Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

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.

Michel Thomas

Have you had any experience of the Michel Thomas method? How did you find the methodology? Did it work for you?

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Comments on: "Michel Thomas: Language Master" (7)

  1. Hi Sandy, I’ve tried the Michel Thomas method with both French and Japanese.

    One of the things about learning Japanese is that it is very difficult to find a study partner who is at the same level as you.

    Having listened to several CDs, there are always two kind of students. One who is picks up new language or pronunciation quickly and one who struggles a little bit.

    I have always thought this was intentional because it means there is always someone you can relate to. You either know you are picking it up quickly, you know your struggling but someone else is too, so that’s alright. Or you are in the middle somewhere. It’s an interesting dynamic that builds confidence in people just starting to learn a new language.

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    • Thanks for sharing your experience of using the method. It’s an interesting take on their choice of students. Did you feel like they were real students? I read something yesterday that said in some of the ones recorded later, they edited the audio and removed some of the correction that was left in in Thomas’ original recordings for French etc.
      Sandy

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      • That’s difficult to say. If I had only done one course, I may have just accepted the dynamic. Having done a couple, I can see it is a deliberate part of the program. I would like to believe that they are real students, but I am sure there are still mistakes that are anticipated and scripted. Ultimately, I don’t think it matters as long as it encourages people to learn a new language.

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  2. I’ve used it for Polish, and now for German (last six months). I have to say that when I went to Poland after doing the Foundation Course, I found that lots of chunks were merrily sailing out of my mouth, possibly more fluently than when I lived in Poland twenty years ago. It isn’t very good for vocabulary (I use Duolingo alongside it), but it does get you manipulating grammar confidently and fluently. I’d say it’s more akin to old fashioned substitution drills than lexical chunks as such because the focus is always on the grammar. He does actually use metalanguage to explain the grammar, but it’s not the typical metalanguage. For example, he calls modal verbs ‘helper’verbs. The syllabus is also pretty grammar orientated, at least in the two languages I’ve learnt this way, but it does tend to focus on transactional language. So, German starts with the infinitive of the verb to want, and then does do you want, what do you want, what do you want to drink, what do you want to eat, what do you want to do, do you want to come with me, do you want to come with me today/this evening/tomorrow etc.

    I think it is actually quite easy to transfer what you have learnt to say something similar once the pattern is in your head.

    I certainly don’t do 9 hours a day, I just listen to it in the car, so sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes up to an hour or so- can’t cope with any more than that, really.

    It certainly isn’t the way I teach, but as a form of self study I think it’s pretty effective.

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    • From what I read, it did seem more grammar-focussed, but within a very functional framework. I have no idea what the technical term for that is! Thanks for sharing your impressions of the method and for clarify some of the things I wasn’t sure about.

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  3. Thanks for sharing the video, Sandy. I’d never heard of him before, but looking at reviews of his audio CDs on amazon, it does seem that he has more fans than critics. I wonder how much of his technique could be applied to ELT as it seemed that delivery was largely in L1, which may not be a problem in monolingual classes, but would be difficult in some language schools which insist on a TL-only environment (plus they don’t tend to have such comfy chairs!).

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    • I did think that that’s the major drawback of the method for us – it seems to rely almost completely on translation and knowing the learner’s language. People do seem to love his method though!

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