For some, formal education for studying a language is not really an option. Sometimes formal education is too costly, time consuming, disheartening, or just plain unrealistic. Many turn to learning on their own for the sake of convenience.
But can it actually help you?
In my opinion, formal education is normally better than learning a language on your own. Whenever possible, I would suggest taking formal education for the language you want to study.
In the case of actual Spanish classes, it is a very popular language so there are naturally more chances to get a formal education in it. For other languages, that may not always be the case. In this sense, taking classes for Spanish or finding a tutor are much easier than trying to find resources for a less popular language.
There are also an abundance of resources for learning Spanish at your fingertips. Now in the digital era, we have literature, music, radio, poetry, movies, and many other sources to practice your Spanish with little to no cost. This works in theory, but a work is only as helpful as it is correct. In this sense, free resources are not always the best resources available.
Similar to Duolingo, a free educational app for learning languages, you may not find free resources for self-study a particularly good alternative. They might be free, but they don’t always teach you what you need to know. Many free resources don’t focus on actual lessons, or why the grammar works the way that it does. This can be a huge problem, because you might know that sometimes the language works a certain way, but you don’t always know when to use it this way, or even why.
When you look at free resources, you do have to take them with a grain of salt. No matter how educational they might seem, there is plenty of human error that can make them less reliable.
If you’re doing self-study, keep in mind, “You shouldn’t believe everything you read.”
Sometimes information is outdated, maybe the language has changed in recent years or maybe the word you’re being taught is actually more archaic or in disuse? Maybe the information isn’t always correct or it’s too vague. If you type in the word “kid” you might end up with the word niño/a for “child”… but you may also come up with el cabrito meaning “kid” in the sense of “baby goat”. There are also times when certain expressions vary and that needs to be stated but isn’t… similar to how Spain uses echar de menos for “to miss (someone)” but Latin America tends to use extrañar. In this sense, echar de menos is not incorrect, but if you’re trying to speak to people from Latin America, they may not understand what you’re trying to say, or you may label yourself an outsider to the language.
Free resources also may not address cultural differences or important nuances the way that one hopes that formal education or tutoring would.
The biggest caveat with free resources is that sometimes the information is just plain wrong. Whether it’s a spelling mistake or some kind of error, free resources are often full of misinformation… usually benevolent, but sometimes willfully malicious. Without a frame of reference, someone might right clavo which is “nail” or “cloves” as calvo which means “bald” and you might end up mistaking the words. Other times someone might right the incorrect gender article for a word, which may confuse you further down the line. Misinformation is quite common and ranges in its severity, but without fact checking or an insight into the language, you might be misled.
All in all, the best option is formal education or tutoring when you can get it, by people who know their stuff and are reputable. Free resources and self-studying is something that’s best done in addition to the formal education, as supplemental information. This way, you learn the ins and outs of the grammar, but are also furthering your understanding. And you can talk to your teacher or tutor and ask questions when you don’t understand something; much different than being confused and alone.
Free resources and teaching yourself a language has its merit, but is more likely to err than teaching or tutoring would. Self-study is truly admirable, but you need to take things with a grain of salt.
The better option is to take what formal education you can get, and use self-study to further your studies.