Speak and learn Spanish like Bob Dylan
Those struggling how to learn Spanish might often wonder if there is another, easier, way to master the Spanish language. Learn from the master behind teaching Hollywood the essentials.
Anyone remember double French last thing on a Friday afternoon? The voice at the head of the stuffy classroom, droning through a set of irregular verbs and everyone repeating them parrot-fashion while simultaneously watching the girls' hockey game through the classroom windows.
French, then German, grabbed my attention initially, then bored me rigid very quickly when I was at school. I couldn't understand why we needed to worry about the textbook lives of la famille Marsaud or Herr und Frau Muller when their kids spoke English, listened to pop songs in English and cluttered up the sights of London every summer. One day, I thought, the whole world will speak English and thus, having been born a native speaker, I will have already come first in the lottery of life.
Well, it sort of came true. The internet made English even more accessible than it was before, and almost the entire world's population can say 'David Beckham' without too many pronunciation difficulties.
But on occasions, I've wished I'd had the ability to converse with our European cousins, and have been embarrassed that I can't do any more than haltingly ask for the directions to the nearest swimming pool.
In addition, there's Spanish. In our rush to teach the world to sing 'Big Mac and fries, please' we tend to forget that a good chunk of the planet speaks the old Español'. In the United States, for example, almost 30 million people speak Spanish, an increase of 60 percent in past ten years.
World-wide, '400 millones de personas hablan español' (shouldn't be too hard to translate, even for a languages dunce like me), a figure roughly the same as the number of English speakers.
Despite our wonderful comprehensive school system teaching me little more than a basic understanding of what M Marsaud had for breakfast, and the received wisdom that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, I was still intrigued by an invitation to gain a basic but solid understanding of Spanish in two days, courtesy of a man called Michel Thomas.
Anyone who has ever decided to study a language using tapes or CDs (and worn out the pause button on the player as you interrupted the dialogue to repeat each word) will have heard of Thomas.
He is a master of languages par excellence, a teacher who has taught the likes of Mel Gibson, Woody Allen, Barbra Streisand, Peter Sellers, Tony Curtis and Bob Dylan during his 50-plus years in the business. His CDs - for those wishing to learn French, Italian, Spanish or German - sell in their millions world-wide.
His methods are not based on the old "Ou est M. Marsaud? M Marsaud est dans le jardin avec le chat" repeat-after-me type of thing you learned at school, but on sentence construction, proper pronunciation and stresses, grammar and, above all else, understanding of how the language works.
On the face of it, this is an eminently sensible method. What's the point of learning a series of stock phrases which you feel self-conscious about (because you don't really understand how they work) and eventually garble to a foreign waiter who gives you a blank look before asking you in perfect English what you would like to drink?
In Michel's opinion, it's much better to learn how to construct a sentence properly, all the right verbs and their endings in place, then build upon that in order to create confidence in using it.
He also forbids any writing down as an aide de memoir. The key to successful learning, he says, is not memorisation, but understanding and if you don't get it, Mr Thomas says it's his fault, not yours.
And let's face it, if he can teach Bob Dylan to speak a language other than the incomprehensible one he already speaks, he can surely get it right with Joe Public.
However, if you want the man in person, not just on CD, you have to pay for it. In fact, it might actually be cheaper to hire Dylan to sing in Italian for you in your own front room, because a one-to-one session with Michel costs a staggering GBP 18,000 (EUR 27,000).
For that you get a two to three hour introductory session, three full days with Michel and two full days with one of his instructors. Even if you got a group of four together, it would still cost you £9,000 (EUR 13,500) each.
Yes, it's Hollywood clientele at Hollywood prices, which is why I was lucky enough to join a group of eight people at an exclusive hotel in London's Mayfair district for two days' free Spanish instruction with Thomas.
This would be a total of 16 hours lessons without textbooks, visual aids, Powerpoint presentations or even pens, just the sound of Michel's voice and our fumbled replies.
Michel was born in pre-war Poland then moved to Germany and left as the Nazis came to power. He joined the French army fighting the Germans and was interrogated by the 'Butcher of Lyon' ,Gestapo head Klaus Barbie. Later he worked for US counter-intelligence before setting up a language school.
Today, even at 90 years old, he still displays an astonishing mental and physical dexterity and has plenty of energy.
Personal tuition with him started at a cracking pace, and not once did this slow down. We started at 10am, and at 3pm someone had the courage to interrupt the flow to ask for a break.
Thomas, looked momentarily stunned, then allowed us out for 15 minutes. No, he didn't want any food bringing back, thanks, nor anything to drink. He simply sat in his suite and waited for his exhausted students to return.
He had asked us to listen to the full eight hours of the 'Spanish With Michel Thomas' CDs we'd been sent before coming on the course. Unfortunately, my package had only arrived a couple of days before the course, so I'd had chance to listen to CD 1 -- but nothing more.
A pity, because although Michel said 'we will start from the beginning' he quickly picked up the pace to the point where we were learning how, when and where to apply the subjunctive tense in Spanish, and my brain was about to implode.
Subjunctive tense? For all of those who didn't cover this particular area of English grammar at school (hands up 90 per cent of you) the subjunctive describes the mood of a verb used to express hypothesis, possibility or condition. Got that? No? Well here's some examples (in English) "I wish it were summer", "The emperor agreed that a temple be built in honour of Apollo", "It's important that everything be done on time."
In Spanish, it's, well, it's the same thing but different. By the subjunctive stage I was at the point of dehydration and my concentration had long gone out of the window.
However, I had learned all about the 'gogo' and 'gaga' verbs and how to stress the pronunciation of verbs to alert Spanish ears to the fact you're speaking in the present tense (think 'preeeesent' rather than 'present'). But I just couldn't remember the Spanish verb 'to buy', and Michel knew it.
Time and again he came back to me whenever it reared its ugly head. Comero? Compera? "You are guessing," said Michel steadily. "Try again." I did. Wrong again. It's actually 'comprar', simple enough until you're put on the spot with eight pairs of eyes looking you.
By day two, I'd lost it. After the first day, Michel had told us not to write anything down, or even try to remember what we had learned. I thought this might be a precursor to a full re-cap on day two, but no. He simply ploughed on.
I became very muddled, and started to wonder what had gone in. On the train back to Bristol I sat opposite a Spanish guy who took occasional calls on his mobile from other Spanish people. Try as I did, I couldn't understand a word he was saying. Not one word.
Was it all a waste of time? Initially, I thought so, even though I'd not listened to more than one CD, and seemed to be at a distinct disadvantage for not doing so. Plus, several of the bright sparks on the course had learned languages at university, making me feel like a pleb of the first order.
But I still had the CDs, and I thought about Michel's wartime exploits and his refusal to give in. Plus, if he could teach Sarah Ferguson, it must surely work for me. So I persevered with the rest of his recordings at home.
And lo and behold, what I had heard on the course had actually gone in. Some subliminal process had planted in my brain the concepts he introduced to us in that room. I breezed through the first four CDs and, while still struggling to remember the verb 'to buy', I might just get away with a 20-second conversation with a real live Spaniard......if he doesn't mind his native tongue corrupted by flat Lancastrian.
Tom Henry / Expatica
Tom Henry writes for the Bristol Evening Post newspaper in Britain, where this article first appeared. We reproduce it with permission of BEP. For more information on Michel Thomas, see www.michelthomas.com
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