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Although I am a language student and self-confessed language geek, it appears that I’ve actually written relatively few reviews on the subject. I spend a lot of time using language books, software and audio CDs as well as talking about it with other likeminded friends, and I spend a lot of the rest of my time reading and writing reviews, but up ‘til now the twain have rarely met. It’s therefore about time that I share with you the magic of my favourite language-learning source, Michel Thomas.
Michel Thomas (1914-2005) was born in Poland but moved to Vienna as a young adult, where the Nazi annexing of Austria in 1938 left him in dire straits as a Jew. His life during WWII was a terrible yet fascinating one, including him joining the French Resistance, and he survived many terrible war experiences largely by ‘unearth[ing] the untapped potential of the human mind’ (Michelthomas.com) as well as for his natural talent for languages. After the war he moved to the United States and in 1947 set up his own language centre in Los Angeles. He spent many decades teaching languages to the rich and famous before finally making his teaching available to the public in the form of these audio recordings.
The Michel Thomas Method
Michel Thomas’s approach to language learning and teaching is very different to that which you will have experienced either at school or with other language materials. His mantra is ‘what you understand, you know, and what you know, you don’t forget’. Through these CDs he teaches you ‘without memorising, without learning by rote, without drill, without textbooks, without taking notes and without homework’. This is good news for anyone who had trouble learning a language at school and who believes that they’re simply not cut out for learning foreign languages, as the method is completely different, and works best when you’re relaxed and let go of any anxiety that you associate with traditional learning.
His two main ‘ground rules’ are 1) “not to worry about remembering, and therefore never to try to remember, because the responsibility for your remembering is in the teaching, and not with the learner”, so there’s no homework or even mental homework, and it is important to let the teaching be absorbed and internalised and not to try to remember actively; 2) participate with the recording, and when Michel asks ‘how do you say….?’ in the language, you pause the tape to consider your answer and then respond out loud before pressing play again. Through this method you find a ‘constant sense of progression and a constant sense of learning that you will find exciting, stimulating and self-rewarding’.
Italian Foundation Course
Michel Thomas himself recorded foundation and advanced courses for German, Spanish, Italian and French before his death in 2005, and they all follow a very similar format and use the same method. The foundation courses last eight hours and are then followed by two hour ‘review’ courses in which you can consolidate your learning and review what you have learned. I’ve listened to parts of the Spanish and French foundation courses as well, as well as those of other languages recorded by different teachers (such as Greek and Russian) but it is only the Italian Foundation course that I shall be talking about today.
In this course, Michel Thomas takes the role of teacher, teaching Italian words and structure to two students who have never studied the language before. You (the listener) take the role
The front of the box
of the third student in the group. Michel Thomas starts by teaching some basic words and asking the students to form basic phrases with them, which the listener must do as well as the two students on the recording. We then listen to one of the students answer, followed by Michel confirming that they are right, or by asking them to try again if they made a mistake. He will then repeat the correct version of the phrase, so that the last impression that you are left with is his correct one.
Over the eight hours you go from basic words such as ‘it is’, ‘acceptable’, ‘like that’, ‘for me’, ‘I am’, ‘not’ and so on to slightly more difficult ones such as ‘reservation’ and ‘I feel like’, using a relaxed and simple method to get you to build short or longer, more complex sentences out of a group of words that you will learn slowly. Without having to make the conscious effort to learn verb endings or grammar rules, Michel Thomas teaches you to speak basic Italian confidently and correctly, helping you to remember and work out how to say things without homework or ‘trying’. Or, that is the theory, anyway.
In theory, the Michel Thomas Method is a genius and very attractive one: learning a new language without really having to make any effort at all is surely something that most people like the sound of. Of course, if in practice it doesn’t work, having a good idea behind it means nothing. Fortunately, however, I would say that the Michel Thomas Method certainly lives up to the hype and that I, as someone who would regard themself as a bit of an expert on language learning, would say that Michel Thomas is one of the very best ways to learn a new language that I have found. After only the eight hours of the foundation course, I found myself speaking Italian to a level that I imagine would take months to achieve in a school or night class and that I felt very confident with it. I used Michel Thomas alongside going to beginner’s Italian classes when I was at university in Valencia and found that, although it was an intense class, that Michel Thomas taught me more of the language and more quickly than my real life teacher did. He doesn’t use any grammatical terms in order to not confuse or worry people for whom things such as the ‘imperfect tense’ or ‘conjugation’ are frequent causes of cold sweats, and although as a language student I am perfectly comfortable with these and more complex grammatical lingo, I still found that his explanation of many grammatical ideas to be much simpler and easy to understand than that of textbooks and real life teachers. I was always very confused in my classes in Valencia as to the use of ‘ci’ and ‘ne’ in some sentences (finally understanding them after I was told that they are the equivalents of ‘y’ and ‘en’ in French, which I understand thanks to Michel Thomas Advanced French) though when these words were taught in Italian Foundation, I had no trouble understanding or using them at all. Similarly, with when to use certain tenses for expressing the past, I have found difficulty in classes for other languages at school in deciding between the ‘perfect’ or the ‘imperfect’ tense (and there’s a third one in Spanish to confuse things further) but in this course I had no trouble at all.
Remembering what you’ve learnt
Despite being told not to actively ‘try’ to remember anything that you’ve been taught, which is at odds to traditional language learning with its rote learning and forcing vocabulary into your head, I was surprised by how much I was able to remember using these CDs. By just listening and participating I found that my vocabulary and ability to form sentences grew from nothing to decent very quickly, and that I was remembering words from previous CDs with relative ease. Yes, there was the odd thing that I would forget, but as Michel suggests, after repeating the track a couple of times more I found that I was remembering basically everything, from vocabulary to how to form words and put things in order.
So, it’s all great then?
Unfortunately, not everything about Michel Thomas Foundation is perfect. This is in no way the fault of Michel Thomas himself or of the method employed, in my view, but rather that of the two students who are also on the recording. I had listened to and enjoyed Michel Thomas French Advanced course prior to purchasing this Italian course, and found the format of having two ‘fellow students’ to be useful in the learning process. As they are meant to be at the same level as you and are learning everything at the same time as you, their responses to Michel’s questions were not perfect every time and I certainly didn’t feel that they were much better than me or that I was being left behind them, but nor did I feel that I was better than them or that my progress was being slowed by their poor performance.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Italian Foundation, in which I felt that the students’ performance did often hinder my own learning. While I did not answer every question posed by Michel Thomas correctly at first, I did find that his expectations for what we had learnt in terms of vocab and structure and thus what we could reasonably say in Italian were reasonable, and that anyone listening to the course would be able to answer most relatively correctly the first time around. The two students on the recording, however, did not seem to be able to manage this. Despite having the same grammar points reinforced several times or being asked to say identical phrases only several minutes apart (the phrase ‘I want to do it’ comes up at least every few tracks), they seemed to continuously make the same mistakes. While this would be fine if it was just every now and then, I found myself getting really frustrated at times when they, for the tenth time, got something wrong as I, as the listener, had managed to remember how it should be said and wanted to progress, but since they had again made an error I instead had to listen to Michel explaining the same thing over again to them. This got really grating and frustrating after a while, and you can even hear annoyance in Michel Thomas’s voice after they once again get the basics wrong.
I don’t think that there was any fault in the method which led to the students repeatedly making mistakes, but rather that it was the nerves of being recorded that led to them rushing and therefore guessing the answers rather than thinking them through carefully, which in term led to them making silly mistakes over and over again. I think that it would have been a better idea of Michel Thomas and the recorders to have tried again with another pair of students who had a better success rate than these two, as their mistakes often confused me. Also, the time spent re-explaining points to them would have been much better spent on a few more minutes of material, in my view.
Despite this problem, I still did find that I learnt a lot from Michel Thomas Italian Foundation, although this course isn’t as brilliant as it could be, compared to other MT courses (such as Advanced French or Greek Foundation) where the students made significantly fewer mistakes. After all, if the students on the recording understand something, and you don’t, you as the listener are free to rewind and repeat until you do, whereas when you’re ready to move on and they are not, you still have to wait for them.
What you learn
Unlike other language learning materials, you don’t learn how to say typical basic phrases such as ‘My name is’ and ‘How old are you?’ with the Michel Thomas course. Instead you are taught things that come up more in general conversation such as ‘I go’, ‘I will have’, ‘it is not possible’ and so on. While this may sound strange, in a way, it is actually much more useful and beneficial to further Italian learning to learn these basics rather than how to introduce yourself, or how to understand set conversations. After all, if you can say what your name is and where you were born, but can’t express what you want to do or what you can’t do, then you’re not going to get very far when trying to speak the language. The Michel Thomas course gives you the groundwork with which you can build up the language further, either with subsequent Michel Thomas courses (such as the Language Builder, Advanced Course and Vocabulary Course, which are also available) but also independently.
Although I often found myself very frustrated with the two students on the recording, all in all I really enjoyed using Michel Thomas Italian Foundation course, and know that I learnt rather a lot over only eight hours. I have to stress that as I also speak good Spanish and reasonable French, which are also Romance languages and are highly related to Italian, I may have found learning Italian to be easier than your average monolingual person and so may experiences may differ to yours. That said, however, a lot of the grammar and vocabulary is very different to that of languages which I already speak and I found myself learning and understanding it easily thanks to this method. I also have the Advanced course and am looking forward to seeing how much more my Italian can improve by using that.
The RRP for this course is quite high at £70, but I have seen it for £35-40 in many shops and as low as £20 in some places. This course is now fairly obsolete as it comes and has been replaced by the Michel Thomas ‘Total’ course, which includes the eight hours of the foundation course, the two hour review course as well as the Language Builder course which follows it (along with a new visual learning aid for Mac or PC). This costs a more reasonable £48 in total. I’m fairly disappointed by the new covers and boxing for these courses, however, as one of the things that I liked so much about Michel Thomas CDs was the beautiful packaging. The white and orange box with the Vespa on the front made me much more enthusiastic about learning Italian than the new, clinical blue design would, and I also love how each course for each language provided by Michel Thomas also had a picture related to the country where it is spoken. The Arabic Introductory Course (the first two hours of the Foundation course sold separately) had a lamp, a la Aladdin and Arabian Nights, and the Greek Foundation course is an olive branch, for example, which looks much more attractive and beautiful to have on your shelf than the new, uniform blue boxes do.
But I digress. The packaging of the Foundation Course is beautiful in the old style (as photographed) and so I would get it like that if I were you (available from £17 from Amazon Marketplace) but since it’s the content that matters, I wouldn’t want to put you off buying it in the new packaging if that’s all that’s available. Michel Thomas Foundation Italian truly is a painless, stress free way of teaching yourself to speak Italian well in a relatively short time, and I would not hesitate to recommend it, despite its few problems.
Fantastic review! I have this in Spanish and am trying very hard to "not remember"!
Praski 03.08.2011 20:43
This is a great review and will come back to rate. This isn't the way I ever could learn a language. I like to pick things up by working and getting to know the people of the country and listening to radio, watching TV etc. This works in most of the countries I have been to and lived in but I am struggling in Poland - probably because I don't like the language at all - so I have a mental block. Perhaps he could help;-)