Michel Thomas Japanese Review

Have you seen the Japanese courses that teach you the language using the Michel Thomas method? There are three of them: Start Japanese, Total Japanese, and Perfect Japanese. I tried them out shortly after I finished using Rosetta Stone Japanese several years ago, and now I’ll share with you my Michel Thomas Japanese Review.

How would you like to be one of three students in a small class, learning Japanese? And how would you like it if the class took place in an audio format that you could use anywhere? You can use it when you’re at home, while you’re driving in the car, or even at your work (during lunch break of course!).

Your instructor will guide you through basic Japanese words, explain the rules of grammar as necessary, and teach you Japanese through the context of a conversation.

But you’re not alone in this journey! There are two other beginner students who are learning Japanese as well.

Sound Interesting? Let’s learn a little more about the man behind the method and how it works.

Who is Michel Thomas?

Simply put, Michel Thomas was one of the greatest and most renowned languages teachers of all time.

He passed away in 2005, but while he was alive he ran language classes where he would teach A-List people such as Mel Gibson, Barbara Streisand, Bill Murray and others how to become proficient in a language in a manner of days and then charge them up to $18,000 for it!

Michel Thomas was an extremely secretive person and would lock up the tapes and materials he used to teach at the end of each day. He also never shared his methods with anyone, until he got towards the end of his life.

I’m sure he didn’t want his legacy to disappear when he died, so he struck a deal with Teach Yourself Languages to create audio courses that could be published and distributed across the world. And now, there have been over 5 million learners who have used it to learn a language.

Some of the key points to his method, and really his entire philosophy when it came to learning new languages, are captured in his famous quotes:

“Your learning is my responsibility.” -Michel Thomas

“What you understand, you know. What you know, you don’t forget.” -Michel Thomas

Let’s take a look at how the teaching takes place and see how the aspects of his philosophy are applied.

How Does the Method Work?

You turn on the program, and the teacher explains the format.

The teacher will explain some concepts to the three students (a man, a woman, and YOU) and then a native speaker will pronounce the words so you can hear it, and then it’s your turn to do so as well.

So the teacher might say something like “when you make a request for something, you say ‘o kudasai’ which means ‘please give me’ in Japanese”

Then you hear a native say it. And then the teacher will ask “how do you say ‘please give me a camera’?” at which point the two students will give their answers. This does a couple of things for you.

First of all, the human brain is constructed in such a way so that when ever you hear a question, you automatically come up with an answer.

So when the teacher says “how do you say X” your own mind will try to provide the correct answer. It’s a very natural process that occurs, and the Michel Method relys heavily on this technique to teach you a language.

Michel Thomas said that the learning process should be fun, students should be curious during the whole process, and they should be totally free from any kind of stress while learning.

I’ve written before how being in a relaxed state of mind is essential for rapid learning to take place, and Michel’s method uses this same concept.

Thinking back to his quote, Michel always wanted the responsibility to be on him and not his students. That way they felt totally free to ask questions and make mistakes with no fear of any kind, such as the fear that you might get a bad grade on a test or look silly in front of all your peers.

You’re taught both vocabulary and grammar this way, but the explanations that the teacher provides on grammar are really where the course shines.

Rather than use the approach that most grammar books take, where they teach you ten different ways to use the grammar word KARA in Japanese, the Michel Thomas Method only teaches you one usage of the word, and then gives you several examples and asks you to also provide some examples based on what you know.

This method is far superior since you understand and use the new information right away. People who are at a beginner or intermediate level should focus more on learning one thing at a time and how to use it, rather than learning every possible function and trying to remember them all.

This method of explaining a language’s rules is basically the opposite of immersion based programs like Rosetta Stone where they give you lots of Japanese words, but don’t explain what they mean. And because of this, I feel that The Michel Thomas Method works better for teenagers and adults. Like the quote from earlier, “if you understand something you won’t forget it.”

What’s interesting is that while the teacher is asking the students to answer questions, the students will sometimes make common mistakes. The teacher then corrects them and provides a little explanation to help remember the correct way to say things.

It’s interesting because I imagine that these are the most common mistakes that people make, so the course takes that fact into account and addresses it.

Who is it for? Who is it NOT for?

There is a particular Japanese 四字熟語 (yoji jukugo), or “four character idiom” that goes like this:

  • 十人十色 (jūnin toiro)
    Lit. Ten people, ten colors
    It means “to each his own” or “different strokes for different folks”

I say that because The Michel Thomas Method will be perfect for some people, and not so great for others.

I think the method is great for people who:

  • Are brand new to Japanese
  • Like the classroom setting
  • Prefer having a teacher explain things in depth
  • Like learning together with others
  • Want to learn how to speak Japanese

But you probably wouldn’t get too much out of it if you:

  • Are at an intermediate or advanced level of Japanese
  • Understand things quickly and don’t need a lot of explanation
  • Are annoyed at others giving incorrect answers
  • Prefer to do things on your own
  • Want to learn how to read Japanese

The progress in this course is slow. And that is great if you are new, because at that point in your studies the most important thing is to get the correct pronunciation down, learn the basic vocabulary, and understand how the grammar works (at a basic level).

But once you get to the point where you’ve got a solid grasp at how Japanese works and you just need to put in the time and energy to learn more, this course starts to feel really, really slow. And the fact that one of the two other students makes a lot of errors becomes more annoying than helpful.

This method kind of reminds me of the Pimsleur approach to learning Japanese. You’re going to become very good at saying a few things with confidence, but you’re not going to attain fluency in the language with it.

I think the reason is because Michel Thomas spoke ten languages, but Japanese wasn’t one of them. So while the courses on the languages that he did speak (like Spanish, Italian, etc) are actually pretty advanced, the Japanese course created by other people doesn’t go the same distance.

What I Recommend

If you’re new to learning Japanese, then I recommend you check out their beginner course, which is titled Start Japanese with the Michel Thomas Method.

You can find it on Amazon by clicking here.

This entire method could be compared to hiring a tutor to teach you Japanese, and the cost of the beginner course is about the same as one hour of tutoring online. Similar to the Pimsluer beginner course, it’s a bargain.

If you want a free sample of how the course works so that you can test it out before you commit to it, then you can also do so on Amazon by clicking here.

And if you feel that the method works well with your particular learning style, then you might be interested in their Perfect Japanese course.

If you’d like to know more about it, you can do so by clicking here.

This method is all about speaking Japanese. You are not going to learn how to read or write it at all.

I think this is how new students should be taught, since trying to learn both the speaking part and the reading part of Japanese at the same time is very overwhelming when you are new.

Once you feel confident in your abilities to speak the language, learning how to read it is a lot easier.

But anyway, that’s just my thoughts on it. What do you guys think?

Have you tried this method before? Do you know anyone who might be interested in it? Let me know with a comment below!


  • Anika

    This is an excellent article. It provides a very thorough review of this course. I am an absolute beginner looking for the best course for learning Japanese, and you have done a great job of providing the advantages and disadvantages of this particular method, which I had never heard of prior to seeing your website. Thanks for the information.

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey thanks, I’m glad you found it useful. One of the things that I’ve noticed over the years is that most people who are able to speak two or more languages know about all the different courses, all the different methods, and all the different techniques. Probably because they’ve tried them all!

      But people who only speak one language and want to learn a second one don’t know about any of them. It makes sense why it’s like this, but it’s a shame as the people who need the information the most, are the ones who have it the least.

      That’s why I want to share all I know with the people who read and visit this blog. That way I can share the knowledge that I’ve gained over the years, and then the readers can decide what they feel is best for themselves based on complete information.

  • Kourtney

    I would love to learn Japanese, the problem I find with the usual structure of teaching like you said above, is how they teach you many words but don’t actually get you to ask questions or use them in sentences that are relevant. I like the fact it gets two people to say it and sometimes its incorrect which properly ingrains in your brain the right way to say it from the wrong way. Appreciate your post and will definitely look into it more!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Yeah, it’s a really interesting way of teaching it because when one of the students makes a mistake, the teacher will take that opportunity to really go into depth on just that one aspect so that students can fully grasp how to correctly use it.

      Even if you personally provided the correct answer, it’s still nice to learn why something is right in the first place.

      I’ve never taken a Japanese class at a school or anything, but I would imagine that the environment is pretty similar. That is, as long as there are only three students!

  • Daniel

    It seems like some of the really good courses on Japanese like this one and also the Pimsleur one focus on teaching you how to speak Japanese, and don’t even bother with the written part of the language. Do you think that’s a good way for people to learn Japanese?

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hmm… Well I think that it’s a lot easier for people who are just starting out to do it this way. The Japanese written language is so much different from the English alphabet that you really do have to spend a lot of time focusing on it to learn it.

      Japanese kids learn how to speak the language to fluency before ever starting with Hiragana, Katakana, and Kanji. So it’s not necessarily a bad idea to teach people that way who are picking it up as a second language.

      But I think that once a person has a couples weeks of learning the elementary sounds of the language and the typical structure of sentences, then it’s fine to start learning the two Kana scripts and then move onto Kanji.

  • Steve D'Agostino

    Interesting article, Nick. My daughter and I have been thinking about learning Japanese. We, along with her brother, study ninjutsu together and think it would be cool to learn to speak the language. We speak multiple western languages, but this would be a new adventure that I think will be fun!

    • Nick Hoyt

      Hey Steve, that is totally awesome that you and your kids know and study ninsutsu! I’ve often wondered if knowing the language that a martial art was created in would help you to be better at it or not. If you guys are brand new to learning Japanese, then the Michel Thomas method would probably be a good fit for you guys.

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