Michel Thomas: A good place to start

After listening to a mere few hours of audio, I was able to convey basic ideas in simple sentences in Dutch and Japanese – languages I previously knew little about! Today, I’m writing about Michel Thomas, the man who helped me impress all those Amsterdamers and Tokyoans on my travels.

Michel Thomas (1914-2005) was a Polish-born language teacher. He developed the Michel Thomas Method of learning languages where the teacher takes responsibility for the student’s learning, and the student just remains relaxed and focused. Today, it is available as an audio-course divided into “Foundation”, “Advanced”, and “Vocabulary” (now known by the more chic but much more confusing “Start”, “Total”, and “Perfect”) – around 10-14 hours of content. The languages supported are: French, German, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Mandarin Chinese, Greek, Portuguese, Japanese, Dutch, and Polish.

In a Michel Thomas audio-course there is one teacher, two students who form a ‘virtual classroom’, and you. In courses like Japanese or Mandarin, there is also a native speaker. The teacher introduces concepts, gives explanations and asks questions. You, the listener, pause the recording after each question to answer out loud. After re-pressing “play”, one of the other two students gives their answer. The teacher or native speaker then offers corrections until finally saying the correct answer with correct pronunciation. According to their website, they now also have “Visual Learning” but I have never used this service.

Thomas focuses on teaching verb conjugations and constructing sentences such as “I want to go”, building up to “I want to know why you don’t have it for me now, because it is very important for me and I need it”. He also covers the different forms of the past, future, subjunctive, and imperative this way.

I quite like this approach as it helps me think in the language – rather than go through the labourious steps of directly translating, remembering rules, then re-manipulating to construct grammatically-correct sentences. By simply presenting the structures of the new language to you as they are, you end up practicing them more, rather than worrying about their complicated grammatical explanations.

Take for example, a phrase we take for granted, like “I like eating chocolate”. This sentence is constructed rather differently in Spanish: “me gusta comer chocolate”. More literally, this should be translated as “eating chocolate pleases me”. By understanding the construction, translations you find in your phrasebook become new and different ways of thinking and organising your thoughts!”

Another aspect of the Michel Thomas Method I like is how they don’t bother much with abstract vocabulary. Their main focus in terms of vocabulary is things like simple expressions of time (“today”, “tomorrow”, “now” etc), space (“here”, “there”, “over there”), and prepositions (“on”, “at”, “with” etc). They also encourage you to be aware and make use of similar or shared vocabulary, but don’t venture too far beyond that: “la comprensión” (“comprehension”, Spanish), “de universiteit” (“university”, Dutch), “die Freundschaft” (“friendship”, German), “kamara” (“camera”, Japanese), “kāfēi” (“coffee”, Chinese).

Sticking to basic vocabulary is attractive to me in many ways. First, it allows me to connect more with the constructions and patterns of the language more. Second, there are other methods that are fantastic for learning vocabulary out there (and I will cover this in future posts). Finally, and this is the big one, it gives me control over what vocabulary I learn! In my opinion, courses that try and teach really specific vocabulary through hypothetical situations and role-playing (e.g. customer-salesperson) are not engaging. Frankly, I think they are boring and not worth the stress (see: Sydney University Spanish courses).

One downside of Michel Thomas courses is that pausing every time to think and say your answer out loud does get repetitive, especially as the questions don’t usually differ much from each other. For example, “I want to go to the library tomorrow”, “I want to go to the library today”, “I want to go to the university today” and on and on. Additionally, it can get tedious when the recorded students are repeatedly mispronounce, for example “xiǎng” as “xiǎong” (“would like”, Mandarin).

I get around this by almost never pausing the recording to say my answer. I personally don’t see any reason to force myself to do this when I already know the answers more or less in my head. By listening through slight variations of the same constructions multiple times, it all adds up to exposure to the language and it all sinks into my mind in the end as I get used to the patterns. In my view, my experiences with the language’s constructions won’t stop with Michel Thomas anyway, as there are endless resources for listening and reading, and meeting and interacting with natives!

Another obvious weakness of Michel Thomas courses, is they don’t help you practice your reading or writing skills (though as I said earlier, I haven’t tried ‘Michel Thomas Visual Learning’ yet). This is where I get restless of Michel Thomas and start looking around for what’s next. As soon as you feel this way, I would only encourage you to start exploring how your target language is written, finding a good online dictionary, playing around with new vocabulary. At this stage, what’s important to me is just to explore, and to notice and pick up on patterns. I don’t like to stress out about getting everything right straight away yet.

As you can see, I don’t treat Michel Thomas as a one-stop-shop. It really is just something to whet the appetite and motivate me to start exploring further. In fact, I have never finished a Michel Thomas course to its completion! I would highly recommend the Michel Thomas Method to you if you’re starting a new language and want a relatively stress-free, low-commitment way to ease into it. Give it a try and let me know how it went for you!

You can find Michel Thomas courses in Abbey’s Bookshop, the ABC Store, and Amazon etc. You could also give me a USB stick or acquire it via less than legal means (but I didn’t say that, ok?).

Who knows what you discover on your travels!
Who knows what worlds you discover on your travels! Photo is my own.

Some bonus insider knowledge: I really enjoyed Michel Thomas Dutch, Spanish and Japanese, but I can’t say I recommend the Mandarin one. It just doesn’t seem have the same natural flow as the others did and hasn’t captivated me.

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