Saturday, 9 April 2011

Review - Michel Thomas Foundation Course

One of my greatest aids in my early days of learning Spanish was this Foundation course, and I have returned to Michel Thomas' courses many times since - both to continue to his more advanced Spanish classes and for an introduction to other languages. Having said that, his courses are not without their downsides, so it is worth spelling out the pros and cons of his method compared to other materials.

The foundation course consists of eight hours of material over eight discs, which I  find good for long car journeys. His method avoids homework, and one of his key points is not to try to think too hard. In this course he teaches two students, which helps create a learning atmosphere as you feel like one of his class. Some people have complained that they have found one or other of the students annoying, but for me they were fine. The general method is that Michel gives some vocabulary or a structure, then asks you and the students to translate a phrase from English to Spanish. You pause the CD, say your version, then listen to the students' attempts followed by the correct version. This works surprisingly well as he starts with simple material and gradually builds it up bit by bit. This way it never feels like there is anything too difficult.

I think that Michel's great strength is in teaching what he calls the 'structure' of the language. Basically the grammar and the way the language works. His personal charisma really comes through on the recordings as well, making it very easy to keep listening. Using this course you can arrive very easily at a good understanding of how sentences are formed in Spanish.

Obviously in eight hours it is not possible to learn everything, and there are several disadvantages to Michel's approach as well. Firstly, I find that the language he teaches is quite formal - he concentrates on the formal 'usted' form a lot more than on the more familiar 'tu' form (although he does explain both and the differences between them). In my experience of modern day Spain, Andorra and Latin America, the 'tu' form is far more widespread, although to be fair I do work in a fairly informal environment. Secondly, the Spanish he teaches is more Latin American based, so the vosotros (you plural and familiar) is completely ignored. Thirdly, there is not a huge amount of vocabulary presented, so to really get the benefit of the course I think you need to use other material in parallel with it to build your vocabulary at the same time as learning the grammar.

Sadly, Michel Thomas died in 2005, so he will not be recording any new material, but he left a great legacy of language learning resources and his famous Method. Overall this course is a great way to get a good grounding in Spanish very quickly, as long as it is supplemented by some means of learning the vocabulary - and there are plenty of resources for that on and off line, many of them free.

The course is currently on sale for £46.46 on Amazon UK, which is a little over half the price it sold for when I first used it. It now includes two additional review CDs which compress the material of the course into two hours. Whilst these can make a useful refresher or revision tool, I found I preferred the more leisurely pace of the original eight CDs, but they are thrown in for free so can simply be considered a bonus if you find them useful.

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