I’ve mentioned previously that I was looking for a book to study French, when I stumbled across a Michel Thomas French CD on the bookshelf that boasted that it had no text book.
Since French orthography had always baffled me, it sounded promising.
If I had heard the spiel about Michel Thomas, I would not have considered it.
Moniek Kroskof was born in Poland, educated in Germany and later France. It’s a long story.
After WWII he moved to the US where he became ‘Michel Thomas: French teacher to the stars.’
He claimed he could teach students to speak French in one week.
So far, so bad.
Luckily, I was oblivious to all this.
After using the CD for a while, I became intrigued about the man and learnt about a BBC documentary: ‘Michel Thomas: The Language Master’.
This 45 minute film interested me both from the perspective of learning and of teaching language.
Thomas apparently spoke 10 or so languages and taught around half as many.
Yes, he has a distinct Polish accent. Listening to him speak English, I can imagine his French (Spanish, Italian, etc.) may be similarly accented. Purists beware.
I will have to work on my French accent in the future, but first I had to enter the race.
Thomas got me across the start line, where previously I’d always collapse under the weight of grammar.
His teaching method is radical.
No text, no note taking, ‘no memorisation’.
Sounds crazy, but watch the video, and you’ll understand how it works. You’ll also notice that the method relies heavily upon cognates.
Here, I want to highlight the differences in his teaching style that I noticed later, while studying using his CDs. I’m curious as to if/how these techniques might be applied (to teach English in Japan, for example).
To begin with, I doubt that his methods would be possible with more than 10 students in a class. Let me know what you think.
One friend commented that she didn’t like his authoritarian teaching style. I had two similar teachers at school – one in grade 7, another in year 12. Many students hated these men. They were ‘old school’. I actually warm to this. No, I am not a masochist. Oh, alright, perhaps I have tendencies.
In Japan, ‘speed learning’ language study CDs are popular. I’ve heard one for English. The actors read the text, which is instantly followed by the translation in Japanese. Is this an effective study technique? The student thinks they know what the English meant, then hears the answer and gets a warm fuzzy feeling of ‘That’s what I thought it meant’. It’s passive. Motivation to think is weakened because the answer is given immediately.
In contrast, Michel Thomas teaches through questioning.
Someone who analysed his teaching found he was asking around 10 questions a minute. The students are kept busy. But the questions are a progression, constructing the language one brick at a time.
The questions are in English, ‘How would you say “Why don’t you have a reservation for me?”‘ (based on vocabulary already provided).
The students answer, then the teacher repeats the correct answer for reinforcement.
This is the key: the student has to think of the answer, although the questions are in a somewhat logical sequence and do not present unreasonable expectations. Thomas does not spoon-feed. This technique stimulates active learning. It is not the ‘repeat this sentence after me’ style of language teaching. When I think back to my teaching days, I realise I should have asked more questions, instead of always giving the answer. I want to apply this to other communication too.
I have noticed that he never verbalises an incorrect pattern in the target language. If students make a mistake, he says ‘No, that would mean ZXY’. But he himself never ‘sets a bad example’. I think that when I was a teacher, I may have said ‘You can’t say “ZXY”’, but now I feel that this imprints in students’ minds. It echoes. And bad things stick in our memories. As a child, I was told ‘Don’t bite your nails’ and started to wonder what biting my nails might be like.
The course is a total contrast to ‘immersion learning’, which I have experienced in Thailand and France. It is not a comprehensive course, but a stepping stone.
I feel this course fast-tracked my learning. It helped me overcome initial issues with grammar and orthography. The course explained how letters are pronounced and then later, when I looked at written French again, I found myself far more able to pronounce it. The course also provided tricks for me to form my own sentences. It gave me initial confidence. Perhaps it lulled me into a false sense of security. And I’m glad. In France, it seems everyone speaks very quickly. I’m still a beginner. But without this Michel Thomas as my coach, I would have given up before the start line.