When you’re learning a new language, or trying to take your hard-earned language skills to a new level, you may find conflicting advice about the benefits and drawbacks of classroom teaching versus language immersion.
Some people say, “You didn’t learn your first language by sitting in a classroom and memorizing grammar, so why would you learn a second language that way?” These people have a point, but they’re missing the science behind how we actually learn and acquire different languages at different stages in our life. We acquire first languages because our brains are wired to do so, but by the time we’re adults, learning a language isn’t that straightforward (although it’s still very possible!)
You might also be advised to “master” all of the basics in a classroom before throwing yourself into a challenging full-immersion experience. That might be good advice for some learners, but does it take into account how you, as an individual, learn best?
So, which is the best approach to language learning, classroom education or language immersion? We sift through some of the pros and cons, and while we don’t have a single, definitive answer, we can help you make a decision that’s right for you.
Why Learn Through Classroom Education: Pros & Cons
Many people have their first experiences learning a language in a classroom setting, whether that’s high school Spanish classes or taking a university course in Japanese, for example. There are many benefits of learning a language this way.
When you’re just starting out and learning a language from the beginning, having the structure of classroom education can be very beneficial. Trained, experienced teachers know how best to structure a class so that students can make progress in steps. They’ll teach you the necessary grammar so you understand why you say things the way you do. If you’re the kind of person who can’t remember something until you understand why it’s significant, this approach to language learning may be good for you.
Plus, classroom education tends to give you a well-rounded experience that includes speaking, reading, writing, and listening. A trained teacher is likely to speak “well” in their language, so you can immediately get into good habits in terms of pronunciation and correct grammar and vocabulary. While there’s nothing inherently “wrong” with learning to speak Portuguese like your homestay family in Brazil in an immersion setting, you may find that you pick up habits that other speakers in other parts of the world have trouble understanding.
Because not everyone has the greatest experience in high school, memories of high school Spanish or French can sour how we perceive the process of learning a language in a classroom setting. Especially if you were “forced” to learn a language and didn’t take a class by choice. Taking language classes as an adult can feel like going back to school, which might not always be a good feeling! The structure and the need to memorize and follow rules can feel restrictive to some.
Also, depending on your reasons for learning a language, you may not want or need to put equal emphasis on speaking, reading, writing, and listening. If you want to be able to converse in Japanese quickly, for example, but don’t want to spend years learning thousands of kanji, classroom education may not be ideal for you. Your own needs and motivations can determine whether this form of learning is best for you.
In-person language classes are generally available in larger towns and cities throughout the world, either at colleges or private language schools, and in places popular with tourists as well as immigrants. If you live in a big place like New York or London, you may be able to find in-person classes in your target language, especially if you’re learning a popular language like Spanish or French.
If you’re learning something less popular or you live in a small place, you might consider traveling abroad to learn in a classroom setting, such as learning Thai in Bangkok or Hindi in Delhi. Dedicated language schools and classes run from colleges and universities can cater to a range of levels, from beginner to advanced.
The following in-person language classes are highly regarded by Go Overseas users like you:
If you can’t travel to learn a language right now, or are just starting out and experimenting with learning a new language, you can also take online language classes. These offer the best of both worlds, as you can fit language learning around your other commitments, learn from the comfort of home, receive tailored lessons, and have access to language classes that you might struggle to find in your hometown. Learning Mandarin from rural California is only as complicated as working out the time zone difference between PST and China (and we’re sure you can manage that!)
Here are some popular online language classes to consider:
Why Learn Through Language Immersion: Pros & Cons
If one of your main motivations for learning a language is to spend time in another country, immersion can be a great way to learn. If you travel to a country where English is not the first language, or not widely spoken, you’ll be surrounded by your target language every day, from the street signs in a different script to familiar movies dubbed into the local language to casual chatter you overhear in the street.
Immersing yourself in a language is a great way to understand it holistically, in context. You’ll see and hear how the language is actually used by native speakers, not just how grammarians or text book authors think it should be used. You’ll get a greater insight into how culture intertwines with language, and you’ll learn words that you might not prioritize in a classroom setting, such as how to say “Please mind the gap” in Czech!
Learning a language by immersion is ideal for learners who have a grounding in the language, perhaps through classroom teaching, and want to take it to the next level, whether that’s fluency or a bump from beginner to intermediate level.
Another benefit of immersion learning is that it can be done alongside other pursuits, such as working, volunteering, or living at a homestay. Language learning can be built into your everyday life, rather than being a single academic pursuit, which may be stressful.
A drawback of immersion learning is that it can be too much, too soon, for some learners. If you’ve never heard a word of spoken Nepali and are dropped in a Nepali village for three months, without any language instruction, you may feel overwhelmed. That might lead to you quit, or to lose motivation to learn. Even if it doesn’t, you might not make rapid language progress if you haven’t yet learned how to read the script that you’re immersed in every day.
Immersion, on its own, also does not guarantee that you’re getting the best language input. Learning how to say “Please mind the gap” in a perfect Prague Czech accent is probably of limited use if you don’t know how to introduce yourself. If you’re not working or volunteering in a place while learning a language, you may find it difficult to actually speak with locals. And, even when you do, most locals are not language teaching experts: they may not be able to answer why they say things the way they do.
It also might not be best for your goals to learn by immersion. If you want to become proficient at reading Italian for art historical study, learning Neapolitan slang from your neighborhood kids might be fun but not that helpful. While no learning is wasted when it comes to language proficiency, if you have limited time or money to meet your goals, think about whether immersion or classroom teaching would help you reach those goals faster.
It’s also important to consider that learning by immersion takes time. If you only have a week to dedicate to language learning, you’ll barely have become attuned to the local accent by the time you have to leave. Unless you have several weeks (or, preferably, months) to spend in a place, you may benefit more from intensive classes for a short period than the immersion method.
Choosing Between Classroom Education and Immersion
We’ve already covered some of the factors that should go into your decision whether to study in a classroom or by immersion. Here are some further points to consider.
You’ll be well suited to classroom teaching if:
- You’re a complete beginner
- You want a teacher’s guidance
- You want to be able to ask “why” and get a straight answer
- You want to master a non-European script
- You learn best in a structured environment
- You aren’t able to travel right now
- You want to study part time or in your free time
- You have a short time to spend on intensive study
You should consider immersion learning if:
- You’ve taken language classes and want further practice
- You want to reach fluency and perfect your pronunciation
- You want to travel and learn about a different culture
- You want to improve your speaking and listening skills
- You want to get out of your comfort zone
- You learn best when you have a holistic experience
- You have several weeks or months to dedicate to language learning
Combining Classroom Education and Language Immersion
You may also be able to combine the best of both worlds with classroom education and immersion. This way, you can benefit from the structured environment of a classroom and the holistic immersion experience.
Programs that combine travel to a destination, staying with a homestay family, and taking classes full-time or on certain days of the week are a great way to do it all. Even if homestay accommodation isn’t possible, being surrounded by a language to and from classes, and during your time off, will likely lead to greater language outcomes.
Here are some great programs that offer classroom teaching plus immersion:
Whatever route you choose for language learning, make sure it aligns with both your experience and your goals. In our increasingly globalized world, it’s never a bad idea to add bilingualism to your resume!
This post was originally published in August 2018, and it was updated in February 2021.