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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What do I do after the Michel Thomas course?

I received a query asking what does one do after using the Michel Thomas course if one wishes to continue on.

First a little background information.

Hodder is the publisher of the Michel Thomas courses. I am the author of the Mandarin Chinese course; I do not publish them.

Hodder is under new management having been bought out by a French conglomerate a few years ago. The new people at Hodder have little to no direct understanding of the Michel Thomas materials, in my opinion. The former MD knew Michel Thomas. Much of the editorial staff had years of experience working closely with authors like myself in developing these courses. The new people rarely communicate with me.

They have now decided to cease publishing all the original courses by MT as well as all of the secondary courses by other authors. In place of these they have created new courses which are cobbled together bits of the old courses with visual materials as well as review materials. Of course, anyone familiar with the MT method will immediately realize that he was totally opposed to the use of such materials. They seriously detract from the efficacy of the method.

They have also announced that they have no new languages planned.

I have already apologized to those who buy the Mandarin version of the new courses. I was never consulted on the makeup of the courses which will bear my name as author. I do not recommend that anyone buy such a course. Stick with the old versions which are available from various sources.

The old courses were sold split into two and three parts. Foundation (Beginning - North America), Advanced and Vocabulary (for certain languages only). These labels are misleading. I mentioned this to MT when they first came out and he agreed.

All of the levels comprise one complete course. It is a course that will provide the student with a decent familiarity and use of the essential patterns necessary to speak the language. It will not give you the bulk of the vocabulary and advanced patterns and phrases. For that, you will need to go elsewhere.

As you mention, the method works well in providing what it claims to provide. However, as with any such approach it can only provide so much.

My suggestion is that you decide what you want to do with the language. How do you want to actually use it?

If you want to go on a vacation ( holiday) then you may wish to get a basic phrasebook such as Lonely Planet and work with what it provides.

If you want to read then start with low-level readers meant for natives ( school children). There is much adapted material out there for such audiences. I also use religious materials printed by missionaries which are aimed at those who are just learning to read. One source which is free and readily available is the magazine published by the Jehovah's Witnesses, Awake!. It is published monthly, available for free download on the net, has mp3 recordings which will help you with the pronunciation, and has some interesting, general interest articles on history and nature if, like me, you find the religious content repulsive. In addition, the English editions should be downloaded as well since they provide an excellent translation of the foreign language editions. These magazines are not meant for children. They are aimed at adults who can read the language or who, via mp3s, wish to listen to it. I collect these in various languages since they are a fantastic resource. Be advised that the older magazines are not available online after a few months time.

If you want to really do well I suggest that you find someone who is a native-speaker to spend some time on a regular basis to simply chat. You can do this locally, in person, or via the net ( skype, etc.). There are many sites on the net for language exchange where you can find people.

I go to local churches where foreign language services are held, as well.

If you really want to learn there are many resources around no matter how geographically isolated you may believe you are.

One further comment.

The method of Boris Shekhtman, which I have written about on this blog, is a very good way to accomplish what you seek.

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Friday, July 8, 2011

Another lesson, another lightbulb goes off.

There are times when, because of being tired, wanting a little time off from Russian, or just pure laziness, that I think, I hope Boris cancels class today. It would be so nice to just sleep in.

Then I get up, shower, eat a bite, jump in my car and drive to Boris Shekhtman's home where we have class. As soon as I arrive he meets me at the door and guides me in to the apartment, making jokes and small talk in Russian. We sit down, he asks about my life, I start my digital recorder ( I have recorded every single lesson since we began in June, 2010), and before I realize it, an hour has passed. All of it in Russian.

As I talk I realize that he is laughing, making notes and observing me intently. He is teaching me but I wouldn't know it since it is such an enjoyable experience. Apart from my times with Michel Thomas, few of my language learning experiences have been consistently truly enjoyable.

That, precisely is why I got interested in learning and teaching. My impression is that many of us are turned off to learning by what passes for the educational system. Early on I unconsciously knew this for I would refuse to take classes in the things I most loved reading about or learning. Why? Because frequently the experience of having to suffer through a really horrible class complete with examination, stress, homework, and teachers who on some basic level didn't love what they were doing, would just turn me off to the subject.

Some of those subjects, after years of painful memories of the classes, are still frustrating for me to learn since I have so many unpleasant associations with them from the past. Such was the case for Hebrew which I was forced to study when I was young. I loved languages but just couldn't relate to what I loved in the manner I was taught. I am sure the teachers were well intentioned but I and many others who were sent by our parents several times a week to the Hebrew school basically didn't want to be there. As kids there were so many other things we wanted to be doing. Studying a foreign language with a different alphabet that didn't use vowels was not one of them.

Over the years I have attempted to return to Modern Hebrew by going to Israel and studying. It has taken years for me to get to a level where I can comfortably converse, read and write ( and type) in this language but it was never easy. The old, really painful memories just seem to be living below the surface. Years and years of them are still there. Little by little I am wiping the slate clean. I wish I had a teacher who would teach me like Michel Thomas or Boris Shekhtman for Modern Hebrew but so far that hasn't happened.

At some point one must become the teacher one seeks. You can't just sit quietly and wait forever, can you?

Anyway, getting back to my last time with Boris, at one point it suddenly hit me why I really am coming back to him each week.

It is not because of any burning desire to learn Russian. Much as I enjoy the language and culture it is not my number one language to learn at present.

I really want to learn the teaching method of Boris Shekhtman. He knows this and is very generous in teaching me whatever he can. Michel Thomas was not so generous. With him I had to really combat his ingrained resistance to giving away his "secrets". He was one of the most paranoid teachers I have ever encountered. It took ten years of constant contact in many, many different situations for me to get answers to all of my questions and be able to replicate his approach. I not only had to learn all the details of how he taught but also all of the course creation methodology which he was especially reluctant to share. At one point I asked a question and he answered, " Well, if I told you that then you would know everything!" By constant detours, returning to old questions, getting to him when he was in a better less paranoid mood, I got the information I sought. It was never easy though it was constantly fascinating. However, I was not about to give up what I regarded as a once in a lifetime opportunity to learn from a true genius.


In the end it paid off in many ways I had never anticipated.

The CDs we have of Michel Thomas teaching are excellent. They are pure gold for the language learner and teacher. However, as he well knew, they didn't exactly cover everything he taught his private students. Since I was privately taught by him twice ( French, Spanish) I can say that from personal experience. In addition, there were levels of teaching that went on following his personal instruction which were done by teachers he trained to help to teach higher levels of conversation. The courses were personalized. If one wanted business German one got it. If one desired diplomatic French then one got the required training. It was all tailored to the student.

So what was it that suddenly came to me during my last lesson with Boris?

Why do I keep returning even though frequently it is the last thing I want to do with the one free day in my week?

While we were talking and laughing I got it.

My time with Boris is more intellectually stimulating and mind blowing than almost anything else in my life these days except for my work as an osteopathic physician. Experiencing the physical system of my patient shifting and changing before my eyes and under my hands never grows old. However, for language learning that level of excitement was rare before Michel Thomas and Boris.

The excitement that comes from learning something new, truly novel, something that I have never before experienced, and with such an amazing teacher as Boris, is a real gift for me. He is constantly surprising me and I love to be surprised when it comes to teaching and learning. It makes me laugh.

That's at least one reason why I return each week.

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Monday, July 4, 2011

My first talk in Russian.

I recently wrote a post on how I was scheduled to give a short talk in Russian before an audience of native-speakers. Well, it happened and here is what transpired.

Since I had to speak for 15 minutes or so I made a short mind map of what I wanted to say. The purpose of this was to keep me on topic and to make sure that I knew what topics to cover. I often use mind maps when speaking in public and find them very helpful.

The affair was held in the community room of a retirement center near where I live. Fourteen people attended. About half of them were native-speakers of Russian. The others were three students who presented and some family members.

Boris Shekhtman introduced each of us. I spoke following the other two students.

When I got up to speak I jokingly addressed the audience as, " Workers, Toilers, Pensioners, and Heroes of Leisure World ( the name of the retirement center) !!! Greetings!!"

Boris laughed. The others went into a deep trance, their faces frozen in confusion and incredulity.

That was the high point of my presentation.

From there on it was all down hill.

I told them that I was a physician and teacher. I explained why I study Russian.

I love Russian literature and music.

When I mentioned music, as if on cue, a cell phone in another room went off. It loudly played a rather long and silly Russian peasant medley.

I told them that this is why I study Russian.

Boris laughed. The others just stared at me like I was a horse that had been hit by a tram in the street.

The cell phone music continued.

I broke into a feverish Russian dance, the kazatska, that I do at bar mitzvahs ( usually before I collapse in a sweat due to my lack of physical activity).

Boris laughed. The others became glassy-eyed, going even deeper into the trance state.

I spoke about my entry into medicine and why I became a physician.

Then, finally, I ended my talk with some background on my time with Michel Thomas and how I came to author the Mandarin Chinese course.

When I asked for questions one man raised his hand.

He was another student who dared me to demonstrate that I could speak another foreign language besides Russian or Chinese. I asked him what I should speak. He pointed to a family member visiting from Madrid and told me to interview her in Spanish.

It so happens that I am comfortable speaking Spanish so I did OK.

It is a hell of a lot easier for me to speak Spanish than Russian for many reasons and I didn't want to stop speaking with this woman. The rest of the audience began to come out of their trance states when I broke into Spanish.

At that point another man, a Russian, asked the only other question.

"Can you recommend a decent Chinese restaurant around here?"

I told him that since I am allergic to MSG ( monosodium glutamate) and almost all local Chinese restaurants use it in their food, I can't recommend one. However, I did recommend a really good Thai place.

He got my e mail and told me that he would contact me the next day and make plans for us to there together and speak Russian.

So far, he has not contacted me.

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