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Why do people sign up for English classes?

Pawel Kowalczyk, a reader of Antimoon, wrote to us some time ago, asking this question:

I don’t understand people who go to English classes. In most cases, the results of a typical student are not worth the money paid for it. Believe it or not, but I’ve learnt English pretty well spending no more money than a typical student has to pay for half a year in a school of English.

I believe the answer has two parts:

  • Awareness. People don’t realize they can learn English on their own.
  • Motivation. Even if they think about learning on their own, they are too lazy to do it.

Awareness

People are split up into imitators (>90%) and thinkers (<10%). Imitators go through their lives copying the behavior of others. They sign up for English classes because everyone else signs up for English classes. Thinkers are people who, at least from time to time, are capable of asking the questions “Is everybody really doing it the best possible way?” and “Have I been doing it the best possible way for all these years?”.

It is worth noting that even the “thinkers” behave like imitators most of the time. They have to. Life is complicated and there isn’t enough time to find your own solution to every problem. We have to solve many problems by copying other people’s solutions. For example:

  • We buy the same TV set our neighbor bought.
  • We drink coffee in the morning to wake us up, because we see other people drink coffee in the morning.
  • We don’t think about where to invest our spare money. We just put it in the bank because people around us do that.

In the same way, instead of trying to find the best way to learn English well, most people just do what others do: they sign up for English classes.

This behavior is reinforced by the fact that our education system is based on schools. In most developed countries, everyone is required to spend over 10 years of their life in the school system. As a result, everyone tends to assume that learning has to happen in class.

In short, people don’t realize they can learn English in other ways than English classes, because:

  • they’ve always attended classes of some kind
  • everyone around them signs up for English classes
  • they’ve never tried to find a better way
  • nobody has shown them another way

Motivation

Even if you know about other learning methods, they may not be for you. Reading a book in a foreign language for 20 minutes every day is a terrifying task for many people. “What do you mean, read in a language I don’t understand? Are you crazy? And can you please define every day?”

Why spend your time analyzing sentences when you can spend the evening watching TV, right? For people like this, it seems the only way to make any kind of progress with their English is to hire a teacher who will tell them exactly what to do, give them homework assignments, test them, and — if necessary — punish them with poor grades. Since one-on-one lessons are usually expensive, they sign up for one-to-many classes. As a result, they spend lots of money and improve their English by 5% a year, but hey — at least they don’t have to read books in English.