My advice to both students is to join The Linguist.
I’ve been to Los Angeles to take some English classes, in order to take the TOEFL exam, I’ve just come back and I wanna review my expirience. I had some satisfactions, though: all the americans I talked with were very impressed about my english, especially the pronunciation and the american accent, they couldn’t recognize my nationality and they asked my how long I’d been living in the Us (I’ve never been in an english speaking country before),and they asked me if one of my parents was american.
First of all I have to say I’ve been “studying” english, following the “Antimoon method” for about a year and a half(watching a lot of tv shows and movies, with or without english subtitles, reading some book, and looking up for every difficult word or strange grammar, writing some email with my american penpals. I confess I’ve never used Supermemo, ‘cause it’s pretty boring, at least in my opinion. I’ve also been studying pronunciation and the american accent, with Ann Cook’s “American Accent Training” and the useful Antimoon Forum).
Anyway I decided to take these classes to rewiev the teoric stuff (the infamous grammar!) and focus on the Toefl skills, while I would have the opportunity to speak for a whole month with natives and I could test my actual level in pratical situations.
The bottom line is that the english course has been a rip-off, for some reasons:
1)I expected to speak English all the time, but the place I lived in (UCLA) was full of Italians, who didn’t care a damn about speaking english, so I ended up speaking a lot of Italian (my native language)
2) There were a lot of foreign people, whose english was very bad. I think that talking to people who can’t really speak english can damage YOUR english, for many reason: first of all you are exposed to “bad” english, and this can reinforce your mistakes. Second, when you are talking to one of these guys you don’t care about the form, the correct grammar, the right intonation and pronunciation, you do care only about the contents of your message, because it’s hard to communicate with them; instead, when you speak with a native you’ll focus much more on the language.
3)when you are in an english-speaking country, sometimes you are in some situations that require a fast communication (resturants, stores, airports), and again, you’ll focus much more on the content than the language, and this could reniforce your mistakes.
4)The english classes were really useless: I was put in the most advanced level, and still they would stick with the same old crap (modals.. the future in the past.. the articles!!). The teachers were very bad, not really committed and not organized, and the lectures were boring, the only thing they were able to do was to read the grammar book.
I found that as soon as I got there I was really embarassed, I’ve never talk to natives before, and my english was really awkward. I knew I could find the correct expressions and sentences in my mind when I was alone, but when I was speaking to natives, expecially in class, my english freezed.
After a week of “trials and errors”, though, I started feeling more confident, and the right sentences started coming magically to my mind, without thinking about’em.
I think the sentences have always been in my mind, I’ve acquired them with all the inputs I’ve been exposed, like Antimoon explains, but I think that in the first place they were blocked by some psychological obstruction. At the end of the month I found myself thinking in english,and thinking about all the sentences I could use in some differnt situations. Hence, I agree with Antimoon about the inputs and the fact that speaking can reinforce your mistakes in some ways, but I also think some conversation pracitce is necessary, maybe monitored by natives, and focused on all the aspects of the language and not on the topic ( you wanna focus on “how you say it”, and not on “what you say it”).
Anyway, I took the Toefl test, scoring 275/300 without studying a single word of grammar.
I wanna advise all the Antimoon readers that intend to take the Toefl test not to waste a lot of money with this english courses, that are all scams, but to stick with the Antimoon method: watching tv, reading some book, chatting,writing, and maybe talking with some natives. I don’t know about the other exams (Cambridge, Ielts, and so on) but I think it’s the same.