A couple of people I know have spoken highly of the Michel Thomas CDs for learning languages. I’ve never tried them, but one of them recommended this BBC documentary from 1997 on Youtube which I’ve just watched:
My initial impressions are that his method is a combination of:
- intensive learning (9 hours per day for 5 days in this case – I think)
- taking time to do lots of repetition within the lessons, and going back a step whenever necessary
- small groups – only 8 students in this case
- reducing the affective filter as much as possible, with comfortable seating and mood lighting
- positive reinforcement – if you can’t say something, the teacher goes back, or supports you to be able to say it
- translation – all words and phrases are translated from the first language of the learners (from English to French in this case)
- breaking down the language to a manageable chunks – starting with words which are similar in your language
- lexical chunks – no explicit focus on grammar rules, especially where the rules are similar between the two languages, and no metalanguage (grammatical/linguistic terminology). The example of le faire being used to translate do it, then encouraging learners to produce see it as le voir is a case in point
- everything going through the teacher – there didn’t seem to be any student-student interaction in the classes in the film
- the teacher taking full responsibility for everything in order to reduce pressure on the students
- no memorising – ‘you should clear your mind and that should come naturally’
- no reading or writing
- no homework (though with 9 hours of classes each day for a week, you probably don’t need it!)
Looking at the website, one of the selling points is to ‘Learn a new language the way you learnt your own’. I don’t think that can be true, since none of us learnt our own language by translating it from another one, though it’s true that we didn’t read, write or do homework at the beginning!
I’ve listened to the 5-minute audio sample of the Arabic course, and it seems they always start with loanwords into and out of the language being learnt, i.e. English words that have moved into Arabic, and Arabic ones that have moved into English. These are then used to construct sentences by adding simple bits of grammar to them. This is clearly a good place to start, providing you have an awareness of both languages.
Reservations and reflections
The intensity of the classes means you can learn a lot without requiring homework, since the learners are getting a lot of exposure within a short time. This ‘miracle’ would probably result in a higher rate of learning than the classic 2-3 hours per week in any situation without any of the other parts of the ‘method’, though how much higher depends on the teacher and the course. Small groups also help here.
Reducing the affective filter and making students feel comfortable in the classroom should always be part of our aim. If we could all have classrooms with armchairs, I’m sure that many students would feel more comfortable. Positive reinforcement is also very important – if you believe you can speak a language, you will be able to.
Translation may work very well with a monolingual class, but what do you do with multilingual classes? Especially if you don’t know their language(s)?
Lexical chunks are clearly a much less stressful way of learning than through listing of grammar rules and doing lots of exercises. They’re just a lot harder to ‘put in order’ in terms of syllabus design, so unfortunately grammar still rules in most materials. Removing metalanguage is generally a good thing if it makes it easier for learners to understand, but can make it harder for them to study independently if they want to go away and practise outside the classroom, as it will be more challenging for them to find extra materials to practise the same things outside the classroom.
The teacher has complete control of everything going on in the classroom. This seems to take some of the freedom out of language learning, as you can only say what the teacher wants you to say. What if you want to say something different? I would hope/assume that changes at higher levels. It’s also incredibly intense for the teacher, as they are the focus of the entire lesson.
Learners should be given the option to read or write, at least at the end of the lesson. It’s an extra way of remembering what they’ve learnt, and helps them progress in all four skills, not just speaking and listening.
What level is it possible to progress to with this method? It seems like it could be particularly useful for beginners, elementary, even pre-intermediate (A1-low B1), but what about higher levels? According to Wikipedia, the ‘Total’ courses should help you to achieve A1-A2 level in grammar, and the ‘Perfect’ courses should take you to B1-B2, again just in grammar. Vocabulary building is dealt with separately, although some vocabulary is introduced throughout the grammar courses.
Have you had any experience of the Michel Thomas method? How did you find the methodology? Did it work for you?