The Mezzofanti Guild Language Learning Made Simple

Learning About A Language ≠ Learning A Language

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.

Usage.

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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  1. 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.

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