I’ve just finished going through the Michel Thomas Total Spanish audio course. It’s eight CDs in total and it assumes the listener is a complete beginner.

My background

I didn’t study Spanish at all in high school or college, but I did spend about 3 weeks in Guatemala over a decade ago. I knew a lot of nouns related to foods in Mexican restaurants, and had some vague recollections of French grammar from high school. There’s no way I’d have been able to do a course for anyone but beginners.

Features of Michel Thomas’s system

Michael Thomas’s audio course is a simulated classroom experience. He briefly lectures on some verb conjugation or other feature of Spanish, and then asks how to make various phrases in Spanish. For example he might ask how to say “I see it” in Spanish, and then how to say, “I’m going to see it”, “I’m going to see it tomorrow with my friend” and finally, “I want to go see it tomorrow with my friend but I can’t because I’m busy”. After each of these questions, the listener is supposed to try to reply. This forces the listener to pay close attention and gives some time pressure.

Imaginary classmates

There are also two imaginary “classmates” in the recordings who try to answer Michel’s quesitons. They aren’t perfect speakers to model! They make numerous grammatical and pronunciation mistakes which he corrects. It’s an interesting system and I found that his corrections did help me realize mistakes I was making, but it also got a bit tedious, especially with the slower classmate who occasionally spent a full 30 seconds stuttering and stumbling over his words to arrive upon a wrong answer. In theory, I think the fake classmates are supposed to build up the listener’s confidence.

Ear Training

Michel Thomas’s handling of phonics is quite a bit different from Pimsleur or the free FSI audio materials. Instead of drilling of sounds at the syllable or the individual sound level, it focuses more on the cadence of phrases. It involves many, many sentence translations, but doesn’t have any longer dialogues whatsoever.

Leveraging similarities between languages

One area where Total Spanish was fantastic was how quickly it got me a stockpile of words to work with. The CD explained the relationships between various large groups of English-Spanish cognates. After learning of the mappings between endings such as -tion/-cion, -ity/-idad, -able/-ible, -ly/-mente, etc, it wasn’t too hard to remember the meanings of words such as nacionalidad or perfectamente even when several were introduced at once. While Pimsleur seems to use essentially the same approach (and story even!) for each language it has a course for, I don’t know if Michel Thomas’s approach would even be possible for a language like Chinese that isn’t closely related to English. But for learning Spanish, I’m pretty amazed at how much his system covered in such a short time.

Results

I still have a small vocabulary. But I now know tons of words that are closely related to their English counterparts, and I’ve gone over the standard conjugations for er/ir/ar verbs for past, present, future, conditional and imperative tenses and can usually get them right. I’ve also learned the tenir + que and the ir + infinitive constructions. It covered where the pronouns go in various sentences, but that’s still pretty hard for me. I’m always unsure when to move them in front of the verb.

I definitely think I got my time’s worth out of the program and am considering buying the follow-up Perfect Spanish course after I’ve done a bit more reading to consolidate what I’ve learned from Total Spanish.

P.S. If anyone has suggestions for graded readers in Spanish, I’d be very appreciative if you post them in the comments!