Learning About A Language ≠ Learning A Language

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
  • Read time2 mins
  • Comments4

My Michel Thomas take-downs both here and on YouTube have been some of my most disagreed-with pieces I’ve ever put together.

I’ve had constant waves of people adamant that MT is the greatest invention since the wheel letting me know how wrong I am.

Of course I’m not wrong in this instance.

They are. 🙂

But in all seriousness, what I’ve noticed is that people will defend to the death a product, course or method if they feel they’ve benefited from it – even if they haven’t.

What’s particularly unique about MT (and I believe is a big part of the reason why it’s been so successful) is that it leaves participants with a feeling of accomplishment having learned about the target language.

About is the key word here.

As I’ve talked about before, students spend a lot of time in a session with a teacher explicitly explaining the target grammar.

There is no listening comprehension component.

No authentic practice.

Students are even required – bizarrely – to not try to memorize, learn or to supplement their learning in any way outside of the classroom.

Responsibility is placed solely on the teacher for the student’s outcome (anyone with experience teaching in a communicative classroom will tell you how wrong this approach is).

It’s a cram session of information that does not represent real world interaction in any way.

Yet, participants are adamant that Michel Thomas is incredible

Why is that?

I know exactly why.

Because they’ve learned about the target language.

The teacher has explained the syntax and grammar and how it generally works, and this makes sense to the student.

I liken it to watching an instructional video on YouTube.

For example, I recently watched a how-to video on YouTube for fixing a plumbing problem we had at home. I watched an experienced plumber explain the problem and solution in a YouTube video.

I came away from the video feeling equipped and confident to tackle the issue.

You can guess what happened next, right?

I tried to put my new knowledge to use and tried to fix the pipes.

While the video had given me some kind of general, foundational knowledge of what I was getting myself into, it hadn’t prepared or equipped me at all for what I was doing.

I needed hands-on experience and practice.

Eventually, through trial-and-error, I repaired the pipe issue but if I were to grade the instructional video in terms of its usefulness in equipping me to solve the problem, I’d say a very tiny percentage of my success could be credited to it.

Any language method that is not majority listening comprehension and natural speaking practice is bogus

Not a week goes by where my inbox is not bombarded with new language product pitches.

I’ve talked about the lack (or end) of innovation before when it comes to language products but what’s even more frustrating to me is that people do whatever they can to avoid the one thing they need to become fluent in a foreign language.


You can’t get away from this.

It’s simply astounding to me when people talk about learning to speak a foreign language without actually using it. Even reading is procrastination for a lot of learners.

Nobody learns to play an instrument by having its mechanics explained to them.

They play it.

The Michel Thomas Method might explain languages as concepts in a way that you understand, but languages are not concepts to be grasped.

Support me by sharing:

Let me help you learn a language

Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


Comment Policy: I love comments and feedback (positive and negative) but I have my limits. You're in my home here so act accordingly.
NO ADVERTISING. Links will be automatically flagged for moderation.


Using MT is like studying linguistics in the hope it'll help you learn a language. It won't. From the two courses I test drove, there's just too much of the teacher talking about the language (in English), and (as you mentioned) not enough emphasis on using the language.

Sarah Cole

Sarah Cole

I think it’s clear that the Michel Thomas Method is NOT for you. Indeed, it’s not for everyone.

And it’s certainly not intended to be the silver bullet of language learning. It’s but one resource among countless that a learner would need to become proficient in a foreign language. But for many people, it’s the ideal start. Why? For the reason that you make at the end of your review for why it is not effective!

You wrote: 'Nobody learns to play an instrument by having its mechanics explained to them. They play it.'

We often use similar analogies to describe our courses. Akshay Bakaya, author of the Hindi Michel Thomas course explained the method with:

'It's always been clear to me, as it was to Michel Thomas himself, that learning to speak a new language is like learning to swim or dance - you don't start with books and notes on swimming or dance. You get into the water, or on the dance floor, with a good coach, and get on with it.'

I will not argue that it didn’t work for you. And, cards on the table, I was dubious of it when I first took on the role of Publishing Director for Hodder. Its claims were counter to what I learned as a student of Applied Linguistics. It was not how I taught languages as a French and ESL teacher. 'No such thing as a bad student?!' I’ve seen plenty in my days! And Its approach was far different to that which I used to develop English courses as Cambridge University Press. But once I got past the hype and marketing and started using the course, understanding the method, looking at the research and trials that went into their development, attending recordings, speaking with real-life users, I realised that it works better than anything I had ever seen for a self-study learner to get past the initial hurdle of learning a language.


Because you start speaking immediately and thus USING a new language. You are figuring out a language and producing it by thinking through answers. By hearing your own progress, you are motivated to continue. And motivation is often the key ingredient in successful language learning that should not be overlooked.

They do not teach you 'about' language. They don't even use metalanguage, or if they do, it’s very minimal and only when necessary. Instead, they teach you the underlying structure of a language. And by structure, I mean grammar! They teach very little vocabulary, but go through most of the verb tenses in a language.

Michel Thomas compared this to an architect: 'I build the house, but it’s up to you to decorate it.'

These courses were only ever intended to be a very solid foundation for further learning. The first step that makes the rest of the journey a little bit easier.

Yes, there is a lot of English. This is for the benefit of the self-study learner, but also because the whole method is about revealing what you already know about a new language and relying on English as a base for cognates, mnemonics and also to reduce stress. Not everyone wants to walk into an immersion classroom on day 1!

It seems to me you are criticising the method for things it does not even claim to do. It does not teach comprehension. It does not deal with reading or writing. It doesn’t teach by topics. But that’s OK. We don’t blame the dentist when she can’t fix our back ache.

Listening comprehension is important, usage is important. Authentic practice – very necessary! But these are step two. First you need input – language to use and a base upon which you can start to comprehend. Michel Thomas Method courses are simply step 1.

As the publisher for Michel Thomas Method courses for the past eight years, I have had countless emails and phone calls from people telling me how it has worked for them, even changed their lives. And they all say how it helped them COMMUNICATE and SPEAK. To put words together and USE the language. We have run pilots in schools that quantitatively show a significant improvement in speaking and confidence in language learning when using Michel Thomas Method courses.

Anecdotally, after sitting in on a 4-hour Michel Thomas Greek course in Thessaloniki, I was able to go to a Greek restaurant and tell the waiter 'I was waiting for a friend, I wanted an Ouzo, and I would order dinner later.' None of these were explicitly taught in the course. But I was able to put it all the words together to say what I wanted. The waiter never responded to me in English.

I would not dismiss the comments of 80% of your reviewers who disagree with you as a ‘religious’ devotion. Like them, I have experienced how it works. I wholeheartedly recommend Michel Thomas courses to anyone I speak to as the absolute best way to start learning and using a new language.

Alas, it just may not be for everyone.

Sarah Cole
Publishing Director, John Murray Learning
Michel Thomas and Teach Yourself

Paula Guard

Paula Guard

Interesting! I have a colleague who swears by Michael Thomas and listens to it every day in the car on his way to work.

I don't think it has occured to him that language is actually a two way exchange and at some point he will need to have a spontaneous interaction with a human!

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
© The Mezzofanti Guild, 2021. NAGEL PTY LTD. All Rights Reserved.