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Thursday, 26 May 2011

Michel Thomas method

So desperately in need of reviving my long dead French, I headed to the local library to pick up some beginners level books and audio CDS, and by luck came across the 'Michel Thomas method', a two hour audio CD which loudly proclaims on the box 'No memorising, no writing, no reading'. For someone who loves grammar, this did not sound so appealing, even if the 'no memorising' was tempting, beside a little unbelievable. After all, learning involves memorising things, right? I have heard good things about this course and have been recommended it by various forums, even if I was a little sceptical. Whatever the outcome, I appreciated that any spoken French would be invaluable in building a strong foundation for listening and speaking skills, two of the hardest skills for new linguists.

So what makes this distinct from other methods? Michel Thomas is a polygot originally from Poland, who lived in France, Germany and the United States. He continuously emphasises his main selling point: 'there is no such thing as a bad student, only a bad teacher'. True I guess, even if some students do make teaching difficult! Initially, Thomas talks through the basics using repetition as a means to make us learn. There are two students, a female and a male whom he asks to repeat certain words, and gradually he asks them to construct larger more complex sentences, whilst instructing them on every occasion 'stop trying to remember!'. The students are (most likely purposefully) quite atrocious, the man pronounces the more soft mangER with a strong, very intrusive AY sound, like in the English word SAY. The lady did not seem to be able to grasp the difference between AVEZ vous and AVEC. This deliberately atrocious French was however an intelligent and well considered device, by hearing many errors in comparison to the correct French of Michel Thomas, I am sure ANYONE would be able to say the words as they are supposed to sound.

Another positive aspect to this method, the teacher is constantly very calm and assuring. In the first five minutes, he speaks of a French writer who came to England and read an English book. The writer was surprised to see so many 'French words' and announced that English was just French incorrectly pronounced. Thomas then adds that it's no surprise, given that at least 60% of our vocabulary is from French (due to the Norman conquest, no?), meaning that we already know many French words. Of course, this is a rule which is invaluable to a linguist, and means we need not learn everyone of these similar words individually, we just need to know the rule. This applies to all the romance languages. E.g. English: Station French:station (with a different pronunciation). Italian: Stazione. English: Philosophy. French:la philosophie Italian: la filosofia. This I can imagine would make the learning process a lot less daunting to complete beginners, or those scared of long long vocabulary lists (Vocabulary, Vocabolario, Vocabulaire).

Without directly explaining grammatical rules as being grammatical rules, he manages to make them concrete in your mind. After an hour (more like half an hour given the amount of jokes and gaps) you do feel like you could construct a few useful sentences. You also feel able to conjugate the simple verbs 'faire', 'venir', 'manger', 'passer', 'vouloir', 'savoir', use masculine and feminine definite and indefinite articles and construct positive and negative sentences. Pretty good, considering that it felt effortless and really, I didn't feel as if I tried to memorise the words. It was very relaxed and thus an comfortable learning atmosphere. I would however suggest that for a speedy learner this pace would be too slow, even if I thought the two slow students helped in the learning process; the more errors they made the more concrete the correct construction became. Another slightly negative aspect, though a very good teacher, Michel Thomas' English pronunciation was not optimum, and thus I worry slightly for his French. That said, he is teaching the basic and at least saying the words as they should be said, in terms of the phonetic pronunciation. The real strength of this method is the gradual construction of sentences, without being thrown into the deep end with too much grammar to keep up with at square one. For a beginner, it provides a useful and informative way of getting to grips with the rules of the French language. I look forward to trying out a slightly higher level Italian programme as well, besides also testing the pimsleur method, another much raved about language learning programme.

If you are interested, take a wee look here:


Given the price, I would not pay for it as there as so many free resources out there, but every library I have been to seems to have a copy. Think of all the time you could spend wasting time in traffic when you could be learning a language!

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