June 09, 2004
A relaxing French lesson from Michel Thomas

MichelThomasFrench.jpgI've made a start with these CDs.


I am not completely convinced by his accent, and it is vital, when learning something, to believe in the veracity of the material being presented. Next time I meet a real Frenchman, I will listen to particular things very carefully, and ask for clarification on certain points. I suspect Michel Thomas of having spent his time in France in the south of France. Maybe that's the difference.

I didn't know that it is necessary to emphasise the last syllable of a French word, or risk incomprehensibility. I assume he's right about that. But again, it sounded vaguely south of France rather than France as a whole. But I presume him to be right about that.

But, those few quibbles aside, I am very impressed. So far I have listened to about half of the first CD, there being eight CDs in all. So, early days, and maybe later I'll want to revise some of what follows. Nevertheless, for the time being …

The most interesting thing about the Michel Thomas teaching method is that everything he does is done the way it is done in order to keep the victim relaxed, i.e. for the victim not to be a victim. Whenever a pupil (a much better word) hesitates or gets it wrong, he corrects them, without implying any blame. Indeed, he starts not by pitching right into teaching, but by saying that his method of teaching places the responsibility for the pupil learning on the teacher, rather than on the pupil, and that the pupil has to be relaxed, and not worrying, either about these French lessons or about anything else. The only thing that the pupil has to do is relax, listen and keep on listening, and to join in with the answers as required. He mustn't do homework, or take notes, or make any effort to remember things.

The presentational method of the CDs is to have a couple of pupils responding to Thomas' instructions, exactly as he wants you to respond. Every so often there is a bleep noise, at which point you must hold the pause button down and say the answer, and then resume, and see if you got it right. Usually, you did. Because he just told you the answer a moment ago.

There is no bullshit here about how there is no such thing as teaching, only learning. Michel Thomas is a teacher, and he is very clear about that.

Because of the presence of pupils, these CDs serve not only as lessons in the subject being taught, but also as lessons in how to teach (by which I simply mean the technique for transferring knowledge from mind A to mind B), which for me made them doubly valuable.

The most interesting feature of all of this "keep them relaxed" method is that not only does Thomas almost never criticise (he did a tiny bit when he told a pupil not to guess); he also goes very easy on the praise. What matters to him is the continuity of the learning process, learning being its own reward. You are pleased not because Michel Thomas says how wonderful you are, but because you have learned a lot of stuff and are getting answers right.

Thomas is teaching not just French as such, but French to people who already know English, and he makes use of the enormous overlap between the two languages, so pronounced (as it were – actually pronounced a bit differently) that one ancient French guy whose name I have forgotten said that English is just French badly pronounced. Any English words ending in –ation or -ary, for example, are actually French words, and you already know them. Interesting, and enlightening, but of course that kind of method wouldn't work for English people learning Chinese or somethiong.

It also occurs to me that the Michel Thomas method is actually quite "mechanical", in that Michel Thomas himself could do it to a new pupil pretty much automatically. This says two things to me. First, it explains Michel Thomas' enormous, all-embracing confidence in his ability to teach, say, French, to anyone. Teaching French to someone new whom he has only just met is, for him, no harder than doing up his own shoe laces, and, simply, he knows how to do it. I thought I knew that stuff about "teacher expectations", but believe me, until you've sampled Thomas, you have never experienced unconditional and total teacher confidence to compare. Thomas made his judgement of you and decided on his expectations of you right at the start. You are a human, and you have one of those human brain things between your ears. Ergo, given that he knows how to teach it, you will learn it. It is that simple.

And second, the mechanical nature of the method means that it ought to be extremely easy to put it all onto a computer, and make it part of the repertoire of a teaching machine. But that's a different line of thought.

One caveat though. In addition to knowing my regular quota of English French words, I already know quite a lot of French French, having done French at school for quite a while, and having then visited France a number of times. In order to really judge Michel Thomas' excellence as a teacher, I really ought to try some other language of which I now know nothing or next to nothing. When I'm done with the French CDs, I might just do that.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 10:40 AM
Category: How to teachLanguages