I'm hopeless with languages - always have been. I found them a nightmare at school and even after persevering with French and Spanish GCSEs, I still found myself on holiday in Spain and totally lacking the confidence to even ask for eggs in a supermarket. (I did once gird my loins and give it a shot, but I received such a blank look that I quickly reverted to useless hand gestures and that wonderful trick of English-with-a-Spanish-accent.)
I'd tried a course in Spanish before this one from a guy called Paul Noble. I couldn't get along with it at all, I found the aural learning incredibly taxing because I'd be trying to picture the spelling and shape of words in my head, as Noble never clarified them and insisted on a no note-taking or reading approach while listening. I was wrung out after just an hour and I cowardly avoided going any further. I just assumed that I couldn't learn anything by ear and I didn't have the brain for it.
So I approached Michel Thomas Total Spanish with a sense of resigned dread, fully prepared for an early defeat and a splitting headache to boot. This dread intensified when I found that, strangely, his initial introduction and pep talk were remarkably similar to that of Paul Noble. Given that MT came long before PN, I'm going to assume that the latter was heavily influenced by the former. It's baffling that although superficially similar, Paul Noble (for me) managed to completely miss the essence of what it is that makes the Michel Thomas method so special. MT is always at pains to reinforce your learning using a wide variety of techniques - it's very subtle and very clever. All types of mnemonics and quirky little tools are employed on an almost subconscious level; it's not remotely laboured or heavy-handed. You never feel like you're working or being fed too much information. MT's technique can be as subtle as just the emphasis of his voice in a memorable way or a funny little saying, and he always clarifies the spelling which is such a relief for people like me who need to be able to visualise the words to have any hope of remembering them.
It's been a bit sad to read a lot of quite negative reviews on Total Spanish because as soon as I felt the technique working for me, I rushed to Amazon kind of looking forward to sharing some evangelical happiness with what I imagined would be legions of awestruck fans. The popularity of the late Michel Thomas globally is a testament to his genius, I think, but it's still sad that people criticise his approach for reasons like 'he smacks his lips loudly,' or 'his accent is too heavily German/Polish.' I mean, if things like that truly get in the way of your learning, fair enough, but it just feels very mean-spirited to me to knock the man's wonderful gift to students, his entire technique, based on some superficial little personal preferences. Personally I loved his old voice - it has the texture of aged leather and the strength of his personality is tangible just on the CDs. He's patient, he's dry-humoured and comprehensive, he's amazingly wise. This is turning into a novel, but I have to mention one particular aspect that impressed me. Do you know how language-teaching can often hinge around technical terms to describe its structure such as 'conjunctives' or 'past participles' or words like that? If you're not entirely sure what these mean in English, it's another barrier for you when you're trying to learn an entirely different language. MT realises this and he cuts through any jargon. He actually introduces his own much simpler definitions of nouns, verbs, adjectives etc. He gives you explanations that fit with his entire approach - easily understood snippets that stick in your head because they make sense. Like he says from the outset, 'what you know, you remember.' How simple is that, and yet how true?!
I do accept that one shoe isn't going to fit all. And I know that the male student on the CDs, who's lucky enough to be having personal lessons with Michel himself, can be very, very slow to get things right, but I'm sure if I knew that my clumsy early lessons were being recorded then I'd be even slower than I am, too. Personally I found the guy rather endearing and it helped me feel like maybe I wasn't alone in being a bit of a linguistic blockhead. Misery does love company, after all.
Anyway, so far I've completed 5 of the 7 discs that form the Total lessons. I haven't even tried the vocabulary CDs as yet, but I just didn't want to hold back writing a review any longer because I feel like my entire thinking and outlook on languages has been transformed already. I only started the course last week and I find that I actively look forward to putting on a new CD and making progress. I'm excited because I feel it working and I know, I just -know- that I am going to make progress. Every minute I spend listening I move forward. That's nothing short of miraculous for me. I'm no longer terrified by the word 'grammar' or 'verbs' because I'm learning them without even consciously being aware of it. I can put together what feels like pretty complex sentences with confidence. The structure of the language is opening up to me and, honestly, it feels like sunlight has broken through what was previously one big impenetrable brick wall. I'm enjoying using the review CD rom and cementing what I've learned aurally with the video clips and the interactive exercises. I know it's early days and I have a long road ahead of me, but I'm planning on buying MT's Perfect Spanish course to follow on with, and I no longer feel any fear or doubt about learning the language. I know that, in time, I can get there, and that's a wonderful feeling.
What else can I say? What a magnificent legacy for any human being to leave behind. Michel Thomas was a remarkable man.