The Michel Thomas Language Method
March 20, 2008 7:00 AM   Subscribe

Polyglot Michel Thomas came to prominence through his work for the French resistance and the successful interrogation of Nazis (who had formerly imprisoned him). After the war he started to develop (and eventually patent) a method for teaching languages that eschewed notes, books, writing, memorisation and homework. Instead, words and phrases would be built up in lego-like constructions to provide “confidence in hours not years”. He gave private lessons to a long list of A-list celebrities including Woody Allen, Natasha Kinsky, Tony Curtis and Grace Kelly. A BBC documentary from 1997 told his story and tested him out with the less exalted audience of 16 year old London school kids pre-selected to be “incapable of learning a foreign language” by their teachers [YT pt 1, 2, 3, 4]. He was secretive about how his methods worked until the end of his life when he finally made his courses available as audiobooks.

The courses have been mentioned several times by people here but I thought Thomas was a sufficiently interesting guy to merit a FPP. His UK site offers a freely downloadable lesson if you are curious. He wrote an autobiography and a book describing his methods for the first time is due for publication.
posted by rongorongo (24 comments total) 102 users marked this as a favorite
Sure, but can he order a cheesesteak?
posted by Navelgazer at 7:47 AM on March 20, 2008 [7 favorites]

I hereby proclaim myself a fan of Michel Thomas and am anxiously awaiting his three new Foundation courses. MT Mandarin, Russian, and Arabic will be available in a few weeks -- available now through iTunes. Granted, he died 2 years ago, so these are done up by his publishing house using his approach and some of his former underlings. I'll be very interested to see if they pull it off.

Yes, he has a very heavy accent. Yes, he gets too folksy at times. Yes, he doesn't always go for the "native" idiom. Yes, you need to take his (non-Germanic) pronunciations with a grain of salt. Yes, you'll still need to augment the material with other sources. Yes, he always manages to pick one student (on his tapes) who is excruciatingly thick-witted ... but I admire his approach and find it startlingly effective.
posted by RavinDave at 7:59 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

He's not without controversy.
I have to say he's been my constant companion on the bus for the past year. I don't think it's helped me any, but it seems that the folks in Mexico I speak with have improved their Spanish considerably.
posted by Floydd at 8:02 AM on March 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

> Classes with Michel Thomas are very much in demand. We recommend that you contact the center at least one month before you wish to study with Mr. Thomas in order to book a class. If you wish to study with an instructor, please try to contact the center at least two weeks in advance.

If he's dead, their website should be updated to reflect the new waitlist structure.
posted by ardgedee at 8:15 AM on March 20, 2008 [3 favorites]

I (heart) Michel Thomas. Prior to a business trip to Italy last month, I used his Italian course as a refresher from my 15-years-unused schoolboy Italian, and it worked like the proverbial champ. I went in just a month from not having spoken more than a few pleasantries in Italian in a decade and a half to being able to conduct myself in Milan for an entire day of sightseeing without once resorting to pantomime or English.
posted by deadmessenger at 8:19 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

MT won't get you all the way there, but he'll get you started, and I think that is the most important part.
posted by blue_beetle at 8:36 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I spend a lot of time listening to the German CDs. I don't think it's been improving my ability in that language, but the conversation is absolutely delightful.
posted by nowonmai at 8:45 AM on March 20, 2008

MT doesn't so much "teach" as language as he sits down and "explains" it to you. The difference is subtle, but significant. It better prepares you to generate novel responses, rather than parroting pre-programed replies a la Pimsleur. And I'm not knocking Pimsleur. I think MT/Pimsleur is a marvelous one-two punch. A grammar-jab and a pronunciation uppercut.
posted by RavinDave at 8:47 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

Mandarin? Is it possible for him that way?
posted by johnjoe at 9:05 AM on March 20, 2008 [11 favorites]

johnjoe: Mandarin? Is it possible for him that way?

That was either:

[A.] An innocent question.
[B.] The greatest inside joke in the entire history of Metafilter.
posted by RavinDave at 9:12 AM on March 20, 2008 [5 favorites]

Can you get it for me tonight because it is not possible for me to get it that way?
posted by Damienmce at 9:46 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

The MT method is really most effective if you work through the lessons WITHOUT worrying about the written part of the language. Seriously. You will shortchange yourself if you fret about it or scramble to jot down notes. I'm a great believer in his notion that you don't so much "forget" things -- as you just never really learned them well in the first place. Listening without notes goes a long way to ensure this. You really need to follow his initial advice and just kick back and absorb. You'll be astounded how much you will retain from passive listening and talking back to your mp3 player.

Of course, down the road .... AFTER you've been familiarized yourself with the material, I gotta confess that it *is* handy to have transcripts.
posted by RavinDave at 10:03 AM on March 20, 2008

I’ve been listening to his Spanish course for the last few weeks and I think I’m falling in love with the girl in the course. The way she politely yet sincerely chuckles when Thomas –for the third time- follows the verb “estar” with the words “to be a staaaaar”? It breaks my heart. Plus she’s super smart, unlike our fellow student, who can’t seem to remember that “qué” does not rhyme with “way”. The doofus.
posted by Siberian Mist at 10:22 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

She's mine, Siberian Mist .
posted by Floydd at 10:38 AM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

I have a hella long commute and would love to learn languages, so this sounds great. But WhenTF am I ever going to use them?
posted by DU at 10:48 AM on March 20, 2008

Yeah, I'm going to have to give a thumbs up to Michel Thomas. It was awesome to listen to on a road trip a few years ago. I would get more into language learning if there was actually a use for it around this part of the U.S... I don't remember any of the Spanish anymore and am afraid I'd just forget anything I learn.
posted by mr. creosote at 11:57 AM on March 20, 2008

Mandarin? Is it possible for him that way?

It is possible but I do not like it and I do not want it that way today.

Michael Thomas is pretty cool. He would be much better on audio, though, if someone would give him a glass of water. I fear I have picked up the ability to cluck my dentures in 10 languages.

Also, I wish to go to war with him on the difference between "Can you do it?" and "Will you do it?" which he either refuses to understand or is just personally weird about.
posted by rokusan at 12:35 PM on March 20, 2008

C'est possible, mais ça ne me plaît pas et je ne le veux pas comme ça aujourd'hui.
posted by RavinDave at 12:54 PM on March 20, 2008

Floydd and Siberian... actually... what I hear is a rather clever young lady who's trying very hard to be polite with the faintly lecherous teacher who fawns over her.

But maybe I'm adding my own visuals. :)
posted by rokusan at 2:25 PM on March 20, 2008

I listened to the French one ("I'm sorry but that is not very comfortable for me"), and I got the definite impression that Michel Thomas was a big fan of the Sir Harry Flashman method of language learning. :) On reading Floydd's links, that only adds to the idea!

That said, this is fascinating stuff, and the core method, which as I understand it is to elicit from the student a focused and rapid performance of the natural human process of learning by simply building on previous knowledge and reapplying it, ought to be applicable to the teaching and learning of many other areas of basic knowledge that are not pure collections of unrelated facts.

For instance, basic mathematics. I think a person with no more than basic +-*/ knowledge can learn multifactor algebra in an afternoon. Re-explain addition, derive multiplication, add in the concept of negative numbers and lead the student to understanding subtraction as addition of negative numbers, explain division as multiplication by a number smaller than one, derive fractions, explain percentage as a specialized fraction, explain the concept of powers (positive and negative) as repeated multiplication or division, a brief diversion to lead the student to discover primes and lowest common denominator and factorization, and also compound interest as an everyday use of powers, introduce the unknown quantity (which until now has always been after the = sign) which gives us algebra, then teach multi-factor algebra by the method of holding one unknown "still" to express the other in terms of it. Voila!

Now this seems like it ought to be very basic pedagogical theory, but it doesn't really resemble any way I recall being taught anything. Any professional teachers (of anything really, but the more basic the better) have an opinion?
posted by aeschenkarnos at 3:25 PM on March 20, 2008 [6 favorites]

Mandarin? Is it possible for him that way?

Can you get it for me tonight because it is not possible for me to get it that way?

It is possible but I do not like it and I do not want it that way today.

I think at this point, it is more than fair to demand an explanation.
posted by !Jim at 7:07 PM on March 20, 2008 [1 favorite]

!Jim ... As good as Michel Thomas is, his method lends itself to parody at times. He builds up sentences from smaller units. This is quite powerful -- and not at all to be scoffed at. But, it must be admitted that the patterns he concocts are often a wee bit artificial and klutzy (he's trying to make a point). Thus, we get:

Can you?

Can you get it?
Pouvez-vous l'obtenir?

... for me ...
... pour moi ...

Can you get it for me?
Pouvez-vous l'obtenir pour moi?

etc ...

Sometimes, when illustrating a particular grammar point or common construction, he ties himself into knots. Rather than asking a straightforward: "Would you like to go?" he might ask: "Is it that you would like to be going?"
posted by RavinDave at 7:36 PM on March 20, 2008 [2 favorites]

Not to mention, upon listening to both the French and Italian free samples off itunes, the construction "It is not possible for me that way" has come up both times. Those jokes made much more sense after I'd listened to both samples :)
posted by aclevername at 8:10 PM on March 21, 2008

I often say "It is not possible for me that way" to the Italians, but rarely to the French.
posted by tellurian at 7:06 AM on March 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

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