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blog post
Language

Belgian for beginners

… or, The genius of Michel Thomas.

Success in a foreign language has always seemed beyond me, but now I might have found the answer.

French, German, Russian, Spanish, Greek, Scottish, Chimp. These are the languages which, with unswerving ambition and no little prudence, I started to learn at irregular intervals, between the ages of eleven and, well, now. My Spanish debacle consisted of three separate attempts, French just two, and the rest – except, of course, Scottish – were abandoned at the stage when, in ordering a coffee in that language, I’d end up demanding a cabbage, in the wrong tense. And addressing the imagined shopkeeper with such a low level of formality, I may as well have been treating him like a dog.

My friends can speak at least one other language. Every last one of them. I feel, metaphorically-speaking, stranded on an island, which while being one of the most flexible and creative languages on the planet, condemns anyone wishing to stay in Europe to a life in the only country in the region permanantly encased in seventeen thousand feet of cumulo-nimbus. Australia does not attract. The United States, ditto. The Falklands are out. My piggy bank is not fat enough for the Cayman Islands. I want to stay in Europe and I want a winter free of three layers of fleece, three pairs of socks, the need for a duvet as thick as the earth’s crust, and having to wear a woolly hat in the bath. I simply do not want to cry with the cold when I sit on a toilet seat. It’s March, for God’s sake, and by now you can probably already fry an egg on a Spanish toilet, if such a thing appeals.

I tried everything. Home study with books and tapes. One-to-one conversation with a girlfriend who spoke Spanish. And evening classes, which always seemed to be in winter in large cold classrooms stacked high with orange plastic chairs reflected back at you from the unforgiving black of the window panes. The courses always began with “My name is…” in the appropriate language, and ended six weeks into the ten week course, with an array of excuses to myself of why I could not attend any more (too tired after work; will do home study and go to next class; small bio-metric chip likely to be invented soon which, inserted under loose flesh, will give me automatic powers of speech and have me advising on Greek economic policy or negotiating a Russian oil deal, as soon as the stitches are out).

Language skills

And at the end of all those dark nights, all those classes with strangers under bleak fluorescent lights, I can still only speak English, and even now only a smattering… After all those attempts, short of one final try, perhaps by investing in a book about how to conjugate Xhosa verbs, it often feels I’m just not cut out for learning a language. I mean properly. Not uttering six words and wondering what someone is saying back to you. My listening skills, for one, seemed worse than a those of a stone. In Aix-en-Provence, on a language course, I could answer nothing about the audio recording of native French speakers that the teacher had just played. While the other students shouted out that Pierre had two dogs and worked as a doctor, I was wondering who the hell Pierre was. There seemed to be a missing link between my ears and brain when it came to listening to a foreign language as it’s truly spoken. And don’t they say women are better learners of langauges than men. I’m unsure of the politically correct opinion to hold on this, but my female Polish friend can pick up a new word if I repeat it once. With me, I need it shouting in my face a dozen times and tattooed on my hand for good measure.

So I was about to give up forever.

photo of michel thomas

Polyglot: Michel Thomas

And then, recently, a friend recommended Michel Thomas CDs. If you don’t know his method, he only uses audio files. No books, no note-taking, no homework. And, oddly I thought at first, an insistence that you don’t try to remember anything between lessons. How on earth can that work? Well, it does. It’s popular. And the whole approach isn’t merely based on the idea, as the news constantly tells us, that we no longer have time or energy after work to do things that involve thinking, like homework – because, after all, with audio you can listen on the way to work in the car while you negotiate your way through the rubble that, in Britain, is passed off as roads.

It is, I believe, quite an amazing technique. There’s no, “my name is…”, no learning verb conjugations or vocabularly by rote (not at this stage anyway), and all the rest of the traditional things which can become a chore. I love learning a language his way. And didn’t he teach languages, by half? His list of celebrity students is long and the number of languages he spoke, and in which he recorded a wide range of courses, astounds.

Motivation

Apparently there is a similar-ish method called Pimsleur, but I believe it differs significantly. No, Michel is something special. Finding him is one of those key moments in a man’s life. You find yourself seemingly knowing whole sentences you had no idea you knew. Armed, for example, with four or five phrases lodged semi-consciously in your mind, the teacher asks you to translate increasingly long English sentences. And, hey presto!… they rise from the depths, almost perfectly, formed from the shorter phrases which now having surfaced and combined, give you real motivation and pleasure.

No longer will I struggle to say, as I did in French when I was twelve, “Georges joue l’accordéon”. I’ve got bigger fish to fry now. I’m almost an expert, oh yes. I can say in my new language: “She doesn’t understand that he doesn’t want a glass of beer or a bottle of wine,” or “I’m not in the bar or in the park, I’m waiting for a bus, near the supermarket. Are you far away?”.

Of course later there’ll be a need for books of vocabularly and verbs, for idioms and phrases. And a lot of time spent in the country of the language you’re learning is a must for anyone. But, even now at the start, my confidence is high, and that is half the battle won. I hope.

Michel Thomas died in 2005. He isn’t actually the teacher on the course I’m doing, but I’ve heard bits of the courses he recorded. On mine it’s a very pleasant-sounding woman who follows his method to the letter, quite seductively I must say, and minus the occasional grunts and harrumphs which gave Michel’s CDs a most peculiar flavour. With headphones on, the gruff intimacy of it almost felt like the old man was lying next to you in bed, somewhat disturbing even in a dedicated student.

John Bull

And with my new-found enthusiasm for languages, I hope soon to be able to give a helping hand to my hapless fellow citizen while in foreign lands. You know him well: the Englishman, around sixty, his face flame-grilled after one day in the Mediterranean sun, barking his order for tea in English at a confused waiter. If you shout an English phrase loud enough and for long enough, it will eventually be understood by the natives. It’s how we governed an Empire, so you can’t go wrong. That’s the rationale. It’s an old joke, but absolutely true. I’ve seen it myself: in Spain ten years ago, in a campsite supermarket, a scared shop assistant was cowering by the chest-freezers, cornered by an exasperated older Brit. He was helping her out, you understand, because although he couldn’t speak a word of Spanish, he was considerately breaking down the single English word he was uttering, into its two constituent parts. He was at the end of his tether; he seemed to simmer in a pool of his own sweat. And he was amazed beyond belief how she could not understand that staple of the British diet, “CUS [pause] TARD”, “CUS. TARD!”, bellowed endlessly on that quiet afternoon. I can hear it still, echoing through the pines, the Catalans running for cover.

The actual language I’m learning this time around is a secret. Like writers and their writing, things seem to lose their force of creative power, when banded about too much, or at all. Well, at least for the neurotic and superstitious amongst them. I hope to burst out into the open, in six or twelve months time, if not fluent in my foreign language of choice, then leagues ahead of my previous efforts. The three or four non-English friends amongst the many hundreds of thousands of readers of this blog, who live in different corners of Europe, will have to wait and see if I end up as their neighbour. Lucky them.

Some links:    [links open in new window/tab]

Timothy Doner

A 16-year-old ‘superpolyglot’ who speaks 23 languages

BBC video clip

Guardian video clip

Michel Thomas

Michel Thomas: The Learning Revolution, by Jonathan Solity – a fascinating book examining Michel Thomas’s method by someone who knew him

Michel Thomas official site, UK

Michel Thomas Guardian obituary

University of California article about Michel Thomas

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Copyright © 2013 David Hansard / davidhansard.wordpress.com
All articles on davidhansard.wordpress.com are written by David Hansard unless otherwise stated.

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