I’m going to say this as politely as possible: you don’t know what you’re on about. I don’t hold it against you at all. How would you know better? You’ve probably never been taught Chinese or any other language by a teacher who has even halfway mastered the craft of second/foreign language teaching.
At this point in the development of TCSOL, the ONLY people who have attained any decent level of accuracy and fluency in Chinese are people who worked hard. In such an undeveloped language teaching field, pretty much everybody I’ve known who was not even hot shit, but just proficient (like a 3 on the US ILR scale) got to that level mainly through self study. I would consider myself the same. I’ve enrolled in programs, but aside from the narrow benefits of audiolingual drilling back when I was a beginner, I’d say that I haven’t learned shit from any school I’ve attended. Everything I learned was on my own and with tutors I’ve told exactly how I wanted to go about studying (and fired if they tried to deviate).
You may think that what I’ve written proves your point. It does not. I am a trained and experienced language teacher. In the US or the UK, I wouldn’t be considered anything special among ESL teachers. Over here, however, I have more training and understanding of language teaching and learning than any Chinese teacher I’ve ever met. The reason I got to where I am today with Chinese is only because from my teacher training and experience, I knew what methods are a waste of time and what methods are worthwhile. Browse through these threads. You will probably find that the folks who have reached the highest levels of proficiency (and can probably prove it to you) are the folks who have done TESOL certs/diplomas or MAs in TESOL/applied linguistics. People who’ve mastered other languages as an adult can also do alright with Chinese. Having to study how to teach a language is hardly an efficient way to master Chinese. You are basically making up for your teachers’ incompetence.
No, that depends on what your goals are. Some would say that the intermediate doldrums are the hardest to break out of. Once you get to a level of basic or low-professional proficiency, it is extremely difficult to find teaching and resources that will help you get over the intermediate-advanced barrier. Unless you’ve got a skilled teacher or you are a skilled teacher yourself, you are not going to crack that barrier and reach advanced professional or near native proficiency.
The school that trains US Foreign Service Officers can take someone from scratch to an ILR grade 3 in Chinese in 9 months. Sure, the students there are among the most motivated in the world, but the teachers are as well trained as the students are motivated. It does not have to take years.
Putting yourself in the community is obviously good, but there are core skills that 99% of all adult language learners just can’t learn on the street or through self-study. That doesn’t just apply to when you’re starting out. I still have a need for a skilled teacher; the problem is that it is damn hard to find any. I’m getting ready to take the advanced HSK. There is no way that you could even do well on the intermediate HSK without having had a lot of formal, classroom instruction. Even if you know a good bit about language teaching, this is not stuff that can be “self-taught” with any degree of efficiency.
People obviously need to practice outside the classroom The problem is that the way they are taught in the Chinese language classroom is little or no help for entering the real language environment. I don’t intend this as anything personal, and I don’t know anything about your Chinese, but I’ve noticed that people who make statements like “You’ll learn about 5% of your Chinese in a classroom” and “you just need to get out there and talk to real Chinese people” are usually lacking in aspects of fluency and accuracy that most of us can only acquire or learn in the classroom from a skilled teacher. The “real language environment,” sometimes even for an advanced student, is not always accessible. A good teacher can help you into it far faster than you would be able to do on your own.
The teacher and the materials and methods he uses can and very often do make or break the learning experience for students of Chinese. If there were half the professionalism in TCSOL as there is in TESOL (I’m not talking about the buxiban scene), a lot fewer students would be giving up on Chinese and those of us who’ve already managed to pass through some bottlenecks would be at even higher levels of proficiency than we are now. The teacher is no less crucial than the student’s motivation.