Sometime last year I made a review video about the Michel Thomas Method and my experience using their products. . My review was favorable, but also dispelled some of the hype surrounding Michel Thomas courses by overly enthusiastic fans. It`s great but it just gives you a basic introduction, was my main point.
Recently I began studying Italian and I decided to use Michel Thomas Italian as my first real introduction to the language. I found it a bit more annoying this time, and was bothered by some weaknesses more than when I used MT French and MT Arabic.
There are a few Michel Thomas courses that are taught by Michel Thomas himself, and were recorded before he passed away. And there are some others that are taught by different teachers following his method. The French course is taught by Thomas, and so is the Italian course.
The (Egyptian) Arabic course is taught by Jane Wightwick and Mahmoud Gafaar who also wrote the Mastering Arabic series and many others. I remember being very inspired by the French course (a few years ago), and found the Arabic course quite good, but the Italian one got on my nerves. I don`t think it is taught differently from the French one, but the weaknesses stood out to me this time, and they annoyed me because they are unnecessary.
Having two students in the audio lessons
The first thing that annoyed me was the 2 students that participate in the lesson on the audio CDs. Thomas basically teaches a class the way he would in person, and you are listening in on the class and you can respond to his prompts just like the students do. Sometimes the students will respond really quickly, before you have time to hit the pause button and give your own response. That`s bad because you didn`t have to push yourself to create an accurate response, so you didn`t solidify your knowledge. Sometimes the students respond really slowly, and you have already finished constructing your perfectly accurate response but too bad! You have to wait for the other students while they sit there saying “Ummmmmm, I forgot how you say it….” and Thomas has to back up and explain some concept again.
The students also make mistakes, and Thomas steps in to correct them. But these are not my mistakes, so it`s annoying to have to stop while he interjects. Part of the Michel Thomas Method is that you are never allowed to internalize a mistake, so he corrects mistakes immediately and makes you say the sentence again correctly. This is good in principle, but it can be jarring and disturbing when Thomas cuts off the student, sometimes talking right over them, to correct them. I found this to cause stress, and stress is something that the MT Method is supposed to eliminate. Those interruptions, along with having to permanently keep my finger near the pause button, ready to push it at a millisecond`s notice, made it rather tiring to get through even a single 5-10 minute track of one CD. I did it, but I felt it could have been smoother.
I assume that he spoke Italian fluently, but Thomas` pronunciation is far from native. He has a thick Polish accent when he speaks any of his non-native languages. This makes it hard to feel confident modeling my pronunciation after what I hear on the CD. The idea behind Michel Thomas seems to be that the structure of the language is of primary importance. And it is very important, but I think that the phonology of a language comes first, and that you need to learn the phonology as accurately as you can (maybe not perfectly, but as well as you can) right from the beginning or it will cause you problems later.
The courses that are not taught by Thomas himself are (as far as I know) taught by an English speaking teacher, and a native speaker of the target language who models the correct pronunciation. This is how the Arabic course is and it was helpful.
A Michel Thomas alternative
I won`t review it in depth today, but I`ll mention it. After being a bit annoyed by the MT Italian course I then tried a different course that I had heard about by a man named Paul Noble. His method is in many ways similar to the Michel Thomas method (and there is some controversy over whether his method is based on Thomas`s or completely his own). But his courses seem to address many of the annoyances I encountered with MT Italian. Paul Noble Italian is taught by Noble himself, without any students on the audio. He will prompt you to create a sentence, then there is a pause (long enough that you can relax without having your finger on the pause button), then a native speaker of Italian provides the correct sentence — then it`s up to you to self correct if you made an error. But Noble often explains common errors that may have come up. I found this approach to be far more relaxing and less jarring than having the teacher abruptly interrupt a student who`s making a mistake that I woudn`t make. And the other improvement is having a native speaker providing the correct answer, so you have a good model right from the start.
I`ll probably review Paul Noble in depth sometime, but for now I just wanted to add something to my previous review of the Michel Thomas Method.