Bootstrapping beginners, and using “Michel Thomas German”

For beginners in a new language, there’s a common problem of getting “bootstrapped” so that they have enough basic understanding of the language in order to pursue more interesting materials. Most of the intro textbooks and methods are pretty boring to me. I’d much rather be watching interesting TV shows and movies, and reading awesome books, but it’s frustrating when you start totally from scratch and try to watch an incomprehensible movie, or read a totally impenetrable book.

For german, I didn’t have this problem, since I had previous experience; when I was about 5, I spent a lot of time listening to my german grandparents, and then later when i was in highschool I took some german classes. However, my girlfriend is presently learning german with me, and she hasn’t had the benefit of previous experience such as this.

At the start, we tried using videos to give her an introduction. We would watch an episode in english first, so we knew what was happening, and then we’d watch it again in german. I found this a bit boring, since i didn’t always want to spend 2 hours watching a 1 hour episode, but it did help her quite a bit with getting the sound of german into her head right away. After watching most of Star Trek: Deep Space 9, Season 1 in german, we decided that something more was required, in order to get her some knowledge of more of the basic words.

This is where we decided to try Michel Thomas. Pimsleur wasn’t that great, because it seems to focus more on travel vocab rather than general use of the language. Michel Thomas gives a pretty good overview of how a language works and how to put together interesting and practical sentences. His method assumes that you’ll fill in a lot of the vocab gaps later, but at least you have a good base to build on.

We got a lot out of listening to the first 3 CDs of his “Beginner German”, but we were really annoyed at the “students” in the recording. They pronounce everything horribly, whereas my girlfriend had excellent pronunciation already from watching all that star trek. She could also recognize right away all the places where the students on the recording made mistakes. The other thing that annoyed us is that there was more english and badly spoken german than there was actual german, and the progress became quite slow after CD 3, so we skipped the next 5 disks completely. Yes, we skipped CD 4 all the way to CD 8. the important bits were all on CDs 1-3.

Next we came to the really valuable content: the “Language Builder”. This series of recordings does away with the idiot students and their horrible mispronunciations, and just has Michel Thomas going through tons of useful words via numerous example sentences. For each word, he gives many possible sentences that have slightly different meanings, and also reviews previous content as he goes along. All the words are super-useful general words that you use all the time. So many great verbs, in great example sentences. This is really bootstrapping gold. Having all of this content under your belt would really catapult your understanding of TV shows and books.

As someone who previously took high school german for 4 years, i was surprised to find a lot of really awesome words that i hadn’t previously learned. I think the high school courses had a certain idea of which concepts were too “hard”, and so avoided a lot of extremely useful things, whereas Michel Thomas basically doesn’t care which things you might think are “hard” grammar-wise. He just wants to give you a great grounding in the language.

So, in summary, i think i’d recommend this for beginners in german:

  • get german sounds into your head through extensive listening. You don’t have to understand anything, just listen to hours and hours of german.
  • after maybe 30 or 40 hours of listening (which could be in the background as you do other stuff), listen to the first 2 or 3 hours of michel thomas beginner german.
  • next, skip the rest of the beginner course and go straight to the “Language Builder” and listen to all of that.

Doing this will shoot you way ahead, i think. From there, you can go back to hardcore movie watching and book reading. I think you’ll be able to catch a lot more vocab naturally.

Now, what would you do with a language that doesn’t have these particular recordings? I’d say the biggest thing would be to search out a list of the 100 most frequent verbs, and maybe some adverbs and adjectives. forget grammar, just fill your SRS software with the most frequent vocab, and you should try to do this by finding example sentences for each of those words rather than just the words by themselves. Once you can pick out all the most common words by ear, then the rest of the language should start to fall in place as well.

Good Luck!


2 Responses to Bootstrapping beginners, and using “Michel Thomas German”

  1. fresaj says:

    hi, thanks for visiting my site. i have also tried the michael thomas method and i found it was interesting and easy to follow. however, since i am not a native english speaker, i had a tendency to change what i wanted to say into english first and then into the language i was learning.
    now, i prefer listening and reading intensively and speaking to native speakers rather than learning from the course. again, i guess its my problem so i cannot fully benefit from those materials, it may work well for native speakers.

    p.s. i do agree sometimes the students pronounced the words with strong accent etc!!!

  2. doviende says:

    Ya, i only recommend about 5 hours worth of michel thomas, which one could probably do in 2 or 3 days. It’s only a tiny portion of the effort. As soon as possible, you should go back to real immersion in the language, but hopefully that small diversion will be effective at increasing your understanding of the immersion materials.

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