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French With Michel Thomas Complete Course CD (Audio CD)
Member Name: dj981
French With Michel Thomas Complete Course CD (Audio CD)
Date: 05/11/10, updated on 05/11/10 (398 review reads)
Advantages: A genuinely inspiring entry-level language course
Disadvantages: I wanted to throttle the drunk American five minutes in
Michel Thomas delivers the first words of his French Language course in a distinctly authoritative and sagacious manner. The techniques he has developed, he goes on to say, will involve merely listening and responding. No learning by rote. No writing. No memorising. The responsibility for learning rests solely with the teacher, he reassuringly states. As this introduction forms part of a teaser introductory course, originally sold separately from the full content, you'd be forgiven for dismissing this as Americanised sales hyperbole. Perhaps it is, yet it renders the course no less effective. Thomas fully deserves his status as an internationally esteemed linguist and teacher, as this eight-hour Foundation box set and its Advanced supplement left me with a better grasp of French grammar than did five years of schooling.
By any standards, Thomas' life was a remarkable one. Polish born of wealthy descent, he studied in Bordeaux and Vienna, before the Second World War witnessed his metamorphosis into a resistance fighter. Even changing his name from Moniek Krosfkof to a more Gallic moniker couldn't spare him from capture, enslavement, and torture by the Nazis, although he would eventually exact his revenge: playing a pivotal role in the capture of thousands of war criminals after the German capitulation. It was only subsequent to this and his emigration to the U.S. that Thomas devised and perfected his teaching methods. At first only working with diplomats, royalty, and celebrities, he opened a series of language institutes in America, before an appearance on a TV documentary in the mid 90's led to the commissioning of his pre-recorded courses. Their reception was incredible.
By the point of these recordings, Thomas was into his eighties, yet his abundant enthusiasm for teaching and charismatic persona will quickly invigorate anyone with memories of daydreaming through tedious French lessons as a child. His blueprint is quite simple; indoctrinate the spoken work first, and the written word will follow as a matter of course. When you consider how small children adopt language, it's amazing our school curriculum took so long to realise this. Thomas is emphatic in his insistence that students follow the phonetics of everyday French, passing on all the abbreviations and dropped vowels that render the spoken word so drastically different to its written counterpart. That isn't to say Thomas isn't a stickler for accuracy; grammar, pronunciation and intonation are enforced almost regimentally - hardly surprising for a man who once trained as a Commando.
To facilitate a more organic learning experience, Thomas employs a live classroom environment. Two authentic students - one American, one British - form two thirds of a three-student classroom, with the intention that you constitute the final third. The prologue is encouraging; Thomas observes that thousands of words commonly used in modern English are a mere tonal adjustment away from becoming their usable French ancestors. When employing these in conversation, I'd advise checking you're not using one of the numerous false friends found in the Anglo-French translation, but it serves as an initial boost to confidence.
The two students, especially the American woman, who I'm sure the publishers found staggering out of a nearby pub, are at the very basic end of French comprehension. Having retained some GCSE French from school, I found the pace quite slow at first, with Thomas battling to introduce simple concepts of differing verb conjugations depending on the subject. The American clearly had no French whatsoever and/or was apparently out of her mind on Gin at the time, and slows the whole process down to the point Thomas almost completely abandons her by the fifth disc. I was literally screaming the answers at her when stopped at some traffic lights one day on the way to work, which was quite embarrassing when I turned to see an adjacent motorist staring back at me with concern.
Minor frustrations aside, I found Thomas' informal methods enjoyable. It's ostensibly a grammatical tuition, and vocabulary is never expressly taught in isolation, more as a by-product of the learning process. Thomas builds on the same or similar phrases in English for French translation throughout, with an accompanying correction once the students offer a response. His fussiness with regard to pronunciation can be irritating sometimes; he often repeatedly corrects the students when to my ear there is no difference, but by the conclusion of disc eight, and especially once you progress to his Advanced course, you'll begin to appreciate why. French is a grammatically finicky language in comparison to English, with the scope for beginners to alter the entire tense or meaning of a phrase with a simple error in conjugation or gender. Thomas goes to great lengths to explain the myriad ways to humiliate yourself, and dispenses some useful techniques to circumvent the problems, usually by clipping and merging words as native speakers do.
His style won't suit everyone - he'll often meander into discourse on language evolution and the French influence on English - but if you subscribe to his mantra of 'guess vocabulary but never grammar', you'll appreciate that even these monologues are merely reinforcing your comprehension. The art in Thomas' technique lays in the almost complete absence of jargon; instead you'll be trained to process quite complex grammatical structures through abstractions such as diving boards and door handles, without the need to comprehend the meaning of the imperfect tense and suchlike.
All this theory is wonderful, but the decisive test for any language course is in practice. Having just bought a house in France, I was looking forward to practicing on our new neighbour, Albert. Usually on a visit, even catching sight of a French person plunges me into a cold sweat, just in case they tried to converse and my complete Brit-abroad ignorance made itself apparent. Anyone with a basic command of a foreign language will know that, when talking to a native, you are one or two carefully rehearsed phrases away from making a prize dick of yourself, usually when they assume you're fluent and respond at their normal incomprehensible tempo. This is the point the conversation breaks down, and you realise that smugly asking them what they thought of the macro-economic policy of the present government was a terrible idea.
I saw Albert lingering by the fence, and bravely offered him a 'Ca va?' This was usually the start and end of our conversations, followed by some pointing at the sun and puffing of cheeks, then dementedly smiling at each other in an awkward Mexican stand off of shared unilingual silence. I can't say it was an unerring success, but I at least managed to inform Albert that we were indeed learning French, that we were going home the following Friday, and that we would be demolishing an outbuilding once we had finished decorating the house. Admittedly, most of his replies sailed higher over my head than a passing Ryanair flight to Bordeaux, but I walked back to the house with at least some sense of satisfaction. I felt like I was actually learning conversational French, rather then the usual phrasebook rubbish that's only of practical use when you're looking for the train station or library.
I wouldn't say Michel Thomas is going to 'teach you French' in the strictest interpretation of the phrase. I'd also caution that whilst he claims to have extinguished the need for rote learning, I'd argue that learning by definition is a process facilitated by repetition; it's an unavoidable demand of the human brain. I needed to revisit the entire set many times over before the more complicated concepts sunk in, and I'd also advise you to supplement this course with reading French papers or news websites, and scanning Long Wave on your radio for some distant French station. In fairness, Thomas advises you do this as well. Trust me, you'll be surprised at what you've learned, but also intimidated by how much remains. Learning a language properly is a commitment of many years, and this course is merely a baby step on a long and frustrating journey. That said, I couldn't imagine a more engaging and inspiring character to wave you "Au revoir".
Summary: An incredible life, and an incredible introduction to French
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