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February 20, 2003
Words from Mark

I got an email from Mark Holland. BEdBlog hasn't had that many of these as yet, so I emailed back to Mark.


Do you have any problem with me posting this on BEdBlog?

You make some interesting points, which others might enjoy. Glad you seem to be liking it.

Either way, best regards, BM

Heartfeld sentiments, I might add. My obvious sincerity clearly got through to Mark, because this as his reply:

Well no, not really Brian,

If you think you can shoehorn it in then go for it.


Shoehorn it in? It's not hard to do. Anyway, this was the original email.

Hi Brian,

I really enjoyed your Only Hitler will do entry the other day. I did intend to comment but could really juggle the words together to respond adequately to what you'd said. I can only say I found you conclusions most plausible.

That's great Mark. You're doing fine. Don't knock yourself. Be confident.

I did want to tell you however, about a programme I'd seen on Sunday night on BBC4 called What the Germans did for us. It sounds like Adam Hart-Davis should be biking (rad-ing?) from Bremerhaven to Bayern and telling us about the great tutonic inventions like ocean currents and hypodermic needles. But no. It's really about the influence 20th Century (mostly West) Germany has had on British society. Autobahns, electronik musik and so on. They do touch on the idea that British hark back to the war because, as you say, it was this country's final hurrah as a world power. They show this in various forms from voting

That's British TV viewers voting

(half American) Winston Churchill as the "greatest ever Briton" for instance to the disgusting Achtung of the Daily Mirror during Euro 96.

All in all it is an interesting programme which ties in nicely with what both you and the German ambassador to Britain said recently about how post war Germany is all but ignored by most of Britain, especially in school history.

The programme is on again tonight on BBC4 at 11pm.

And I watched some of it. It was just as Mark says.

By the way after reading about your experience with the American-Austrian boys on the tube I've started listen to my Michel Thomas learn German cds again. I'd stopped after my holiday last August (to Berlin!) and needed a kick up the arse to get in motion again. So thanks. Although I'm still confused because to stay is bleiben and to live is leben, but maybe there's an Austrian colloquialism that as a mere beginner in the language can't grasp.

All the best.


There. That wasn't so hard. You just juggled words! That was great. (And can anyone explain that bleiben leben thing?)

About this Michel Thomas. I've heard of this guy. The thing I remember most vividly was that he just sits down and tells you the new language he's teaching you, and that's it. You just listen to what he says, and presumably (although this I don't remember this so vividly) say it back at him, and that's it. You just do it. No stressing and straining. No homework. You just have sessions with him.

He was teaching French for English speakers when I caught him, again on a TV show. He started, as I recall it, with lots of words which are pretty much the same in French as in English, and he took it from there.

Have I remembered Monsieur Thomas correctly? How good is he? And how good are his CDs? Mark, how did you decide to use him, rather than I don't know "Linguaphone"? How are you getting on? Juggle some more words and tell us about it. You can do it, I know you can.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 01:22 AM
Category: Languages

Well shoehorned Brian!

It's a bit embarrassing seeing the spelling and grammatical errors from an e-mail knocked up during dinner posted for all the world to see. Nevermind - publish and be damned.

I ought to clarify one thing before someone else sneaks in though. It's that 'leben' means to live as in not dead wheras to live as in to dwell is 'wohnen'. Ich wohne im Hertfordshire, Sie wohnen im London.

Why did I choose Michel Thomas?

It's a bit of a long tale that I can't think how to condense without missing anything important out.

I did German in the third year in school because I was in the top set for French. I seem to recall that I quite enjoyed it. However at the end of the year I had to take my options on what subjects to carry on with for GCSE and I dropped German in favour of French in which, at the end, I got a 'C'.I've only really used it since on a visit to Belgium 3 years ago and I wasn't too hot to tell the truth.

Anyway the renewed interest in German was sparked when watching the 2001 MTV European Music awards from Frankfurt. They had a German rock band called Rammstein performing. I'd heard of the band but never actually heard them in action. (See www.herzeleid.com for more Rammstein info.)

Let's face it. Most British ears only ever listen to English language lyrics. Non anglophone groups seeking international success have always had to sing in English - Abba, A'ha, The Hives and even Germany's Scorpions for instance. When foreign language songs have made it they've always been naff novelty tunes with no lasting substance - Je t'aime mais non plus, Joe Le Taxi and so on.

I've always thought this was somewhat chauvinistic. Our continental chums are exposed to English a lot more than we are their languages. In TV, films and mostly music. English is also seen as cool over there. One of the funniest things I've ever heard was on the car radio not long after getting off the boat in Hook of Holland. In amongst all the Dutch chatter was a jingle proclaiming that the station played "Rotterdam's best music mix". In English!!!
All this exposure gives continentals a superb head start in learning English. Not just in getting an ear for the sounds but in many it must spark an interest as to what the hell the song means. I am the walrus may have stumped a few though.

Seeing Rammstein perform 'Ich will' did the same for me. Firstly it was an excellent performance. Heavy, chrunching guitar, pounding drums, a singer with a 6inch mohawk and lots of flames. Cool. Quite frankly it blew me away and I bought the Mutter album in Virgin virtually the next day. My girlfriend liked it too and we did off a tape for her to listen to in her car. She actually has a German 'A' level so has a big head start on me. It was her who was looking up the German lyrics on www.herzeleid.com and trying to translate them herself before referring to the translations there to check up.

Over the following months I got the rest of their albums and we went to see them in Docklands. An English crowd singing German lyrics without really knowing what they are saying is a novel experience. I was blown away by the gig. Ever seen guitarists playing whilst their instruments are on fire. Or a 6foot plus bass player crowd surfing - in a rubber dinghy! The next day I found out that the band were on tour throughout Europe that summer and so I ordered some tickets to see them in Leipzig. We'd have gone to Berlin, possibly Dresden and on to Leipzig. Unfortunately the concert was cancelled after some sponsors got cold cold feet because the kid who opened fire on his school in Erfurt had been in to rock music. Thanks. So we just went to Berlin for five days and as it happened the flooding in Eastern Germany last August would have stopped us travelling down to Saxony anyway.

So last summer I decided I wanted to learn at least enough German to get by. I got a book from Ottakars in Stevenage and gave it a read. I discovered that the book was as normally supposed to be accompanied by a cassette tape. It didn't say that on the cover. A tape would, I thought, give one much more of a guide to pronounciation and what to out listen for. I also found the method in the book rather dry. It worked in the sort of formal method I'd done at school. These are the genders, how to say you are an English male or an English female, der this noun, die that and das the other. I was going through the book but don't really think I was taking it on board.

I recalled seeing the Michel Thomas 8CD set in the book shop and went back to check it out. At 60 it was pricey though. So I deprived a local business of some cash and ordered it off of Amazon for three quarters of the price.

As you say he positively discourages the use of pen and paper. The recordings take the form of him teaching two pupils. He tells them a new word - if it's a verb how to say it in the I, he/she/it, we, you and they forms - and asks them (and you the listener) to use it in a sentence building on what they've already learnt. After you and the live pupils have covered the word in it's various forms it's already begun to sink in. It's a technique that suits me as I've always liked to have a project to use a new skill in rather than just learning it for its own sake.

I think it's better that Michel Thomas concentrates on verbs and how sentences are constructed rather than parrot fashion learning of nouns. Sentence structure with respect to verbs is rather rigid in German. The second verb has to go at the end in the definitive from. Which is somewhat odd for us English speakers used to tossing verbs in any old place.

To demonstrate I shall use the title of the first track on Rammstein's first album: Wolt Ihr das bett in Flammen sehen? Word for word that means: Want you (plural informal) the bed in flames to see? Sounds a bit yoda-ish doesn't it. But thems the rules and Michel Thomas makes sure you know it without seemingly labouring the point. I got to CD 6 last time around and was able to conjigate most of the important verbs in the present tense, say what will happen, ie the future tense and do some funny stuff around because. But we are still ignorant of the genders and most nouns. I suspect you are on your own for that but once you have the framework slotting them in shouldn't be overly difficult.

The other week I restarted on disk 2 and covered it easily although I had forgotten to arrive was ankommen and am now on disk 4 even though I only listen to it for about 15minutes on my way to and from work. And I'm learning and reinforcing what I learnet earlier. It isn't easy by any means. You have to put brain into gear but, as I say, for me the interactive element plus the thinking effort works far better than sitting with a book running your eyes over the page often without really taking it on board.

Finally the bit of Michel Thomas biography in the box is jaw droppingly impressive. Michel Thomas is actually his last alias from his time in the French resistance and his flair for languages saved his life when he was interrogated by Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyon.

Comment by: Mark Holland on February 20, 2003 01:53 PM


I've just emailed some thanks to you, and let me say it again here. This is terrific. As emailed: I want to go on and on here about the fact that education is roaring along in all kinds of places out there, not just in schools.

And thanks especially, as also emailed, for the detail about Michel Thomas. Yes, he's quite a guy.

This piece of yours deserves to be more than a mere comment on an obscure blog like this one, so don't be surprised if you see it copied and pasted both here, with maybe further comments, and e.g. over at Samizdata, where all things related to the Anglosphere (including the subtler details of its European borders! - such as Brits going against the usual trend and learning German from German pop music) are of great interest.

Many thanks again. And thanks for being such a good sport about letting me use the original email, and for putting up with all the subsequent joking around.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on February 20, 2003 03:02 PM
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