Comparative Review: Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and Language Transfer

Their approach relies on understanding rather than on memorization.

Michel Thomas, Paul Noble, and Language Transfer courses are completely audio, and they’re all of excellent methodology and good recording quality. I would recommend any one of them as the first or second course for anyone starting to study a foreign language on their own. In fact, they are the courses I use myself.

Since I don’t get paid for this review, I can do so honestly. My only bias is that I prefer to start learning a foreign language using completely audio courses (after a honeymoon period, which I talked about in an earlier post). These three series all qualify. I like to study in bed with my MP3 player–in the dark, when I wake up in the morning. Since I set my alarm early, this is the best time of day for me to be consistent in my studies. Also, in the summertime after work, I like to lie down on the grass in a park and look up at the trees or the clouds while I study one of these courses.

I’ve used Michel Thomas (Total and Perfect) for Russian, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, and a little bit for German. I’ve used Paul Noble for German. I’ve used Language Transfer for German and I’m now using it for Swahili. My plan was to use all three series for German and then write this comparative review. However, I realized that it will take a few more months for me to complete all of the Michel Thomas German courses. In order, the courses are: 1. Total German, 2. Perfect German (which includes the Vocabulary Builder module), 3. Masterclass German, and 4. Insider’s German. By that time, my experiences with Paul Noble and Language Transfer might not be fresh in my mind anymore. Because of this, I’m writing this review now before completing Michel Thomas German.

I’m using the name Michel Thomas for brevity; the series is actually called “The Michel Thomas Method” because Michel is not personally the teacher of many courses in the series, such as Japanese and Russian.

 

What They Have in Common

All three courses have three goals: (1.) To start learners speaking and forming sentences, (2.) to teach the basics of the grammar, and (3.) to teach learners how to recognize cognates when they encounter them in the future, for fast vocabulary growth.

What do I mean by recognizing cognates? To use German as an example, German verbs in their dictionary form end in -n or -en. The letter d in English is often equivalent to the letter t in German. Let’s apply these two facts to learn two German verbs. The German word for “to dance” is tanzen (pronounced “tantsen”). The English word “to do” is tun (pronounced “toon”) in German. Without this information, learners might waste time trying to learn words by mindless memorization or by inventing crazy word associations (called mnemonics). Instead, they can make connections in their minds between tun and do, and between tanzen and dance, with little effort. Then, they use the words enough times in the course to remember them.

Michel Thomas summarized the philosophy behind this style of teaching: “What you understand, you know. And what you know, you don’t forget.” The approach relies on understanding rather than on memorization. Contrast this with Pimsleur, which uses a Spaced Repetition System to memorize some of the target language, whether you understand it or not. Nonetheless, the three courses in this review all review the vocabulary and grammar frequently enough to help you remember.

As a result, all three courses ask learners not to write anything down, do any homework, or make any effort to try to remember anything. The teacher takes responsibility to teach in such a manner that learners remember most of the material by the end of the course. Learners may repeat lessons (or entire CD’s) if they don’t feel comfortable moving on, but nonetheless, less review is usually needed than with traditional textbooks that have vocabulary lists, dialogs, and grammar drills.

Optional written components are or will be provided with these courses which can be used if necessary: Paul Noble’s and Michel Thomas’ courses include booklets, and Language Transfer courses will eventually include full transcripts. These resources should be used as a last resort in my opinion, but they are (or will be) provided unless a customer buys a course used or in an audiobook format (rather than CD). They can be especially helpful if a learner can’t tell exactly what is being said. Did the speaker pronounce an n or an m, for example? I imagine that these supplements would be especially helpful at the end of the course, both for review and to see the connection between sound and spelling.

All three courses operate in this way: First, they teach a tiny grammar point (such as how to say “I want to” followed by a verb) or a new vocabulary word. Then they say a sentence in English, such as “I want to sleep.” Then they ask learners to pause the audio and translate the English sentence into the language they’re learning. When learners resume the audio, they’ll hear another learner attempt the translation and a correction by the teacher or a native speaker. Paul Noble does it slightly differently by omitting the other learner from the recording, but simply has a native speaker model it. Then, the courses continue with the next grammar point or vocabulary word. Occasionally, they review lists of words that were previously learned.

After even 10 or 20 minutes of studying each day, learners have said quite a few sentences in their target language, and gained a tiny bit more confidence in speaking it. This confidence and skill accumulate little-by-little to a good result by the end of the course. However, as with any beginning course, learners still have a long way to go. No one language course can bring beginners up to a high level of proficiency. But any course they study after one or two of these courses will be much easier and probably more effective because of the confidence and skills taught by these three courses, in my opinion. For this reason, I like to study these courses first before any others.

By the end of any of these courses, learners have been introduced to the present, past, and future tenses, plus word order, genders, and some grammatical cases.

 

Differences Between These Three Series

Paul Noble’s apparent goal is to teach the most difficult grammar points to beginners without confusing them. He might have created the course specifically to help those learners who feel overwhelmed by the grammar in an ordinary language classroom. Paul avoids grammatical terminology at all costs, even to the point of his explanations being very wordy, repetitive, and even strange. For example, in the German course, Paul avoids the term accusative case and instead describes it with phrases like “the victim of the situation” and “the thing that’s having something done to it.” (I’m quoting from memory, so this wording is approximate.) He teaches only a tiny bit of vocabulary, some to show how words are formed and some to practice grammar with. Working with such a small vocabulary also means that some of the sentences might seem a bit strange or unexpected to some learners. The German accusative case is practiced by making sentences about kissing a baby, a mother, and a man. The only voices you’ll hear in his courses are those of Paul and a native speaker. There is so much review that it annoyed me, but not nearly as much as Pimsleur.

Michel Thomas teaches more grammar and a lot more vocabulary than Paul Noble, reviewing just enough to help retention but not enough to annoy me. Unlike Paul, when Michel spends a few minutes reviewing vocabulary, I know that he will shortly introduce something new for me to learn–even if it’s just one word. By contrast, Paul can spend half a CD just reviewing old material.

Michel adds an element which some people love and others hate: the two additional students on the recording. The teacher (whether Michael himself or someone else) teaches a very small new grammatical point or vocabulary word, says a sentence in English, and asks the learner to translate it into the language they’re learning. The learner is supposed to pause the CD, think through their answer and say it aloud, then resume the CD. One of the two students (taking turns) tries to answer it, then the teacher helps the student to correct their errors themselves before (s)he (or a native speaker) models the correct answer. The learner should then repeat that correct answer aloud.

What’s annoying is that some Michel Thomas courses include a student who is a very slow learner, frequently making the same mistakes over and over. A few reviewers assume that they make the mistakes on purpose. I don’t think so. I think Michel’s courses include slow learners so that listeners who are slow learners themselves can take courage knowing that there is nothing wrong with being a slow learner. Who likes being the slowest student in their class? But the constant mistakes by the slow learner on the recording can seem tedious and annoying to a fast learner.

Language Transfer (LT) is very similar to Michel Thomas, except that the teacher only has one student who is replaced by another from time to time. Mihalis Eleftheriou, the sole creator of these courses, uses only volunteers as students. That means that anyone who can travel to Mihalis’ location in Spain can volunteer as a student and become immortalized on these recordings. Mihalis is planning tours of Europe so that other Europeans can participate without traveling to Spain. Someone with a lot of money may commission a course, but usually courses are paid for by donations and volunteers, including native speakers to check the work and non-native speakers to be students, to write transcripts of the lessons, to propagate the courses, and so forth. Mihalis is also looking for additional teachers who can learn his method from him and help him create courses more quickly. Donors may cast one vote per dollar donated to request which courses LT will make available in the future.

All three courses want the learner to think instead of passively learning or memorizing, but Michel Thomas more so than Paul Noble, and Language Transfer more so than either of the other two. When Paul teaches something new, his native speaker models it. When LT teaches something new, Mihalis presents a few puzzle pieces and asks learners to come up with the new word themselves, and then he models the correct answer. Michel Thomas sometimes does it one way and sometimes the other.

LT does not have a native speaker on the recordings, so the teacher’s pronunciations are approximate. Mihalis also speaks quickly, giving the learner little opportunity to hear and repeat the rhythm and intonation (although LT does try to teach intonation). However, it is impossible to learn a language completely from any one course. With this in mind, I start with one or more of these courses to learn the grammar, and then move on to other courses where I can improve my pronunciation.

 

Availability

Paul Noble courses are only available in French, Spanish, Italian, and German. They come in a box with 12 audio CD’s, one video DVD containing an introduction by Paul Noble, and a review booklet.

Language Transfer and Michel Thomas are constantly developing courses in additional languages (Language Transfer at a faster pace), so it’s best to check their respective websites for a current list. Amazon is another good place to look for Michel Thomas courses because they have two-CD “Start” courses for sale which are not listed on the official Michel Thomas website. These are the languages under development, for which full (Total and Perfect) courses are expected within the next two years or so. Also, Michel Thomas has finally created a series for intermediate-level learners–using a dialog-based format–entitled Insider’s French, Insider’s Spanish, Insider’s Italian, and Insider’s German. I haven’t used them yet personally.

For beginners, Michel Thomas courses start with the “Total” course for complete beginners, followed by the “Perfect” course. In the second edition, each contains around 8 audio CD’s for the more popular languages. For some languages (such as Japanese and Greek), the “Perfect” course contains only about 4 CD’s (plus a DVD of computer programs, which I haven’t tried because I rarely study languages on a computer). When the “Perfect” course contains 8 CD’s, the additional CD’s comprise the “Vocabulary Builder+” course, which are also sold separately. If you’re already a high beginner, I recommend skipping “Total” and “Perfect” and starting with the “Vocabulary Builder+” course. Note that the “Start” courses are included in the “Total” courses. The “Start” courses are meant as an inexpensive way to try out the Michel Thomas method and see if you like it before investing a lot more money in the “Total” course.

Spanish, French, Italian, and German also have a “Masterclass” of two CD’s, which is meant for study after the “Perfect” or “Vocabulary Builder+” course and before the “Insider’s” courses. I have not tried the “Masterclass” courses yet.

At the time of this writing, Michel Thomas has courses for Spanish, French, Italian, German, European Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Dutch, Greek, Egyptian Arabic, Japanese, and Mandarin Chinese. These are essentially the foreign languages which are the most popular or in demand for learners in the UK. It also has “Start” courses for Hindi, Korean, Norwegian, and Swedish. I don’t know which ones Michel taught personally, except that they would only be European languages. He didn’t teach Russian, and he didn’t teach any of the languages for which only Start courses exist.

As for Language Transfer, shorter “Introduction” courses are created first, and later “Complete” courses. However, lessons are published one-by-one as they are created, so some “Complete” courses are incomplete. When they are finally completed, they have over 100 lessons (each 5-10 minutes long). At the time of this writing, only Greek and Spanish have complete “Complete” courses, with German and Swahili in rapid development in late 2017.

At the time of this writing, LT has “Introduction” courses for French, Italian, Turkish, and Egyptian Arabic, plus English for Spanish speakers. “Complete” courses exist for Spanish, Greek, Swahili, and German.

While Paul Noble and Michel Thomas are both published on CD (and also available for download at Audible), Language Transfer is only available via streaming or download. It can be streamed via YouTube, SoundCloud, or the Language Transfer website. It can be downloaded (one file at a time) via SoundCloud by clicking the More button to the right of each lesson, then Download. As a reminder, LT is the only free series of the three. However, public libraries sometimes have the other series. That is how I took the Michel Thomas Japanese courses for free.

 

What Order to Study Them In

What if you like this approach, and you want to use more than one of them (assuming you’re a beginner and can afford them)? Here are my recommendations.

Paul Noble goes at the slowest pace (with more review and a lot less vocabulary taught than its competitors) and focuses on mastery of a few grammar points which are difficult for most beginners. Therefore, if Paul Noble is available in the language you’re learning, I recommend starting with it unless you simply can’t afford it (about $50).

Follow it with Language Transfer if you’re learning Spanish, French, German, or Italian–then Michel Thomas after that. This is because, in those four languages, Michel Thomas has about 20 hours of courses for purchase (“Total” followed by “Perfect,” then “Masterclass,” and finally “Insider’s”), and they add up to a lot of money.

If you’re studying any other language, study Language Transfer and Michel Thomas in whichever order you prefer. Of course, many languages are only available in one or the other.

If you also plan to study a Pimsleur course, I recommend studying it after these three series. Pimsleur can be more stressful in some languages, a lot more tedious (boring for some people), and more expensive. It also doesn’t teach grammar explicitly, but useful expressions instead (following the Functional-Notional Approach). However, Pimsleur has the advantage over these three series in that it will help you more with the rhythm and intonation of the language. These three courses can mess up your rhythm if you study Pimsleur first. Even a few Pimsleur lessons can help. On the other hand, at this point, Pimsleur will actually seem too easy. It might be better to find a more challenging course to continue with–plus conversation practice with another person.

 

Conclusion

I have been enjoying and learning a lot from all three of these series. Because they are completely audio in nature and don’t require any homework or memorization, they are perfect for studying in bed or while lying on the grass in a park. There is no such thing as a totally stress-free language course, but these come close. The Russian Michel Thomas series was very helpful in preparing me for conversation. The German (all three) and Swahili (Language Transfer only) courses–which I’m currently studying–will no doubt do the same.

Polyglot Conor Clyne (the “Language Tsar”) credits the beginning of his interest and confidence in language learning to the Michel Thomas series. I expect that others will say the same about the Paul Noble and Language Transfer series, since they are all similar.

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