Most people who have tried learning French have a common complaint about French: French is very difficult to learn; the pronunciation is very difficult, the grammar is extremely hard, and for every rule, there are so many exceptions and so on. I also had the same impression when I started learning French. The few online courses I tried including LiveMocha, Babbel.com and even my favorite Assimil course served to reinforce the impression that French is a hard language to learn.
Enter Michael Thomas. I discovered Michael Thomas after I have completed about 30-40 lessons in Assimil. When I completed my first hour of the Michel Thomas audio course, I had a question to myself: ‘Is the French language so easy to learn?’.
Now, I have finished listening to the entire course twice and I can’t tell you how easy French seems when taught by Michel Thomas. During this second round of listening, I and my wife did it together and she is even more impressed than I am about the course. The grammar points that she struggled to assimilate using Assimil like the past perfect forms seemed so easy to her when Michel Thomas explains it – Indeed, Michel Thomas French is a masterpiece.
One of the reviews on the back cover of the CD box says ‘5 minutes into the CD, you already have a feeling that you are winning‘. I can’t agree more with the reviewer. If you have been frustrated in your attempts to learn French, here is the right place to start. If you are a total beginner, do yourself a huge favor and start with this series – you will get a head-start and you will accomplish a lot more in 1 week than what you can achieve in 3-6 months with other courses.
The first thing that sets Michel Thomas French course apart is the focus on speaking from the beginning. In about 1 hour, Michel Thomas makes you easily construct many complex sentences that would not be easy even for an intermediate level French student. For example, here are a few sentences that you construct in the first hour.
- I’m sorry but it is not very comfortable for me that way.
- Do you want to come have dinner with me tonight?
- What kind of reservation do you want for tonight?
- It is not logical but it is very practical that way.
- What impression do you have of the political and economic situation in France at present?
There are 4 distinct aspects to language learning – Listening, Speaking, Reading and Writing. Of these 4 aspects, speaking is the hardest. People study a language for a year and can’t even utter one perfect sentence in an ad hoc situation. In fact, I was in this situation when I learnt Arabic. It took me a whole year before I attempted constructing sentences on my own, that too, it was in writing. I never dared to speak even after 1 year of dedicated study. Even courses which focus on making you speak do it by making you memorize scores of often-used phrases and by asking you to parrot them out.
But with Michel Thomas, you don’t have to sit and memorize long and unconnected phrases. There is definitely memorization involved in learning a language. But the route to memorization is what matters here. Michel Thomas claims that you don’t have to memorize anything and I think, by that, he means rote memorization of vocabulary, sentences and grammar rules.
For vocabulary, Michel Thomas presents new French words by linking them to the English words you know using creative association techniques. For sentences, he breaks them down into components and makes you construct sentences by assembling the components together and you get a lot of practice here. It also seems like a game of Lego blocks – once you understand the blocks, you can construct lot of complex sentences easily. For grammar rules, he gives the most important rules in a graded manner and he makes you apply those rules in building so many sentences that you don’t have to remember the rules by memorizing – by the time you finish constructing the sentences, you have already internalized the grammar rules.
Also, Michel Thomas is a very gifted teacher. He has a lot of patience with his students. I have never heard Michel Thomas say ‘You are wrong’ to the mistakes that the students commit in the audio course. If the student makes a mistake, Michel Thomas asks the student to repeat the sentence or asks the student a question so that the student can figure out that he has made a mistake. Never did I hear him saying that the answer is wrong. Naturally, a student will learn much better in the presence of such a teacher, where there is very little pressure.
Michel Thomas teaches to 2 students, which can be a bit distracting at first. But as the course proceeds, you see the advantages. The students are new, so they make mistakes. You pause before the students give out the answer, so when they give the answer, it serves as a repetition for you. Sometimes, you have gotten the correct answer, but the students struggle, which makes you feel good. Also, the students ask questions and express difficulties they have in learning. Most importantly, the students have so much fun with the teacher. They laugh out a lot. Each time they figure out something complex, they laugh together with a sense of astonishment and achievement.
The only limitation I see with this course is that you don’t hear any native French in the course. Both Michel Thomas and the students are not natives. Hence, you don’t really get the real listening practice. However, for a beginner, this limitation can be a boon in disguise. First you hear the differences in pronunciation by English speakers, so you get to figure out the differences in pronunciation as perceived by an English speaker. Later, you can listen to the natives and you can see the difference in the native pronunciation, especially the complex French sounds like the nasal sounds and the sound of ‘r’. So, you have to do another course to help you hone your listening skills along with this course. For me, Assimil French has worked wonders in getting lot of listening practice. Combined together, Assimil French with Ease and Michel Thomas French are an unbeatable combo.