I was telling a friend (who I think can be characterized as a reasonably successful musician) about learning to play the piano.  His immediate question was “who are you studying with.”  Which threw me for a moment, because I hadn’t actually considered starting up with a piano teacher yet. (Check out my post on learning to play the piano if you’re interested in the gory details of how I’m going about this).

But that got me to thinking about the general question of where self study is most effective and where other more formal education might be more appropriate.  I was inspired to start this reboot project in part by Chris Guillebeau‘s guest blog post on Powell’s site where the thesis was directed self study could be more effective than going to grad school (and cheaper).   While I’ve used the post as a touchstone, my goals are considerably different than his were and so what I’ve actually ended up doing has borne at best a passing resemblance to his suggested curriculum.   So why not diverge in method as well?

The quick answer is that I have already, and in fact I never really though about not taking more formal classes for some parts of my curriculum.  For instance, I didn’t consider trying to learn to tap dance without taking class.  On the other hand, I did take a run at learning to speak Spanish from audio lessons and books.

So where do you draw the line?  What things are best learned solo where you can make your own mistakes in the privacy of your own home, which things are best done in a class setting, and what things are better with a tutor?  And to add another twist, at what point do you get more out of teaching something to someone else than by taking more classes yourself?

For myself, learning a second language without some direction from someone fluent in that language has been pretty much a bust.   I broke down and signed up for an introductory small class course at a local language school.  We’ve only had two sessions so far, but I’m reasonably certain that was the right thing to do.

Has anyone out there learned a language without the direct help of someone who speaks it already?  If so was it your second language (or third or fourth or fifth)?  What method did you use?  And would you recommend it over taking a class or hiring a tutor?


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