After years of butchering a few foreign languages, I've developed a keen ear for them. I can't necessarily understand what people are saying, but if someone is speaking in one of the languages I can get by in, I can hear it across the room.
An older man and a younger Japanese woman were sitting in the corner of Samovar, the tea place I go to every day. And, sure enough, they were speaking Japanese. They seemed like an unlikely couple, so I paid attention and eavesdropped a bit. When the woman excused herself for a minute I dove in for some answers.
"Excuse me... I couldn't help but overhear that you were speaking Japanese. Are you being tutored?"
He was. Interest piqued, I got his tutor's email address and scheduled my first tutoring session for the following week.
The problem with learning Japanese is that you inevitably learn the polite version of it. As strange as it sounds to us English speakers, words are actually conjugated completely differently depending on how formal you intend them to be. The differences are significant: "aru" and "arimasu" mean the same thing, but the latter is more formal than the former.
Every course I've ever found, audio or classroom, teaches you only the formal conjugations. Everyone will understand you, and won't be offended, but you'll have a tough time understanding movies or casual conversation.
At my first tutoring session I told my teacher exactly what I wanted to learn. I wanted to be able to speak casually, understand casual conversation, and have excellent pronunciation. No problem, she said.
My first session was intense. Unlike a class where you can avoid being called on, the pressure was constantly on. Every mistake I made was noticed and corrected. My teacher was really good at telling when I could absorb more information and when I was getting overwhelmed.
I panicked for a minute when she motioned to wrap up the lesson. It felt like we'd only been working for half an hour -- had I done so poorly that she didn't want to teach me anymore? I checked my watch and was astonished to see that we had filled the entire hour and a half. The time had flown by, which is a lot more than I can say for any class I've ever taken in school.
The amount I'd learned in just one meeting was at least as much as I'd learned in two weeks in school. There was no busy work, no waiting, and no being slowed down or rushed ahead by other classmates. Subsequent lessons have been the same. In just four or five lessons I've learned a ton of Japanese.
Why isn't everyone getting tutors? Why didn't I think of this a long time ago?
If I get a lesson every week, at thirty five dollars a lesson, I'll spend $1820 per year for a fully customized individual Japanese class. That's cheaper than it would cost to take the class at college, and far better. I learn exactly what I want to, and I don't even have to commute-- she comes to Samovar to teach me. She even brings worksheets and gives me homework.
I plan on getting tutors for more things. Maybe drawing. Maybe 3D modeling. Maybe Chinese. Maybe dancing. Maybe rapping! If that's not education outside the box, I don't know what is.
My suggestion to you: think of something you want to learn. Maybe it's a language, maybe it's web design, maybe it's banjo playing. Look on craigslist for a tutor and take one lesson. Not every tutor is a good one, but with a couple interviews I bet you can find someone who will blow you away.