As the director of an established Arabic language program in Amman, Jordan I receive numerous inquiries on a regular basis about group classes, tutoring, and other ways of instructions. I often take time to explain the advantages and disadvantages of each approach. Often, prospective learners quickly see some of the advantages of individual instruction –flexibility in scheduling, individual attention, and abbreviated instruction times being the primary perceived advantages. Group instruction is perceived to carry only one perceived advantage – lower cost. At the same time, most newcomers to second language learning are unaware of other advantages and disadvantages to each approach. I feel it would be beneficial for prospective learners of Arabic to understand some of these “pros and cons” in order to be better informed and make decisions that are based upon more sound theory and experience.
Flexibility – pro or con?
Scheduling is definitely more flexible in individual tutoring. As long as the tutor is available, tutoring can take place at any time. This is necessary for learners who have fixed working hours or who have other responsibilities that require their attention at irregular times. Those learners are in situations in which language learning is a secondary priority after their primary purpose for being here. However, in the case of those who are willing and able to make language learning their primary focus, a regular time of instruction is usually best. Regular timing helps to bring beneficial structure to one’s life and is also more understood by the local people. The local people tend to view with suspicion those who don’t appear to have a regular pattern to their lives.
Additionally, when one is committed to regular lessons with a group, there can be a helpful “peer pressure” to keep moving forward. Even if one person misses a lesson, the group will carry on. Attendance is thus rewarded. Conversely, with one-on-one instruction, all it takes is a phone call to cancel a lesson. Sometimes the tutor is happy to cancel, and is virtually never in a position to object to the cancellation. In some situations, the tutor will even cancel the lesson. Inevitably, the learner falls behind in relation to his/her learning goals.
The attention given to the individual learner is one of the most-cited reasons that some opt for individual tutoring. Learners sometimes feel frustrated that other learners “hold them back” or sometimes that other learners push the teacher to move more quickly. Although this may be the case at times, there are other times when learning with others can be helpful. Have you ever, when learning in a group setting, heard someone ask a question that was exactly the same question you needed to ask, but didn’t think to ask it, or were shy to ask? Not only that, but it may be that someone else’s desire for a more thorough lesson is exactly what you need, even if you don’t realize it (i.e., you think you know the material, but additional repetition cements it into your mind better than you realize).
Use of time in a language classroom
Learners in group settings sometimes struggle with being patient while others take their “turn,” feeling that this is wasted time. I would like to encourage students to find good use of that time. Someone else’s turn is not an opportunity to daydream, talk with someone else, or play around on your phone. Instead, it should be an opportunity to focus on the teacher’s speech more, try to understand the new language being spoken without pressure to perform, and/or to try to give a (silent) response more quickly than the person whose turn it is. You could also think more deeply about the meaning of what is being said, maybe visualize it in order to reinforce the meaning in your mind.
“But how am I really doing?” – honest appraisal from teachers
It is important for all learners to receive accurate and honest appraisals and assessments from their instructors. This happens naturally and continually in a group setting; those who feel a bit behind know that they need to study more. In an individual tutoring setting, at least in our cultural setting, assessment may not always be accurate. When one hires a tutor, one becomes not only a learner/student but also an employer, bringing in a new role which the learner does not understand from a cultural viewpoint, and bringing in a new set of motivations and expectations. When the individual learner asks, “How am I doing?” the tutor is put into a position of choosing the honest appraisal or the appraisal which suits other motives. “You are doing great” might be said when the tutor wants the student to feel good about the tutor’s work. On another day, “You still need a lot more work” may be expressed in order to ensure the teacher’s job security. In summary, it is hard to know if the tutor is being honest. That’s why we prefer that the teacher be an employee of a program, whose job security is not dependent on one student’s feelings or desire to continue, but on a comprehensive range of factors.
A group of co-learners can add a lot to a learner’s experience. I remember well the group that I was in during my time as a student at the Kelsey Arabic Program. There were a couple guys in my group that were well ahead of me. Sometimes I would just listen to them speaking with the teacher and try to understand what was going on. Their involvement really pushed me to learn and gave me examples of strong learning habits. As a whole group, we really encouraged each person to prepare well and do his/her best each day of class. I hope that every group will be like this.
Use of gender in various settings
Arabic is a language in which gender matters greatly. You speak differently to a person depending on that person’s gender. You also speak about others differently. However, if you only work with one tutor, you will only become accustomed to speaking with people of that gender. That is, if your tutor is a woman, how will you learn how to speak fluently with men? You may “know how” but not have any practice. However, if you are in a group setting, there will most likely be both women and men in the group. Your practice in addressing the various people in the group will certainly be beneficial.
The role of a third party in language instruction
As was mentioned earlier, the student in a one-on-one situation is also usually the employer. This can be a difficult role, leading to cultural misunderstandings, manipulation, and other problems. We believe it is of benefit to both learners and teachers to have a third party, a language program, who looks out for the good of both sets of people.
M.Div., MA TESOL and Intercultural Studies
Executive Director, Kelsey Arabic Program