“ Author: Michel Thomas / Genre: Languages / Narrator: Michel Thomas „
Having recently argued my way into registering for a Spanish course without having my current level of language assessed, I had to make sure I was at least as good as, and preferably better than, the level I claimed to be at. A quick trip to a library later and I had stocked up on half a dozen different audio courses to help me brush up my lingo, one of which was this 2 hour introductory course from Michel Thomas.
I've never used a Michel Thomas course before, but I had heard of him, of course. In fact, I defy any frequent European flyer and Sunday Times reader to say they haven't heard of the guy, since adverts for his language packs seem to appear in almost all in-flight magazines at some point or another. My preconceived ideas were that he looked a bit odd (old, but not in a kind granddad way, more in a grumpy bloke next door who won't give you back your tennis ball way) and was something of a Nutty Professor. I knew he had these new fangled ideas about language learning that went against everything I'd ever been taught - no books, no reading or writing, no memorising. However, I also knew that he had had 'great success' (even if he did say so himself) and was popular with the rich and famous, to whom he provided private lessons.
This starter pack is 2 hours long, on 2 CDs, and is taken from the full, basic language course of his which is 8 hours in total. The front cover reiterates the promises I'd heard before 'No books, no writing, just confidence in hours'. The back contains a list of 'impressive' clients that should make any potential purchaser go 'wow!' but somehow fail to deliver unless you are the type to be impressed by Princess Grace, Emma Thompson, Eddie Izzard or American Express.
The course starts with some instructions on how to use it (pause and repeat sentences at various points, don't think too much, don't write down) and then begins with a 'class' for 2 pupils who are 'learning' Spanish with Michel. One pupil is considerably better than the other and the weaker one is infuriating to listen to as he makes so many mistakes, and you have to wait for Michel to correct them before you can continue. This is annoying if you have already paused the CD to decide the answer yourself and just want to know whether you got it right. It is further complicated by the fact that Mr Thomas says 'No!' for 2 different reasons - when the grammar is incorrect but also when the pronunciation is. At several points when the student had the same answer as me, but was still reprimanded, I was confused as to why until talk of pronunciation took over. Michel uses the word "push" to mean "stress" or "emphasis", saying things like 'Only one push per word" which sounds odd to me and still irritates me a bit even though I now know exactly what he means by it. Even worse, his own English is a bit dubious at times (he has claimed to come from various countries in the past, but never from England: see http://www.michelthomas.org/default2.asp?section=law_suit ). In the end you have 3 people speaking Spanish, none of them native speakers, and the same 3 people interspersing their dialogue with mutterings in English. A reviewer on Amazon but it nicely when he said "This is Spanish spoken with a British accent. A British accent is lovely if you're speaking English in England. It doesn't fly well if one is making a real effort to learn to speak Spanish correctly and well."
Something that surprised me about the course was the amount of English that was spoken. I've studied languages in England and in the countries in which they are spoken, and have had classes where only the foreign language is spoken and classes where it's a mix, but without doubt I learnt more when English was banned and absolutely everything had to be said auf Deutsch or en Francais. Being the 'super dooper' language teacher he claims to be, I assumed Mr Thomas would favour this approach, but this wasn't the case. Lots of English was spoken by both him and the 'pupils'.
Annoying pronunciation and mistakes aside, is the CD any good? I was surprised with how much I learnt, sceptical as I was beforehand. It is language learning like none I've experienced before, but it does seem to work though the sentences and structures you learn are a dubious mix of the quasi-useful to the down-right improbable. Michel teaches a few words such as 'acceptable' and 'possible' and then drills these through the use of sentences:
· Is it acceptable for me/you?
· It is not acceptable for me/you.
· Why is it not acceptable for me/you?
Every few minutes a new word or two is introduced and the whole process begins again, for example:
· Is it acceptable for me/you that way?
· It is not acceptable for me/you that way.
· Why is it not acceptable for me/you that way?
I think the reason you end up picking it up is simply because it is said so much, over and over until you can't possibly forget it. The rate at which new words are introduced is also gradual, and on a need-to-know basis, so it's not until Michel asks you to say "I need it now" that he'll add, "And by the way, 'now' is 'ahora' in Spanish'. The language you learn seems to be very ad hoc as though it's whatever has just popped into his head, but by the end of the 2 hours I could say things such as:
· Do you have it? I (don't) have it.
· Do you have it for me? I do (not) have it (for you)
· Why don't you have it for me? (** no answer for this **)
· It is (not) urgent.
· I want it but I don't need it now.
· What do you have (for me)? (** again, no answer except 'something' **)
· There's no difference that way but I prefer it.
· I want to eat something now because I am hungry.
· Why don't you want to eat? I am not hungry.
· I want to see it / I cannot see it.
· Which restaurant do you have a preference for for tonight?
· Where do you want to eat tonight?
· Do you have the confirmation of my reservation for tonight?
· Why don't you have a reservation for me?
· I am busy. Are you busy?
I could go on - you pick up a lot in the 2 hours but it's not all useful or usable - a lot of the questions above are all very well, but without the answers you're not going to understand the response you get. And, the way he presents the course, it's hard for a beginner to know where and how you can shorten things to the length they would be in English. After all if someone said 'why don't you want to eat something now?' I would never answer with a full 'I do not want to eat something now because I am not hungry'. I assume in this case I could just respond 'no tengo hambre' but not all examples are as easy as this.
I listened to the course in 2 goes, and took different approaches to the 2 CDs. With the first one, I found it really strange not to be writing things down, especially things I wanted to remember, so after a few tracks I decided to do it anyway, and grabbed pen and pencil. The second time through I decided to do as I was told to see if it really did work, and therefore did nothing but listen and repeat. Which was more effective? It's hard to say because I can remember structures and vocabulary from both CDs, so I would say if you feel you really must make notes as you listen, go ahead and do so. I don't think it results in any less language learning than doing it the proper Michel Thomas was.
Things I don't like about this course:
- there's no accompanying book, or guide of any kind, so you really don't know what you're going to learn until you listen.
- The course jumps right in with generic sentences without the usual 'my name is .', 'I am .. years old', 'I live in .' which are the first things I've always learnt in a language before. I know how to say them in Spanish, but not thanks to this course even though it is supposed to be a beginners one.
- Things such as numbers, days of the week, place names and usual nouns are not included as the emphasis is very much on verb forms.
- Without writing I have no idea of spelling although he does spell a few words out. Also, he'll say 'with an accent on the I' without saying what sort of accent, things like that. My opinion is that this will make it harder for me to use these sentences and phrases in written work and that I'll end up learning them all again. As it was, when I started writing for a bit I ended up flicking through a grammar book constantly to make sure I was getting things right.
- The emphasis on pronunciation is annoying simply because even the teacher is not Spanish, so though he corrects others I wonder whether he himself is as spot on as he thinks. I learnt Spanish while working in Spain and my memory of the time does not involve people who sounded like him.
- The pace is so s-l-o-w. I could have repeated the sentence, correctly, half a dozen times in the time it took one of the students to generate it incorrectly, and I ended up getting impatient. I fail to see the value added by 'students' on this course unless you make exactly the same mistakes as them, which is unlikely. I would have preferred either just the one, good, student, or simply to have Michel talking on his own.
- Mr Thomas's personality began to grate after a while - he seemed to like the sound of his own voice and made 'jokes' that just made me cringe. I could imagine we wouldn't get on well in person, so it's a good thing we'll never meet (he died in 2005 I believe).
Did the course deliver? In some ways, yes. I am confident to some extent, with Spanish now, but I don't think it is good that they have split these CDs away from the main pack as I feel slightly stranded in mid-air now, and I feel the full course (had they had it in the library) would have been a much better option. I would not recommend buying this course since if you wanted to top it up you would have to re-buy the first 2 CDs in the full pack, so would recommend trying to borrow it from a friend or a library first, and if you like it, then consider investing in the full course. It doesn't come cheap: the sets retail at £70 for the full 8 hour course and £15 for the short 2 hour one, though Amazon has them at half price at the moment. If you get hooked Advanced Spanish courses are also available.
I'm giving this half marks because it is different and somewhat effective, but not right for me. I can use it as a revision tool quite happily, but won't be trying to learn from a similar course again as I prefer the complete package of reading and writing as well as speaking and listening. For a quick course prior to a holiday in Spain, however, it might be just the ticket as long as you don't want to ask where things are and how to get there, when things open and close, what time it is, how to buy a train or bus ticket or how to order a drink or something to eat then again, maybe not. It's a strange course because it doesn't teach anything useful like that, at least in the first 2 CDs, and without a supplementary sheet or book it's hard to know what you would learn in the full pack without spending all that money to find out. I'm sure it fills some gap in the language learning market, but I'm not exactly sure what gap that is, or who would benefit from it.
As I am interested in foreign languages I have tried several different courses for several languages, and have to say that the courses by Michel Thomas take some beating. I have used the Spanish Introductory one and I have been amazed how much I have learnt in a very short time. At first, I was sceptical. Being a person who has always learnt a language by using a textbook and attending taught sessions, I was not sure this idea of Michel Thomass would work, but believe me, it does!
When following a course by Michel Thomas, all you have to do is listen to CDs and you are taken on a voyage of discovery where you are taught the basics of the language. The Spanish course is very easy to follow and even after the first half hour you will be amazed how much you have learnt. Not just Hola/Adios but all kinds of useful phrases.
The introductory course is around two hours long and consists of two CDs. By the time you have finished listening to both of them you will have learnt a lot of Spanish. You will have the confidence to speak the language as it is all things that are useful. You can then decide if you want to progress onto the longer courses which Michel Thomas has produced.
STEP BY STEP
The CDs are interesting to listen to, none of these silly phrases like you get in usual introductory language courses, some of which you will never use. No vocabulary lists to memorise either. From the very beginning Michel Thomas guides you through the first few words and then links these together so you are using sentences almost straightaway and can hold a short conversation. It is even more fun to use this method of learning if you can join in with a friend who also wants to learn Spanish.
EASY TO FOLLOW
The CDs are carefully structured and the narrator will ask you how do you say ? and you will probably think I have no idea. But he will recap on what you have already learnt and help you to form the sentence you need, not just a simple where is the bank sort of thing, but really useful things. These may seem complicated when you first realise what you are being asked to say, but he breaks it down into what you have learnt previously and helps you build the sentence. You will truly be amazed at how much you learn in a very short time.
Another plus point, these CDs are well narrated, not spoken with an irritating accent or droning voice like so many other courses, and you are not expected to repeat things parrot fashion. They really are quite interesting to listen to and not at all boring or too repetitive. In fact, you are expected to think through what you are about to say and this keeps you alert.
Michel Thomass course in Spanish is entirely an audio course, with no writing, no textbooks, all you do is listen. No pens, no paper, no homework, no memorising is the claim from his courses.
Remember, this is the way you learnt to speak your own language initially. Babies learn by listening and imitating, this is what Michel Thomas Spanish course enables you to do. In other words, you learn the natural way.
Okay, the traditional methods of using a textbook are fine, but I am sure I am not the only one who has confidently used a phrase in a foreign language and then when the native speaker has understood my question s/he has gabbled back at me. Whoa!! The textbook only taught me what I needed to ask. It didnt teach me the reply I would get gabbled back at me! With Michel Thomas Spanish, you listen to the language and become accustomed to the sounds, helping you to understand it better.
I HAVENT TIME
Dont use the excuse that you have no time to learn Spanish. If you are going to a Spanish speaking counrty on holiday, or have been this year and hope to go again, then it is much more fun if you are able to use the language. But perhaps you have no time to attend an evening class or the thought of lots of study puts you off?
With Michel Thomas you can learn anywhere as all you do is listen to the CDs. You can put them on in the car when you drive to and from work every day, it is amazing just how much you learn by doing this. Or you can listen to them on your headphones when travelling on the train or bus. You might be busy at home, put the CDs into the machine and listen to them while you get on with your jobs. Much more useful than listening to music all the time, or radio discussions.
It is about a year since I bought my Introductory Spanish course and it cost around £15. You may find special offers in discount bookstores or sales. If you are unsure whether you will stick at the course or not, then look on E Bay and buy the introductory course from there. They are a good bargain, usually available from around a fiver. (I sold mine on E Bay when I had learnt from it and progressed onto the full course). Or you could ask at your local library and borrow it from there. Once you have listened to the CDs over and over again several times you will not need them again as you will have learnt enough to enable you to progress to the next level, so it is worthwhile buying secondhand or borrowing.
If you manage to master the basics of this Spanish course, then you may want to move onto a more advanced level or perhaps try a different language. Whatever you do, I am confident once you have tried Michel Thomass systems you will be amazed at how well you do.
Michel Thomas's approach to language learning aims to provide in a few hours a functional working knowledge of a language without books, note-taking or conscious memorizing. This CD provides a two-hour course in Spanish.