is $1225.

In both models you will incur additional costs of books, CD’s or other learning materials, but to compare apples to apples, I’ve skiped those costs.  In the end of this analysis, it is certainly less expensive to take group classes, but cost isn’t only measured by money.  You have to factor in what your time is worth and what, if any, cost there is to you not being fluent sooner. For example, will you be able to earn more money in your job if you are fluent in Spanish?  If yes, you may have to consider the lost income for each month that goes by that your not bi‐lingual.

Private lessons are much, much, more effecient and effective for language learning, but they are not available to everyone.  So college and group language classes can be an option for you, as long as you’re realistic and relise their limitations.

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