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Michel Thomas

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Has anyone here heard of this guy? He's fantastic. He developed an integrated method of teaching languages, and it really works! I've just finished Disc 1 of an eight-disc course, where he's teaching French. He's very specific about pronunciation, and about how two-thirds of the English language translates into French with just a pronunciation change, provided by the placement of an accent, or the reduction of a letter. It's funny, even writing this, I can't help thinking about how many of the words would sound in French.

Note: I can't get accents on here, so just imagine there are accents where they need to be

(that's mainly to you, Mr Languages Odden)

Rather than the usual teaching of languages, where you start with the basics - Je m'appelle Rory, J'ai 18 ans; Je voudrais etre un actor - and you have all the conjugations of verbs; all the female and male nouns; all the special phrases drilled into you over and over; Michel Thomas takes a different approach.

He makes a very important ground rule: Relax and don't try to force anything. In that lecture on the ARI site, that guy talks about how school being a system of force only creates people ingrained with the idea that the initaiton of force is all right -- well, it's true of the usual standard of teaching too, the idea that if someone doesn't get something the first time, you drill the same equation, historical fact, verb or place name into their head, until they get it. In more brutal times, you'd beat them until they got it.

What Michel Thomas does, is he teaches by getting you to figure things out for yourself. Like the integrated method of teaching Objectivism, he goes through fundamentals (such as: all words ending in -tion, are pronounced 'sion' with a hard 's', not 'shh') and then gets you to use those fundamentals to start forming a simple senstence - Je voudrais (I would like) un reservation. It's starts off so simple and it stays simple. Yes, there are exceptions (like vacation is 'les vacances', because, as he says, it's always a pluraity of holidays, not just "a holiday" for a Frenchman! :)), but he uses the same method to get you to play around with those exceptions.

He also uses word association as he teaches, to form a little concept of the word in your head, so when you're figuring it out, there's kind of a bread-crumb trail to the answer. So, for example, I want to say, "I want to make a cake". Well, I think it through, rather than trying to force out the memory of the word, I actually think about it, like I'd think about what I want to say in English (only, of course, with enough practice, it comes almost automatic when speak, that we know what we want to say).

So I think, "Right, 'Je voudrais' is 'I want' and 'to make' is ... well... he says 'it's fair to make things...' oh yes! FAIRE! 'Je voudrais faire..', what's 'cake'? Oh yes! Well, it's sometimes called it in restaurants, 'un gateau'! So, Je voudrais faire un gateau'!"

What he does, is he repeats the method, rather than repeating the phrases. Nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, etc, etc, all get used again and again, but at different times, so as to make sure you haven't forgotten a word from the beginning - although you rarely end up forgetting a word (and he goes through how to say the sentence if you don't get it). He teaches in such a way that the first time you use the word in a sentence, you feel a goal is accomplish, that you've achieved something, that it becomes far, far more likely that it's going to go into your memory. This is in opposition to trying to force yourself to remember a list of nouns, and then constantly getting frustrated and upset, and building a negative enforcement of the words.

In short, this guy is truely amazing. I'm going to get a sandwich, put on Disc 2 and then shoot off an email to Ms Van Damme to suggest that she take a cue from this guy for teaching languages at her academy (if she doesn't already).

Oh yeah, an amazon link:


There's some complaints in the comments section, about sound quality (which I found no issues with) and his accent. Now, I'll admit, one or two English words he says sound odd, but he's perfectly comprehensible. I don't think the pronounciation of French words he teaches is wrong, having done French in school. Oh, and don't think, "Oh, well, no wonder it's so easy for him, he's done French before!" - I was abysmal, I learnt nothing and I am practically a novice approachign these CDs and the only advantage I have are some basic words and the knowledge of how to spell the words (like 'voiture' or 'Les liasions dangereuses') he says -- although that said, he usually tells you how to spell words, and if he doesn't, you'd recognise them written down, or figure most of it out (and then use the dictionary for its proper use: looking up hard to spell words, not just learning every word inside it).

Edited by Tenure
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As far as I know, he teaches French, Spanish and Italian (all part of the Romantic category) as well as German. Obviously the translation method, of changing pronunciations would not be possible with Japanese or Russian, however, although they would be difficult, the key would be in simply finding the underlying systems and teaching those. To a Russian child, forming the concepts of his language, it is no more difficult than an English child learning English. Remember, a child doesn't learn by "I am, you are, he is", but by a much more, how should I say... organic approach?

In a sense, yes, this method can be applied to other language learning, in the sense that integrating the language would be the right way, and learning by rote would also by the right way, but the harder and perhaps not so fulfilling way.

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I haven't seen or used any of his materials so I can't comment. Of course an approach that depends too heavily on recognizing cognates won't work for Chinese or Saami (with the exception of the word "tundra"), but it's not a bad memory aid. The main problem in language teaching, I think, is making the student aware that they are missing something. For example in Hindi, there's a difference between [pal] "take care", [phal] "blade" which English speakers often don't notice ("ph" isn't pronounced "f" here), also [gan] "song" and [ghan] "bundle". While students do need to learn this, the traditional drilling technique isn't effective. The most effective method that I've seen focuses on conversational usage with no vocabulary memorization, and monolingual instruction (i.e. if you're learning Swahili, the teacher only uses Swahili). This only works if you have a live instructor who can interact with you. It's sort of difficult initially because you can't say anything, but after what maybe a month, you learn to use the language. So if you can't remember the word for "knife" you could try asking "What's the thing that you use to cut bread or string with".

A language teacher does need to have a solid understanding of the structure of the language they're teaching, but a mistake that language teachers used to make and maybe still do is think that they need to teach students abstract algebraic rules. It really sucks when the teacher gets those rules wrong (which happens too often), tries to teach them, and then has to backpedal.

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What do you mean by abstract algebraic rules exactly?
For example, the rule of English which moves prepositions from after the verb to after the object, where "I looked up the answer" becomes "I looked the answer up". The rule can be described abstractly as X-v[V-prep]-[NP]-Y => X-v[V]-[NP]-prep-Y. Fortunately that approach has fallen out of favor over the past 20 years, but you still see survivors in the less well-developed language pedagogies. I've never seen any form of handed-down explicit rule that was as effective as simply presenting the relevant structures in usage from which the student can induce a rule on their own.
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  • 5 years later...

There seems to be a certain language teacher who was associated with Michel Thomas going on "strike".

Two infact!


There also is a matter of sales.

The courses, including mine, are finding a large audience.

However, most of the people comprising this audience do not pay for the courses. They get them off of pirate sites that steal our work and enable anyone to download it gratis. The authors receive nothing in return. This is theft, pure and simple. You may justify it anyway you wish; it remains theft.

I just Googled " Paul Noble+ bit torrent" and was not surprised to get over four million hits. Just imagine how many illegal downloads that represents. No one is immune to this phenomenon. I estimate that over 50% of my courses are illegally downloaded. The number for Michel Thomas's courses is even higher.

Shocking as it may seem to those not active in this work, except for making a name for oneself, the authoring of anything which may be digitally copied is not too lucrative. The good old days when authors lived off of royalties in their dotage is long gone. The internet has changed all of that. I definitely do not recommend anyone else to follow in my footsteps in this matter if you hope to earn a living from such efforts.

My future efforts at teaching will not be vulnerable to online piracy. I suggest others follow suit.

My current teacher, Boris Shekhtman, requested my assistance in sharing his method. His work has demonstrated that students are able, with the correct support, to quickly achieve high level proficiency in foreign language communication. With all due respect to the Michel Thomas approach which I still consider the best way to learn the basics, the foundation, for any language, the method of Boris Shekhtman allows the student to quickly, comfortably and with excellent grammar and pronunciation communicate with native-speakers. Such communication is on a very high level which is rarely, if ever, attained in many years of professional study. This method has now very much influenced the way I teach languages. However, in view of the rampant piracy that has infected the web I told him that I believe that issuing CDs or other courses that may be digitally pirated would be a mistake. He saw the logic of this and decided to continue with in-person teaching and carefully controlled sharing of our work. The work will be only shared with people who will respect the efforts of those who have developed it over the past 40 years. It will not be available for pirating of any sort.

Mr. Thomas told me many times in the 1990's that he was afraid that if he allowed his courses to be openly sold on cassettes ( now CDs and downloads) that his work would be stolen. In my enthusiasm I spent two years planting the seeds that resulted in the present courses. In retrospect, I now realize that his fears have been realized.

I shall not make that mistake again with the work of Boris Shekhtman

There is also a parasite of a public school teacher bullshiting in the comment section.

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I've learned a few languages (including French), but before the last year and a half or so I have never focused on the methods I was using. French for instance was just way too easy to bother - it felt like no matter what method I used, I was picking everything up effortlessly. In hind sight, I realize that that wasn't because of the learning materials, but because of the endless spoken, sung and written French i was surrounded by, which provided and organic learning experience. (there's one exception as far as materials, Pierre Capretz's "French in Action" video series; that is great because it doesn't use translations at all - but can still be followed by near-complete beginners - some of its principles I recognize in the OPs ideas)

Only when I started learning Japanese have I figured out what works and what doesn't (because I had to). The three main things one should avoid at all cost are: formal grammar, memorizing groups of words of any kind for any reason, and trying to speak a new language (pretty much ever, during the learning process, including after you're well into advanced mode, but especially early on or without very strict supervision by a native speaker).

1. Understanding abstract rules is pointless (because a. they're second hand, they're derived from a language that was already invented without the inventors conceiving of those formal rules, and therefor languages don't lend themselves to being described by a set of logical rules, and b. fun fact, living languages don't actually follow the rules of their corresponding grammar: to some extent, formal grammar is always wrong).

2. Memorizing words is inefficient and prohibitively boring. Ok, I thought of one exception: numbers; they're just too easy to learn, to pass up the opportunity to get a huge head start on a brand new language by tackling an infinite number of its words in a day or two.

3. Speaking before you know how to speak properly reinforces errors. That's why some immigrants can live in a country 10 or more years and not speak properly, while someone else, just as intelligent, who's never been in that country can learn the language perfectly in a year just by using a different method.

Some of the steps that work (they should be taken roughly in this order, but they of course overlap):

-learning the writing system/spelling rules first (whichever is applicable) / as early as possible,

sentence/text drills (preferably sentence drills - using a spaced repetition method, but less methodical text drills -where you figure out the meaning of a text, song/poem you like, and then go over it from time to time for reinforcement - works well to break up the monotony of just "memorizing" sentences [Note at the bottom]),

-early transition into use of the target language in the learning process (where you rely on a same language description of the meaning of new sentences instead of a translation, when adding them to your learning material),

-audio and video immersion,


-and finally writing before ever trying to speak.

All this to the point where actual speaking practice is an easy, brief last step towards sounding like a native.

However, the main keys, I found, are:

1. Spaced repetition principle: this means that just because you know something now, doesn't mean you know it next week. But, if three days from now you go over it, it does mean you'll know it next week. And if, in two weeks you go over it again, it means you'll know it in a month too. There is free spaced repetition software designed especially for language learning (I recommend Anki - the old version, not the new - which allows for audio and video integration) with both material gathered by others and the option to gather one's own material (I recommend the latter for pretty much every stage of learning except the very beginning) that applies the principle automatically, and as efficiently as the best instructor would, if not more.

2. This is counter-intuitive: Being extremely selective in what you learn, what it is about, what it is from, what it sounds/looks like, etc, and being selective without too much thought put into it. That means that if you're having any trouble figuring out the meaning of something, remembering a word or a structural component in a sentence, if you don't like some learning material/story/song/poem for whatever reason, if something bores you in any way, throw it out as early as possible, with as little thought given to the action as possible. Even if you don't have a reason for throwing something out, throw it out just because the notion of throwing it out randomly popped into your head. No reason to figure out why you felt like throwing it out, it would just be a waste of time. Unlike with pretty much any other subject, with a language you can do that and your learning will be unaffected. Learning a language isn't a hierarchical process, it makes no difference what order you learn different things in. If you throw something out, you will eventually encounter it again when you're more advanced and therefor learning far more seamlessly.

[Note, contains a couple of clarifications: I put "memorizing" sentences in quotes because that's not really what's going on: unlike with words, just because you know how to say a sentence, or you know what a sentence means, doesn't mean you have it memorized. The meaning of a sentence can sometimes be inferred from understanding as little as one word, and a sentence can be reproduced by understanding the words and having an implicit sense of a language's structure. Because the same word is usually used more than once in a collection of sentences (be it copy/pasted from some other learning material, or borrowed from an organic text -again, the latter is always better), even reproducing full sentences becomes by orders of magnitudes easier than memorizing words, without losing any efficiency in learning (and in fact gaining a whole lot of efficiency, because you're learning grammar, not just words).

Clarification two. "sentence drills" go two ways: you either read/listen to a sentence/short text and then tell the software you're using how well you understood it - after flipping over a hidden answer section to help you - and the software schedules the next time you encounter that sentence accordingly, or you look at a translation/cryptic description of the sentence, and then try to reproduce it, think through all the details you should know about it, and then schedule your next encounter with it based on how well you did with that. I'm gonna go out on a limb here and declare that the two methods aren't equally effective, one is better than the other. But I have no idea which, in general. In Japanese it's definitely the latter, but that's because Japanese is a special case.

Damn. This went a bit longer than expected.

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  • 4 months later...

I came across a video of Stephen Krashen (he's a language learning expert from USC) discussing his theories, so I figured I might as well post it. It is relevant to Michel Thomas' methods, in many ways. I think it's important to disseminate these theories, to inform as many people as possible that language learning doesn't have to be tedious and difficult, and, with small caveats, can in fact be as easy as watching television, listening to music, and reading.


The 30 minute video:

Here's a brief description of his five main hypotheses, the interview kinda assumes that the viewers know about them:


For me, the two most important ones, as far as my language learning, have been the first:

The Acquisition-Learning distinction is the most fundamental of all the hypotheses in Krashen's theory and the most widely known among linguists and language practitioners.

According to Krashen there are two independent systems of second language performance: 'the acquired system' and 'the learned system'. The 'acquired system' or 'acquisition' is the product of a subconscious process very similar to the process children undergo when they acquire their first language. It requires meaningful interaction in the target language - natural communication - in which speakers are concentrated not in the form of their utterances, but in the communicative act.

The 'learned system' or 'learning' is the product of formal instruction and it comprises a conscious process which results in conscious knowledge 'about' the language, for example knowledge of grammar rules. According to Krashen 'learning' is less important than 'acquisition'.


and the fourth:

The Input hypothesis is Krashen's attempt to explain how the learner acquires a second language. In other words, this hypothesis is Krashen's explanation of how second language acquisition takes place. So, the Input hypothesis is only concerned with 'acquisition', not 'learning'. According to this hypothesis, the learner improves and progresses along the 'natural order' when he/she receives second language 'input' that is one step beyond his/her current stage of linguistic competence. For example, if a learner is at a stage 'i', then acquisition takes place when he/she is exposed to 'Comprehensible Input' that belongs to level 'i + 1'. Since not all of the learners can be at the same level of linguistic competence at the same time, Krashen suggests that natural communicative input is the key to designing a syllabus, ensuring in this way that each learner will receive some 'i + 1' input that is appropriate for his/her current stage of linguistic competence.


These two ideas have really formed the basis of my successful learning of several new languages. They are the reason why my main source of learning material has been comprehensible and interesting reading and viewing materials, rather than textbooks and drills. Of course, the sentence drill via SRS method I describe above has been of great use to get me to the point of being able to find comprehensible and interesting reading and viewing materials (the choice of sentences also employs the fourth principle of i+1 input, in the sense that each sentence I add to my collection usually has only one unknown element - be it a new grammar pattern or a new word - in it, not two or more, thus ensuring that the sentence is in that i+1 sweet spot where it's comprehensible but also adds something new).


But, as an example, a few months into my studies of Japanese, I've been using drills less and less already and have been spending more and more time watching Japanese TV and reading graded readers and various online blogs created with language learners in mind, instead. The move hasn't slowed my progress. If anything, it has accelerated it.


And, theoretically, one could in fact, with enough effort and imagination, create comprehensible and interesting materials even for near-total beginners. You can in fact create interesting/funny/highly meaningful stories and dialog using nothing but simple sentences and basic vocabulary. It's just not something that is available as of yet, because talented writers work for a general audience, not for a very tiny group of people who are interesting in natural language acquisition. Even the material created for native children (which often is amazing, and the work of talented writers) assumes far greater comprehension than a beginner language learner has.

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