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Chapter 3  Audio Courses

Let’s assume you are looking for a book to help you learn French. You can go to the languages section in a bookshop and browse through the books available. When you find a book with an interesting cover, you can flick through the book’s contents to get a better idea if it is suitable for you.

Unfortunately, you do not have the same luxury when looking for an audio course. Most shops do not provide CD players for you to listen to parts of an audio course. And if an audio course is sold in a shrink-wrapped box, then you will not even be able to open the box to see if there is a table of contents for what is on the CDs. So, how can you decide which audio course is most suitable for you? You might have to rely on the words printed on the audio course’s packaging, but that is likely to be meaningless and full of empty promises, such as:

Do such product descriptions help you decide which course is most suitable for you? Probably not. And when audio courses range in price from tens to hundreds of pounds, it seems foolish to randomly pick one and hope that it will be suitable for your needs.

In this chapter I provide an analysis of French audio courses from two companies: Linguaphone (one of the early pioneers in audio courses and a brand name known worldwide), and Michel Thomas (who became the market leader in audio courses in England). This analysis provides you with more useful information than you are likely to find in the marketing blurb on product boxes.

3.1  Linguaphone

The Linguaphone All Talk, Levels 1 & 2 audio course contains 16 CDs and has a recommended retail price of £99.80. However, you will probably find it significantly cheaper on www.amazon.co.uk.

The course follows the story of a businessman who is sent on a trip to France without knowing any French. During this trip he learns dialogue for a variety of situations: renting a car, checking into a hotel, asking for directions, and so on. The narrator introduces new vocabulary by saying a word or phrase in French, then its English equivalent, and then again in French. After that, there is a pause (denoted by “________” in the transcript below) for the listener to repeat the French word or phrase. Here is an example from the course.

monsieur   mister or sir   monsieur ________
vous   you   vous ________
vous êtes   you are   vous êtes ________
de   of or from   de ________
n’est-ce pas?   aren’t you? or isn’t it?   n’est-ce pas? ________
eh bien?   well?   eh bien? ________
bienvenue   welcome   bienvenue ________
à   to   à ________
Bienvenue à Paris.   Welcome to Paris.   Bienvenue à Paris. ________
et   and   et ________
And finally, the greeting bonsoir   good evening   bonsoir ________

The course then combines some of the new vocabulary to form longer sentences.

Monsieur Saville? Bonsoir et bienvenue à Paris. ________

Some sections of the course contain extended dialogues to test listening comprehension, and also dialogues that contain pauses, so the listener can respond to questions.

Teaching via “repeat after me” is used in many brand names of audio courses; this is reassuringly familiar to many people because it mimics an approach used in many schools. However, I have a reservation about this approach: the course comes across as being the audio equivalent of a phrase book. The problem with a phrase book (or an audio-course equivalent) is the danger that people may end up learning to parrot the phrases provided without developing sufficient knowledge to be able to construct their own sentences.

I do not offer the above criticism to imply that this Linguaphone course is without merit. I think it can have a role to play in learning French; but its role should not be that of an initial introduction to the language. I think a better approach is to use a different technique (which I will mention in a moment) to learn how to construct sentences. Once the skill of basic sentence construction has been acquired, then a “repeat after me” approach can be used to improve pronunciation or increase your range of vocabulary.

So, how can you learn to construct sentences? I recommend you listen to the Michel Thomas Foundation and Advanced audio course, because those courses focus much more on sentence-building skills than learning an extensive range of vocabulary or set phrases.

3.2  Michel Thomas Foundation and Advanced Courses

Michel Thomas offers seven French audio courses, but in this section I focus on just two of them: an 8-hour Foundation course (8 CDs) and a 5-hour Advanced course (4 CDs). The recommended retail price of these courses are £68.50 and £50, respectively. However, you will probably find them significantly cheaper on www.amazon.co.uk.

Both courses follow the same format, in which Michel Thomas teaches two students to speak French. The Foundation course focuses on the present tense and two categories of vocabulary: glue words and phrases, and cognates. The Advanced course introduces other tenses and provides more examples of glue words and phrases, and cognates.

3.2.1  Glue Words and Phrases

The following, slightly abridged, transcript is representative of both the Foundation and Advanced courses.

Michel Thomas: I would like is je voudrais. Again?
Student 1: Je voudrais
Michel Thomas: Once more.
Student 2: Je voudrais
Michel Thomas: Yes. To speak is parler. And to speak French would be parler français. So, I would like to speak French would be?
Student 2: …
Michel Thomas: I would like?
Student 2: Je voudrais
Michel Thomas: Uh-uh
Student 2: … parler français.
Michel Thomas: Right. Je voudrais parler français. With is avec. With you would be avec vous. With me would be avec moi. So, I would like to speak French with you?
Student 1: Je voudraisparler français
Michel Thomas: With you
Student 1: …
Michel Thomas: Avec
Student 1: Avec vous
Michael Thomas: Right. Je voudrais parler français avec vous.

At the start of the transcript, Michel Thomas asks the students to repeat the phrase je voudrais, so he can check their pronunciation. That is the only time in this transcript he asks students to repeat a phrase verbatim. The rest of the time, he asks students to construct a sentence from words and phrases he has given them. Asking the students to construct a sentence forces them to think much more than if he had just asked them to repeat a sentence. The listener is supposed to construct the same sentence concurrently with the student. After a student has finished constructing a sentence, Michel Thomas repeats the entire sentence so the student (and listener) can verify their construction of it.

Many audio courses provide words and phrases grouped by theme, for example, shopping, the family, asking for directions, and vacations. The Michel Thomas course is not organised by such themes. Instead, his course focusses on what I call glue words and phrases. These are the small words and phrases that tie together a sentence. For example, I have underlined the glue words in the following sentence.

John is sitting on a chair.

I estimate that glue words and phrases account for about 40% of the words in a sentence. So, if the first thing you learn about a foreign language is its most common glue words and phrases, then you will automatically be able to understand almost half of every sentence you encounter. That is quite an achievement when you consider that there are only a few hundred glue words and phrases in a language.

As an example, consider the following long sentence, which I took from a random newspaper article.

Marwan Mohammed, sociologue et coauteur des Bandes de jeunes, réagit après l’intervention du chef de l’État, mercredi 18 mars à Gagny (Seine-Saint-Denis), qui a proposé de punir de trois ans d’emprisonnement l’appartenance en connaissance de cause” à une bande ayant des visées agressives sur les biens et les personnes.

I have underlined the glue words in that sentence. Pretend you understand all those glue words and now look at the other words in the sentence. You might be able to guess that the first two words of the sentence are a person’s name, sociologue has something to do with sociology (actually, it means sociologist), and coauteur means co-author. How about bandes? Perhaps you would guess it means bands or groups. Actually, gangs works better in this context: bandes de jeunes means gangs of youths. About 40% of English words are similar to French words, called cognates, so as you look through the rest of the sentence you can probably guess the meaning of many of the other words. If you know the meaning of the glue words and you can guess the meaning of many of the other words, then you are quickly on the way to understanding the entire sentence.

If you look back at the transcription from the Michel Thomas course, you can see he is teaching the glue phrase je voudrais (I would like), the glue word avec (with), plus some simple words: parler (to speak), français (French) and vous (you, the polite form). By focussing his teaching on the glue words and phrases, and by getting students to construct (rather than repeat) sentences, he gives students confidence to speak (and understand) French sentences. By the end of the course, the students may not know enough grammar to reliably construct grammatically correct sentences, but they can make themselves understood.

3.2.2  Cognates

Along with glue words and phrases, Michel Thomas also focuses a lot on cognates. These are words with similar spellings and meanings in French and English, but pronounced differently.

Michel Thomas: Words in English ending in /-ent/ and /-ant/ come from French. They’re the same; same spelling; same meaning; pronounced [nasalised “on”]; /-ent/ and /-ant/ is pronounced [nasalised “on”]. Like, different would be?
Student 1: Différent
Michel Thomas: Différent. Yes. Important would be?
Student 2: Important.
Michel Thomas: Important. Yes.

About 1700 English words are cognates of French words. Not all these words end in /-ent/ and /-ant/; some cognates have other endings, such as /-able/, /-ism/, /-ary/ or /-tion/. By teaching the French pronunciation for some of the more common cognate word endings, Michel Thomas gives listeners the confidence that they already have a reasonable French vocabulary even before they start to learn French.

3.2.3  Criticisms

Before you start thinking that the Michel Thomas course is perfect, I need to point out some of its flaws. First, Michel Thomas speaks both English and French with a strong foreign accent and this results in him mispronouncing some words.1 Second, the students on the CD can be annoying at times, as they hesitate and make mistakes. Third, the course jumps from topic to topic in a random, unpredictable manner, and some people find this frustrating.

Michel Thomas offers a 2-hour Introductory course (£14.99), but this is simply the first two hours of the 8-hour Foundation course. This introductory course is not sufficient by itself for learning sentence construction, and, in my opinion, it is too expensive as a taster for the Foundation course.

3.3  Other Michel Thomas Courses

There are several other audio CDs in the Michel Thomas series, but they have a different format to the Foundation and Advanced courses discussed in the previous section.

As their names suggest, the 2-CD Foundation Review course (£20) and a 1-CD Advanced Review course (£10) are intended for people who have already completed the Foundation and Advanced courses. These review courses do not have any student participation. Instead, they are, in essence, vocabulary and phrase lists. For example, the following transcript, which is taken from the Foundation Review course, provides a terse summary of the transcript shown near the start of the previous section.

I would like  ________  Je voudrais
I would like to speak French would be  ________  Je voudrais parler français
I would like to speak French with you  ________  Je voudrais parler français avec vous

A quick word of warning. The pauses in these review courses are much shorter than the time taken by students to speak in the Foundation and Advanced courses (and also much shorter than the pauses in the Linguaphone course), so you will have to use the pause and rewind buttons frequently.

The 2-CD Language Builder course (£20) uses the same terse format as the review courses, but it introduces some new vocabulary and expressions.

The 5-CD Vocabulary course was recorded after Michel Thomas died and his place is taken by another instructor. At first listen, the course appears to use the same format as the Foundation and Advanced courses. However, there is an important difference: the instructor who replaces Michel Thomas has clearer accents in both English and French, and the two “students” are actually native French speakers.

The clearer French accents of the instructor and students can help you improve your pronunciation. Unfortunately, the instructor and students speak much faster than do Michel Thomas and his non-native students from the earlier courses. The fast pace of speaking in this course can make it difficult for you to follow, so you may find yourself hitting the rewind button frequently.

Reviews on Amazon indicate that while many people find the frequent hesitations and mistakes of students in the original courses to be annoying, just as many people are annoyed by the perfection of the native speakers in the Vocabulary course. Indeed, the idea of using native speakers as students seems fake and contrived.

3.4  Advice

When learning French, I advise you to initially focus on learning how to construct simple sentences. The Michel Thomas Foundation and Advanced courses can help you with that. Once you are comfortable with sentence construction, you may then wish to improve your pronunciation and increase your vocabulary. You can use a variety of methods to achieve those goals. For example, you could use a “repeat after me” audio course that uses native French speakers. Alternatively, you might prefer to listen to French radio stations that can be accessed via the Internet. Of course, reading French-language books, watching movies and listening to songs can also help.2

Unfortunately, many audio courses are packaged in a flimsy plastic box that does not hold the CDs in place securely. You may want to find a sturdier case for storing the CDs. One option is to buy empty CD jewel cases, that is, the cases commonly used to package music CDs. Another option is to buy a “CD wallet”; this is a case, about the size of a photograph album, that has dozens of pockets for CDs; you can find some examples of CD wallets on www.caselogic.com. Many music CD shops sell empty CD jewel cases and CD wallets.

If you have a ring binder for French notes, then you may like to store your audio course CDs in the same ring binder. Some office supply shops sell products that enable you to do this. Look for transparent sheets of plastic that are the same size as a sheet of paper (that is, A4-size in Europe or US Letter-size in America) with built-in pockets to hold two or three CDs. You can see an example of this type of CD holder if you visit www.staples.co.uk and do a search for Elba CD holders.


1
Michel Thomas was born in Poland, but lived in many countries, including Germany, Austria, France, and America. He speaks many European languages, but none with what you would consider to be a native accent.
2
Later in this book, I provide a list of Internet radio stations (Section 8.5), French-language books (Chapter 5), movies (Chapter 6) and music (Chapter 7).

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