What is the Audiolingual Method?

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful.

The Audiolingual Method of teaching languages was popular in the mid-20th Century in the United States. The most well-known examples today are the Foreign Service Institute’s (FSI) courses freely available on the Internet (because their copyrights have expired) or available for purchase from Barron’s “Mastering” series, Monolingual Books, and other sources. But some are university textbooks, such as Modern Russian 1 by Clayton Dawson, et al., Beginning Chinese by John DeFrancis, and Beginning Japanese: Part 1 by Jorden and Chaplin. Many of these courses are taught using the Latin alphabet rather than the language’s writing system, though separate readers are available to learn to read the language.

When completing a course, learners know a thousand or two thousand words and a lot of grammar. They can’t use the language yet (in conversation, for example), but if they continue their studies independently or in a country where the language is spoken, they can allegedly learn very quickly, having already mastered the grammar. That is, they can focus on meaning–having already mastered the form–instead of having to think about both at the same time. In short, a learner using an audiolingual course starts off learning more slowly than someone using a modern method, but has the potential of surpassing other learners later. The tortoise transforms into a hare–eventually, after completing a long, tedious course. I believe it because I learned French grammar first in high school and college and couldn’t use the language, but later I could master French through reading, listening, and conversation and ignore the grammar because I already knew it.

The method was designed to be used with a teacher, a class of students, a textbook, an audio recording with hundreds of hours of audio, a language lab (because MP3 players and smartphones didn’t exist yet, and these courses were originally recorded on reel-to-reel audio tape) and some homework. Nowadays, some ambitious language learners like myself use them independently, but keep in mind that they were intended to be used with the support and guidance of a teacher.

Here’s the method: Memorize one or more dialogs which include examples of the new vocabulary and grammar taught in the chapter. Memorize it really well before continuing through the chapter! The better you memorize it, the less stressful the grammar drills will be. Also read the dialog’s notes and the chapter’s grammar explanations, but only as much as you find them helpful—that is, they aren’t the primary means of learning grammar. Then do a lot of grammar drills with the teacher and again with the audio recordings, using the textbook sparingly. That is, the drills are mostly audio. Everything is spoken at native speed even from the first or second lesson, so that you can get used to the rhythm, accent, intonation, etc. (prosody) and so that you can understand native speakers sooner. At the end of each chapter, for review, the course may or may not direct you to translate sentences and/or engage in extremely limited conversation activities.

The grammar drills are of various types. In Transformation Drills, the teacher or recording says a list of sentences and asks learners to make them negative, change them into questions, or change them in some other way. In Substitution Drills–the most common type–the teacher says a sentence and then a word. The learners take a word out of the sentence and put the new word in, changing word endings as needed to make the new sentence grammatically correct. In Expansion Drills, the teacher starts with a very short sentence, then keeps adding phrases to make longer and longer sentences.

The method is based on the behaviorist approach to psychology: Repetition and correction were believed to be the way to learn any skill, even grammar. Behaviorism is no longer commonly accepted, but the better audiolingual courses continue to be useful nonetheless. They provide many example sentences to demonstrate each grammatical form and force learners to speak and listen at native speed.

There are exceptions–such as the FSI Korean course because of weaknesses in its design and because Korean grammar has actually changed a little in half-a-century. Since FSI courses were designed for foreign service personnel, they use formal registers of speech–which is not a problem in most languages, but I think it is a problem in Korean. Native Korean speakers say they don’t talk anything like the FSI Korean course teaches.

Also, some FSI courses (notably for Portuguese) use a “programmed” method which involves listening to a lot of short language segments and selecting answers in order to make learners notice features in grammar and pronunciation. Programmed courses can still be helpful for complete beginners but they are designed very differently than the courses I’ve been describing. FSI also has pronunciation courses for French and Arabic, which are freely available for download from websites such as Yojik. I’ve never used them, so I can’t review them.

Audiolingual courses are extremely dry and tedious by nature, but even completing a few chapters can be helpful. The Russian grammar I’m the most comfortable with is the grammar I learned from Modern Russian 1. I could understand Japanese native speakers more easily after completing a few chapters of Beginning Japanese: Part 1. And now I’m studying Beginning Chinese because of its use of sentence build-ups to give me practice with very short sentences before I have to learn to pronounce longer ones (and because the course includes optional books which teach Chinese characters gradually with a lot of review).

In a future article, I plan to share ways I adapt audiolingual courses to make them a little closer to a comprehensible input approach, less tedious, and/or more useful as preparation for conversation.

My story, part two

I had three dreams to chase after

A TV miniseries changed my life. When I graduated from college with a BA in French, I was planning to return to Oregon, earn a teaching certificate, and teach French to high school students in my home state. What changed my mind was remembering something I watched on TV back when I was in junior high school (also called middle school). It was called Shogun. Starring Richard Chamberlin, and based on a novel by James Clavell, it covered a turning point in medieval Japanese history as witnessed by an English captain who was shipwrecked there. The movie portrayed the Japanese culture as exotic and the locals kept everything clean and organized, despite its barbaric aspects during that time period. As a teenager, I had never heard of manga, J-Pop, etc., though maybe we had a little anime on TV. Most of my impressions of Japan were from that miniseries, but it was enough to make me want to go there and see what the Japanese culture was like today.

I forgot to mention that I had had another dream since junior high, and that was to be a translator or interpreter. I interviewed a multilingual translator for Career Day. He read newspapers in several European languages every day in order to maintain his languages at a high level. In college, I used a short school break to fly to Monterrey, California to visit Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterrey (which went by a different name back then). MIIS has a two-year Master’s degree program in Conference Interpretation which I wanted to learn more about. Frankly, I didn’t want the lifestyle of an interpreter (working evenings and weekends, concentrating for hours, being social, etc.), but I did want the intellectual challenge of simultaneously interpreting from Japanese to English. Also, after mastering Japanese, I would have had to study in a Japanese university for a year or two before I was ready to enter MIIS, so the whole plan would have cost me too much money. Nonetheless, the dream was very strong when I graduated from college.

I still wanted to teach a foreign language. That meant I had three dreams to chase after (teaching, mastering Japanese for interpreter school, and experiencing Japanese culture). The obvious solution was to teach English in Japan. The problem was that teaching jobs in Japan were competitive, so I went to Busan, South Korea first for teaching experience for a year, then started my Master’s degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) at Portland State University. I ran out of money and was itching to go overseas again, so I quit PSU after a year, but I had earned enough credits for a post-bac certificate. The program was offered by the Applied Linguistics department, so many of my classes were in linguistics. After one more year of teaching in South Korea (this time, in a small town called Gunsan), I landed a job at a junior college in Nagoya, Japan, where I taught for three years.

Things went wrong in Japan. First, my Japanese was progressing too slowly. I had to speak English all day. I only knew textbook Japanese, not colloquial speech–much less the Nagoya dialect. When I went out to Japanese bars in the evening, I couldn’t understand what anyone said. So, I usually went out to westernized bars and restaurants instead, or I bought a bento on the way home and studied Japanese reading at home. Second, I thought I was losing my hearing, and I was only in my twenties! It was only after returning to the US that I found out that it was because of ear wax buildup, and I wasn’t really losing my hearing. Third, I was still homesick for my family and for the variety of restaurants and groceries in Portland. Discouraged, I returned home and started my current career in IT. I knew that I would only be able to find part-time work as an ESL teacher in Portland, so I gave up on teaching. But computers were another interest of mine, so my career change worked out all right.

In the next installments of “My story,” I’ll go into more detail about my life and teaching experiences in Korea and Japan.

Give longer answers

If you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner

When practicing conversation in another language, if you only give short answers, you will always be a beginner. For example, if someone asks, “Where do you want to travel?”, and you just answer, “France” or “I want to travel to France,” you’ll never reach intermediate proficiency in speaking. Get used to volunteering extra information, and your proficiency will grow quickly.

The most obvious way to add information is to give reasons for your answers. “France because I love the French language, and everyone says Paris is wonderful.”

Another way is to compare two things. “Either France or Mexico. In France, I can practice my French, but in Mexico, I can get more sun. I can’t decide.” In fact, a good exercise is to compare two or more things as a conversation topic. For example, you can compare two countries you’ve visited or two cities you’ve lived in. You can compare schools you attended or homes you lived in. You can compare yourself with your siblings or with your parents. You can compare sports you like or foods you cook. This will stretch your language skills and will help you to reach the intermediate level much faster.

You can lengthen your answers by giving specific examples. “I want to travel to Paris and see the cathedrals there. Especially, I want to see Notre Dame before I die.”

You can also lengthen your answers by telling a story. “I want to go to France again. I went to Paris as a teenager and loved it. My family traveled there for a weekend. I saw the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Now I want to see more of France.”

In summary, whether you talk to yourself or practice conversation with someone else, always get in the practice of giving longer and longer answers. If you practice by talking to yourself first, you can look up words in a dictionary as you speak. This way, you can learn specific vocabulary you need rather than the general vocabulary taught in textbooks. If you also study and practice grammar, you can go from beginner to low-intermediate level quickly.

Strategies for avoiding kanji

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do?

This post is a complete antithesis of my last one.

Recently, someone wrote to me, “[In my opinion] trying to learn Japanese without learning the Kanji is futile.” Well, actually, if a person only wants to learn Japanese for travel or for the goal of attaining lower-intermediate conversation skills, they can avoid all of the Japanese scripts—kanji, hiragana, and katakana. They can just use romaji (the Latin alphabet—similar to English, Spanish, French, and German).

Supposing you only want lower-intermediate conversational skills. What can you do? Surprisingly, there are a lot of study materials you can use. I expect that there are websites and apps that can help you. Since I learn languages almost entirely from books and audio courses though (many of which cost money), these are mostly what I’m going to talk about below.

First, I would start every language with fun courses. I say this because it’s hard to be truly committed to a project in the beginning. (See my article, “A honeymoon for language success”, for more information.) In this regard, I recommend starting with Dr. Blair’s Japanese in No Time, an audio course available from audiobook clubs such as eStories and Audible.

I also find JapanesePod101 entertaining, at least in some “seasons.” Different levels and seasons have different writers and hosts. If you try a season and don’t like it, try another. (My favorite is Beginner Season 1.) Those podcasts are free for the first week, and include PDF documents if you want to read along with the dialogs. If you like them, my personal preference is to get a Basic membership for $21 every 3 months (automatically renewed until you tell them to stop). Keep going with podcasts for as long as you can because they’ll help you with your listening skills, without which you can’t carry on a conversation.

If you can afford the Premium membership for JapanesePod101, you can listen to a podcast episode and then listen several times to the dialog-only track in order to get away from the English and listen only to Japanese. You can even download the dialog-only tracks to an MP3 player and play them in shuffle mode to improve your listening even more. To save money, I prefer to study it for a few months with the Basic membership, then switch to Premium membership for a couple of months to listen to the dialog-only tracks.

When you’re ready for serious studies, try the (completely audio) Michel Thomas series. It breaks the grammar down into small pieces and gets you speaking and creating sentences. (I wrote a review about it last month.) An audio course I enjoyed less but still learned from is Pimsleur. You can download the first lesson for free from the official Pimsleur website. If you choose to continue, either search your public library or you can buy lessons cheaply if you join one of the audiobook clubs I mentioned earlier. There are books for learning which only use romaji, but I would study audio courses first so that you learn good pronunciation skills. Some learners have purportedly ruined their Japanese pronunciation by starting with books, and then native speakers couldn’t understand what they said.

If you want to improve your pronunciation, the Fluent Forever website sells an inexpensive course (Pronunciation Trainer) which is written both in Japanese scripts and in a phonetic script (International Phonetic Alphabet) somewhat similar to the Latin alphabet. I haven’t tried it, so I can’t comment on its quality or usefulness.

A course book which uses romaji from beginning to end is Teach Yourself Complete Japanese. There are some reading passages, but you can skip over them. Other options include Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day, Get Talking Japanese, Japanese for Dummies, and probably many more. I enjoyed Japanese in 10 Minutes a Day–which is in a workbook style–and I used Complete Japanese for listening practice, but I haven’t tried the other courses in this paragraph (so I don’t know if they’re any good).

Most of the beginning grammar reference books are written in both Japanese scripts and romaji, so you can get by with just the romaji. In fact, my favorite is written entirely in romaji (even the example sentences). It’s called Japanese Verbs and Essentials of Grammar. What worked for me was creating my own sentences aloud over a period of weeks until the grammar became easy, and then I could remember it to use it in conversation. The book summarizes all of the basic grammar of Japanese in about 100 pages, including hundreds of verb endings to help you communicate many nuances of meaning. This book helped me to achieve lower-intermediate conversation skills earlier this year.

You also need vocabulary. Topical vocabulary books are perfect for conversation practice. Two I use are Barron’s Japanese Vocabulary by Nobuo Akiyama and Japanese Vocabulary for English Speakers: 9000 Words by Andrey Taranov, both of which include romaji for every word. Bookstores also have paper dictionaries entirely in romaji, but they tend to have few words. However, you can always use Google Translate and look at the romaji down below. There’s even a button that allows you to hear the word or sentence in Japanese.

Finally, you need to practice conversation. Hire a tutor if you can (for example, from italki) or find an exchange partner. Or use an app such as Amikumu to find another Japanese learner near you that you can practice conversation together with over a cup of coffee. Or find a Meetup group near you that practices Japanese conversation together. Italki tutors are the most expensive but most efficient resources I’ve found so far without living in Japan. However, in my case, I couldn’t find tutors early in the morning when I wanted them because early morning for me is nighttime in Japan.

If you follow these steps (or use other resources which others recommend or which you find yourself), you have the potential to go all the way to the lower-intermediate level without learning any kanji, hiragana, or katakana. Personally, I started Japanese in a high school class, so I was forced to learn the Japanese scripts. Also, I want to read novels in Japanese, so this was never an option. Nonetheless, I’ve found romaji-only and completely audio resources helpful along the way.

Strategies for mastering kanji (for beginners)

Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

This article is for anyone who has been learning Japanese as a beginner. As you would have found out by now, Japanese has three writing systems: two alphabets called hiragana and katakana (about 50 letters each) and thousands of Chinese characters (called kanji). Once you’ve learned the hiragana and katakana (which doesn’t take as long as total beginners might expect), you need to choose a strategy for learning kanji. Actually, this is done for you in beginner textbooks, but eventually you’ll have to take up the responsibility for mastering kanji yourself (unless you’ve chosen to avoid them completely and stick to conversation skills only).

Because kanji are used both for native Japanese words and for borrowed Chinese “words,” the characters have multiple pronunciations and sometimes multiple meanings. In my experience, it’s almost impossible to memorize all of those pronunciations and meanings at the same time, so I end up learning each character multiple times before I feel that I really know it.

Actually, I consider these various pronunciations and meanings to be merely intellectual constructs–that is, they exist in scholarly studies of the language, but not in real life. What exists in real life is words. Sometimes, one kanji can be used by itself to represent one word. Sometimes, it’s combined with hiragana to form a word. But usually, two or more kanji are combined to make a word. A kanji’s pronunciation varies depending on which word it’s in. In reading and writing, people don’t read and write kanji, they read and write words. So, my strategy is to memorize words.

Specifically, I memorize from one to three example words that contain the kanji I want to learn. I can always come back and memorize more words later in order to learn additional pronunciations that I didn’t learn the first time. Fortunately, as I’ve said, both the kanji to learn and the example words have been chosen for you in beginning textbooks and readers. You ought to learn how to read and write (or at least, read and type) individual characters, but then if you’re going to memorize anything, memorize the vocabulary in your textbook, and you’ll automatically start getting used to the kanji in words.

Learning to write (not just type) is helpful in preparation for reading handwritten Japanese, which often looks very different from typed Japanese. It also helps you to get used to recognizing character parts, so that complicated characters look less complicated.

There is something more important than kanji, and that’s grammar. Even if you set aside a year and memorize 2000 kanji–enough to read a newspaper–Japanese will still be gibberish to you unless you also know the grammar. So that’s where I prioritize my studies: grammar first, then kanji. Grammar is essential for conversation skills, too. You can’t say or understand much without grammar. In fact, in Japanese, sometimes a sentence will seem to say the exact opposite of what it means until you understand the grammar.

My advice, then, for beginners, is to buy a two-volume beginning textbook series, such as Genki, Yookoso, or Elementary Japanese (my personal favorite). These all teach about 300 kanji–but more importantly, grammar. There’s still a lot more grammar to learn after you finish these books, but they’ll give you a good foundation. In fact, I would start with the Michel Thomas series first, as it breaks down the grammar into small pieces and forces you to make sentences aloud. If you can’t afford Michel Thomas, Duolingo will do, as long as you also make up your own sentences in Japanese using the grammar which Duolingo teaches you. Then buy one of these textbook series and continue your studies.

If you would like additional help with kanji, many people have found success in a series of textbooks called Remembering the Kanji by James W. Heisig. Nobody recommended that series to me until recently, and I already know around 600 kanji. By now, I’m familiar with the character parts introduced in Heisig’s books, so I don’t need the books. But other people swear by them.

What helped me was Reading Japanese by Eleanor Harz Jorden and Hamako Ito Chaplin. This university textbook introduces only one kanji at a time, 25 per chapter (425 total) and then gives a lot of reading practice with it, while reviewing earlier kanji at the same time. Each chapter ends with more reading practice, so that each kanji is reviewed multiple times. When I studied that book, I never needed to memorize anything. It also provides a little practice at reading handwritten Japanese, a skill rarely taught elsewhere.

For beginners, strategizing learning kanji is simple: Select your textbooks and readers. It’s only when you finish those textbooks and readers and ask yourself, “now what?”, that you’ll need to take the initiative in your kanji learning. Focus on grammar first, then kanji. Learn conversation and practice listening, as with any other language. Mastering Japanese requires patience and persistence. There’s no need to rush and fret. Take it slowly and enjoy the language.

Streaks versus habits

The habit will carry them forward, but the streak will eventually end.

We sometimes hear of people who studied a particular language course (such as Duolingo) or used a particular study tool (such as Anki) for X days in a row without missing a day. It’s called a “streak.” Examples are a 60-day streak or a 100-day streak or even longer. I applaud those who achieve it, but I don’t have any negative opinions toward those who try and fail.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” (Will Durant, sometimes attributed to Aristotle). This famous quote reminds us that a habit is a key to success, not a streak. When a foreign language learner achieves a streak of longer than 20 days, they have probably established a habit. The habit will carry them forward down the long road toward a high proficiency in a language, but the streak will eventually end.

The problem with streaks is perfectionism. If a learner sets a goal of a 90-day streak and then misses days, they could feel disappointment and guilt–even embarrassment, if they told others about their goal first. And then when they try again, self-doubt can creep in which may or may not eventually lead to quitting. In my case, perfectionism tends to lead to procrastination, which in turn leads nowhere.

Progress in a language comes from habits, not streaks. Missing days–even a few days in a row–is not necessarily enough to prevent a good habit from forming. And it’s certainly not fatal to a language project, which is more like a marathon than a sprint.

It’s not even necessary to achieve a 20-day streak in order to establish a habit. There are probably plenty of things that each of us does only once a week or once a month which have nonetheless become habits. The requirement for establishing a habit–as the quote earlier states–is to do an act repeatedly. When it comes to language learning, even a few minutes a day can lead to gradual improvement. And it doesn’t even have to be every single day.

New Year’s resolutions are not much different. If you make a resolution at the start of the year, you have the whole year to meet it before you have really failed. If you fail to establish a habit in the first month or two, that’s no reason to give up until the next year.

By all means, aim for a streak. But the streak should not be the real goal. A habit leading to eventual completion of the course or some other quantifiable accomplishment is the underlying goal that matters.

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.