Start Portuguese with the Michel Thomas Method

3-5 Portuguese, Audio Lessons

November 7, 2013

Author  Virginia Catmur
Series  Michel Thomas Method
Publisher  Hodder Education
Publication Date  2012
Price  $16.95
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 and iTunes, among other places.

Start Portuguese, with the Michel Thomas Method!
Start Portuguese, with the Michel Thomas Method!

Comments (5)

Chris • Posted on Mon, March 03, 2014 - 1:15 am EST

I don’t care for having to listen to the students either but I do like Catmur and Paulo in these recordings. I have the beginner and advanced discs. Also, I have to say that I prefer Virginia Catmur over Thomas himself, as a teacher. I find her easier to listen to. The same goes for the Dutch discs, I prefer those teachers over Thomas. Also, I don’t care for the gimicky stuff in the Michel Thomas recordings, but that is just my personal taste.

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Mon, March 03, 2014 - 1:25 am EST

Thanks so much for this comment, Chris! I have not listened to Thomas himself. What is gimmicky?

Chris • Posted on Mon, March 03, 2014 - 1:58 am EST

Well, as for Thomas himself, he seems to have been delightful. But, listening to him speak Spanish is very painful for me. Less so for French but not exactly fun. His accent might work for German or Italian, I don’t know. Sadly, they only marketed Polish in his method after he died. Being his native language, that would have been the best one for us, the listeners.

As for the gimmicks, as you mentioned, “the learning is the teacher’s responsibility”, “what you know you don’t forget”, etc. But, more importantly I don’t like his refrains, such as, “no am-ing, is-ing, or are-ing”, and various absurd mnemonics that destroy my grey matter when I hear them. I don’t mind mnemonic recognition but usually only things that I come up with myself. I would imagine most people are like that.

By the way, I’m listening to the Dutch for Beginners MT lessons right now and the students are not a big bother.

I hope I didn’t sound too down on Michel Thomas. I appreciate what he did. The way I see it, is that you learn languages in whatever fashion and then you can go to his little “Language Camp”, for a booster and to possibly take away another perspective on the language and hopefully benefit from those tips and tricks.

Jay • Posted on Fri, December 05, 2014 - 5:14 am EST

Hi. I know this post is old but I thought I’d chime in anyway. *warning* This post is long. Once I started typing I just kind of reviewed the course in general.

I spent a few days knocking out the Foundation and Advanced discs in Arabic (Egyptian Arabic) and found it to be quite helpful as one particular tool in the box.

I wanted more chance to hear the native speaker. Sometimes I found the students to be a pain, although in this course the female usually answered quickly and correctly. More often than not I would just sit repeating my own answer to myself over and over again while the students were responding, otherwise I would sometimes fall into repeating their response with them which would end up being wrong and what I had originally said when I paused the disc was correct.

But it wasn’t unbearable. I loved the fact that I could do this when out and about in situations where repeating pimsleur out loud just didn’t make sense. I live in Tokyo, so on any given day I may spend as many as 3-4 hours on crowded trains depending on what my schedule is like.

I hated having to use the pause button all of the time. This drove me nuts more than anything else. And going back to the native speaker, the ONLY time you ever hear the native speaker say anything in Michel Thomas courses is after a student has gotten the answer correct… so you are never hearing anything in the native tongue that you haven’t encountered yet, and aren’t already waiting to hear. So there is absolutely zero challenge to your listening comprehension.

The foundation and advanced courses focus on teaching you HOW to speak the language as opposed to trying to expand on WHAT you are able to speak on. As a result, I came out of there feeling great about how I could form sentences in a variety of ways after just 3 days learning, but with a serious yearning for VOCAB. I could say a lot about a very limited number of things. haha.

I have had a chance to listen to about an hour of the follow on vocabulary builder discs, and I like them. Same cons, but enough pros to make it worth the time and money for me.

Like I said, this is one tool in the box. For my situation where I am sometimes stuck standing or sitting on a crowded train for long chunks of time, I found that I was able to learn more about the language listening to Michel Thomas than listening to pimsleur without repeating it out loud, or trying to use my phone and table together to work on another course.

I am currently listening to the Russian course and enjoying what I am getting out of it.

On a side note, I’m not sure if you’ve listened to Paul Nobles courses since writing this but he basically just took the same method and teaches it without a classroom setting. He uses just his explanations and then appropriately long (or sometimes too long) pauses followed by the native speaker. He also does so without giving any credit at all to Michel Thomas in spite of the glaring similarity, but that is a different topic altogether.

By the way, I share your love for the pimsleur stuff. I’m currently listening to Farsi Persian!

Ellen Jovin • Posted on Fri, January 09, 2015 - 9:15 pm EST

Jay, thank you so much for your very helpful and detailed review.

Post a Comment