Learning About A Language ≠ Learning A Language

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
  • Read time3 mins
  • Comments6

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.

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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


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Manek Shergill

Manek Shergill

I don’t agree with you at all. The biggest challenge in learning a new language is to learn the structure of the language for absolute beginners.

I tried learning French 2 times by joining a popular institute, and failed miserably. Then I came across Michel Thomas, and suddenly I started understanding the mechanics of the language. I have only done the foundation and advanced course.

He is an absolutely brilliant teacher. Of course like he often says, he will get the structure in place and then you can on your own keep adding things.



What is at the center of the method for me and why it’s been effective— for me both as a student and a teacher (I adapted the method)— is that it requires students to figure out how to speak sentences and then speak them. One of the things that most SLL really struggle with is confidence— especially when it comes to reproducing and using the language. The Michel Thomas method provides that confidence— moreover one does learn the vocabulary and sentence structure intuitively. You memorize everything without realizing that you are because it forces you to think and participate— not just listen to random phrases and dialogue. When I taught first year Russian, I incorporated some of the techniques into the last 15 minutes of class— and frankly it was the part that the students most enjoyed and learned from— because it required a different kind of active learning and thinking. Once I started doing this, my first year students became better at using the skills they learned and were able to communicate far more effectively. Of course, the courses as they now stand don’t take you very far, but a technique that teaches little chunks as building blocks to useful sentences works— at least for me and my students.

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!

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



I have a MSc in Chinese Language, Business and IR and what got me onto the path that led to this, was the Michel Thomas Mandarin course. I think the problem is the marketing gloss with some of the accommpanying claims which can be a disservice to what makes these courses really good . My analogy is the American opening up of the Wild West. In order to build the railroad, great feats of engineering were needed due to the physical landscape that those pioneers had to deal with. To get things started, dynamite was needed to blast the rock away. Michel Thomas is the equivalent of that dynamite and no more. You then need to follow it up with other courses to exploit that initial punch (breakthrough). I am a UK state school languages teacher and I have to teach Spanish due to the demand for that language these days despite the fact that I have post A-Level language qualifications in German, Russian and Mandarin. Again, it was my completion of the MT Foundation and Advanced Spanish courses that provided the platform for me to develop my knowledge of Spanish and enable me to teach to pre-intermediate level (GCSE Higher), despite not having a formal qualification. I also want to mention the “too much English issue”. Something that I feel that the CA/TL purists underestimate the value of, is the related language aspect. My school did not offer German and yet this was the language I was fascinated with and wanted to master more than anything else. I tried to teach myself German and found myself going round and round in circles, making very little progression. I convinced another school to take me on for A-Level German and I promised them that despite not doing the GCSE (known as Ordinary Level or O-Level back then) that my passion for the German language would enable me to achieve that goal. As a 16 year old during the summer prior to starting at the new school I was thinking what the heck have I actually let myself in for. I came across a book called ‘The Loom of Language: An Approach to the Mastery of Many Languages’ by Frederick Bodmer, the famous Swiss philologist. In it (it was a long time since I read it and my paraphrasing attempt is based on memory), he pointed out the usefulness of bridge languages to the acquisition of another more distantly related language. In the case of German, the bridge is Dutch. I got hold of a Teach Yourself Dutch book and sailed through it in ten days and then found that my German problems after that were no more. With a knowledge of nine languages, German is my flagship language where I get compliments from native speakers of sounding like an Afrikaner (supposedly the best speakers of German outside of German speaking countries). In conclusion, mastering a foreign language sometimes needs a multifaceted, cocktail of approaches, like the treatment of a deadly disease needs a multiple selection of drugs to combat it, and Michel Thomas is in my opinion just part of the language learning armoury that then needs other resources to follow up. I have found your other reviews on things such as the ‘Grammar Hero’ really useful and in that particular case - a huge money saver given that the course is nearly £200. Keep up the good work!



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.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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