Start Portuguese with the Michel Thomas Method
November 7, 2013
Author Virginia Catmur
Series Michel Thomas Method
Publisher Hodder Education
Publication Date 2012
Skill Level Beginner
At the outset of this one-hour CD, a nice-sounding woman told me, “You are just about to experience a new and different approach to learning, and to language learning, that will give you a practical and functional use of the new language within 10 to 12 hours of learning time.” Hm.
“All of this is achieved,” she continued, “without memorizing, without learning by rote, without drills, without textbooks, without taking notes, and without homework—even mental homework.” I was told I needed to be relaxed, not tense, not anxious.
I found this kind of a funny way to begin, given that Michel Thomas died in 2005 at the age of 90. What I mean is, the method can’t be that new anymore.
I was urged not to try to remember! Not to review! “What you know, you will not forget,” I was informed.
I am used to extravagant claims like this, and I tend to ignore them. I am quite sure I can forget. I have a well-established talent for forgetting. But such claims are part of language-learning marketing. If you get too bugged by this stuff, you will miss out on good products.
In his Washington Post obituary, Michel Thomas is described as a “linguist-to-the stars” who spoke 11 languages. Indeed, I see the Michel Thomas website features a testimonial from Woody Allen.
Mr. Thomas himself was not the star of my course. Rather, it was the aforementioned nice woman, Virginia Catmur, whose own Portuguese studies had taken place (I learned through snooping around the web) at Oxford and in Lisbon.
Here is the setup: she offers instruction to two students, and there is an assistant, Paulo, in this case a native speaker from Portugal. You get to be a student, too, and answer questions via prompts just as the students on the CD do.
As one might expect given their backgrounds, Ms. Catmur and Paulo are modeling European Portuguese. The pronunciation differences between that and the Brazilian Portuguese I have studied are significant and distracting, as are some grammatical differences. If you are studying European Portuguese, however, you are in luck!
I kept listening. More claims that mystified. Ms. Catmur told me that our active vocabulary is quite small. “It may vary between 500 and 1,500 words. That’s all we use in any language.”
I am pretty sure I use more words than that. If not, pardon me, but I need to go off now and be quite depressed.
I guess the point is, you don’t need that many words in a language to function. This is a new pedagogical approach for me: discourage me about my vocabulary in my native language so that I feel I am in good shape once I have a thousand or so words in my target language.
Well, bah humbug. A thousand words is very basic. That’s a box of flashcards. That gets you through “purse,” “cat,” and “ice cream.” Things like that.
Although I have been trying to extract a review copy from Michel Thomas for some time, finally succeeding this fall, I confess I have been concerned all along that I would not enjoy the method. My whole thesis from the start of this project has been: I don’t want to take classes. And these Michel Thomas over-the-counter language lessons are replicating a classroom environment.
Of course, some of you may want that! The style is friendly and conversational and spontaneous. Ms. Catmur is a possessor of social grace and charm; she might be a little excessively positive in her feedback at times (if it’s wrong, it’s wrong; no biggie), but I think she is a pleasant teacher. In any case, this setup is designed to engage you, the listener-participant, to make you a part of this class, and to bring up issues that might be similar for you and the newbie students on the CD.
But I for one don’t want to listen to students muck things up before the native speaker gives the correct response to a question. Ask a question, let me try, and then tell me what’s right: that’s what I want.
On a number of occasions I lost track of whether the student or the native speaker was the one speaking. Was I listening to the apprentice’s pronunciation or the native pronunciation? It’s kind of like being on a conference call with too many people, where people get uncomfortable about saying their names every time they speak even though they’ve all agreed they will, and then you as a result get all the male voices mixed up. Or all the female voices. Or both.
I believe the Michel Thomas structure would make it difficult to enjoy redoing lessons. There is too much explanation and discussion that I wouldn’t need or want to hear again. And redoing lessons is how I keep things in my head. I don’t mind redoing Pimsleur lessons—in fact I enjoy it!—because Pimsleur lessons are about me me me, working away. Very little explanation, tons of action.
Michel Thomas is too much about other people for my taste. Listening to the student speaker conjugate the wrong verb yet again, I feeI as though time is a-wastin’. (By the way, those students were fine; I’m not saying I would have done better than they did or anything like that. I just didn’t want to be slowed down by someone else’s learning experience.)
I did like the apparent erudition of the teacher. She made some valuable observations on etymology, including Latin, that enriched my understanding of Portuguese.
There is more Portuguese to be purchased than what I discuss here—Michel Thomas offers additional hours via what they refer to as their Total and Perfect products—but to my great sorrow, they weren’t willing to send me review copies for an entire course.
Any indecisive language-product shoppers (and I don’t blame you for that trait!), you can try a free sample lesson on their Portuguese page if you like. If you wish to buy Michel Thomas Portuguese products in the U.S., options include BN.com and iTunes, among other places.