Formal vs. Informal Instruction? Where's the middle ground?
A few years ago, an experience I had at a language institute in Oaxaca City was a near disaster. The instruction was almost all "drill'n'kill," based on the theory that one must "book-learn" Spanish before speaking. And one must, simply must, be "correct!"
Speaking anything but Spanish was forbidden, even for beginners, which included Danes and Germans. "Break time" was the Tower of Babel!
As I was already fairly adroit in Spanish conversation, it was a bad setting for me. I needed a more free-wheeling course that encouraged conversation - one that would "coach" me into refining what I already knew.
Happily, my young instructor also felt confined by the rigidity of the course. And for one glorious week, I was his sole student. So, we entered into a conspiracy: I'd help him with his English, and he would help me with my Spanish. We had a "blast!" (Had his supervisor known, he would have been fired.) My progress during that last week was spectacular, and so was his.
Meanwhile, a friend uses a famous online program, and his vocabulary is bigger than mine as his knowledge of verb conjugations and other fine points. Yet, when in Mexico, he rarely ventures to use what he knows. He rarely speaks, because - he says - he's fearful of making mistakes.
Me? I gabble away, making, I'm sure, lots of errors. (Which, by the way, are rarely corrected by native speakers, likely because they're so thrilled to hear an old "gringo" using Spanish.)
And so, I'm asking: where is the middle ground between formal and informal instruction?
What's been your experience?
I would say your experience may say more about the differences between one on one instruction and being in a larger class than the use of English. The advantages are enormous. Not only do you end up speaking a lot more (and a lot less self-consciously), but the focus is on your problem areas, material you already know can be skipped, and the pace is geared to your learning rate on the particular material being covered. For someone such as yourself that had uneven preparation much different than others in the same class, one would expect a dramatic increase in the speed of learning. In fact, doing that in an English only setting would probably have been even better for you as far as thinking in Spanish goes.
That’s an interesting question, volponecito; one for which consensus is unlikely. I imagine the answer will vary by person and depend on the desired objective for wanting to learn.
Learning Spanish for me has been 99% informal. By that I mean I started learning Spanish four years ago with only one formal Spanish class. This was an incredibly intense and effective 12-week course consisting of one four-hour class each week, followed by going out and ‘using it’ for another hour or two.
Interestingly, the biggest point that was stressed during that course was: “Don’t worry about making mistakes! Say what you’ve learned. Say it how you think it should be said. You’ll improve as you go, but just ‘Say it!’” We were frequently put on the spot and encouraged to do silly things (pantomimes, dialogues) all with the intent of breaking that mental ‘avoid-embarrassment-at-all-costs’ barrier.
The progress my wife made with this class showed me its effectiveness compared to formal "book-learn" methods. She took Spanish classes in high-school and college. She could whip out her take-home assignments and ‘ace’ written exams. When it came to oral exams though, she flopped. She wouldn’t say something unless it was ‘perfect’, was afraid of being embarrassed or criticized for saying it wrongly, and therefore wouldn’t say much at all. Once we began the 12-week course she realized she had to get over that feeling, and it worked!
Since that class, our language skills have grown solely by experience and a diligent personal study routine. I saw the progress of some acquaintances stall when they ‘teamed up’ with bi-lingual Hispanics. There seemed to be too much temptation to speak in English rather than go through the agonizingly slow and grueling process of speaking like a child when my mind wanted to say so much more. We specifically sought out those who spoke little or no English. This forced us to use what we knew and to learn more quickly so that we could truly communicate with our new friends.
Like you, very few of my friends correct me anymore. I know it’s not because I’m speaking perfectly, but probably because they can understand me enough and it’s too burdensome to continually point out my mistakes. For this reason I also pour over Spanish language textbooks, grammar guides and dictionaries, and then tried to use what I learn as soon as I can. I don’t think I could have progressed as much relying strictly on trial-and-error imitation of what I hear. For me there must be some book-learning to grasp the why’s and wherefore’s of the Spanish language. This site (which by nature is non-verbal) has augmented this aspect my learning.
I am still frustrated when I can’t completely express myself during deeply profound conversations (which I really enjoy). Overall though, this mostly-informal method has worked for me.