Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Michel Thomas - The story of more than just a language teacher

One of my favorite products for language learning is the Michel Thomas method cds, which I’ve used for Spanish and French (and which I’ve wrote about in this blog before).  This post is less about the product or the method, but about the man behind the method.  Michel Thomas, besides being an amazing language teacher, lived a truly heroic, tragic, and amazing life.

Documented in the book Test of Courage:  The Michel Thomas Story by Christopher Robbins, Michel’s biography is an action packed account, worthy of the most suspenseful Hollywood movie.  In the 1930s Michel and his family, growing up Jewish in Poland, decided to flee anti-semitism there.  The only problem was they fled from Poland to Austria, the Austria of Hitler and the Nazis.  Necessity required another escape from persecution, and Michel ended up a refugee in France prior to the Nazi occupation.  After the invasion of France, Thomas was eventually captured by the Nazis for his activities in the resistance and imprisoned in a concentration camp.  Thomas escaped and re-joined the French resistance.  After the allied invasion, Thomas would gain employment in the U.S. Army’s Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC), the precursor to the CIA.  Thomas was present at the liberation of Dachau, and the photos he took at the liberation are now a part of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  He stayed with the CIC for several years, helping to bring several Nazi war criminals to justice.    

After the war, Thomas would eventually migrate to the United States.  He opened a language school in Los Angeles and taught many Hollywood stars a variety of languages (French, German, Spanish, Italian, English).  His clients included notables like Woody Allen, Sofia Loren, and many other celebrities.  Thomas also became the subject of the BBC documentary, the language master, linked below, in which he teaches students who have trouble with languages in the past French in 5 days.  
In 2004 Thomas was awarded the Silver Star for his heroic work in World War II.  He died a year later at age 90.  His audio courses are a great place to start when learning a language.  I personally used the advanced Spanish course, which took my Spanish to the next level, and have done the complete French course and am waiting for the opportunity to be able to use my French.  If you would like to learn more about Michel and his incredible life, please check out the resources listed below.                

BBC documentary about Michel Thomas:  The Language Master

Audio History of Holocaust: Here is a link to an interview of Michel Thomas being interviewed for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.  Excellent, in-depth, emotional, and the interviewers do a really good job of just letting Michel tell his story.  The other histories in this collection are done with the same quality and respect, it puts real human faces with the Holocaust, an event that it’s easy to think about in large numbers and forget about the individuals affected.   

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Learning - transferable skills

Do the methods that I used to learn Spanish as an adult apply to other things I want to learn?  What did I do to be successful as an adult learner of Spanish?  I’m trying to learn some new skills right now that are not related to languages (I am also working on French and Mandarin too), and I would like to emulate what worked when I was on the road to learning Spanish.  I love learning lots of things, but I’m just going to focus on two for now, photography and guitar.  

I started “learning” guitar as a kid, but really just wanted to play rock songs, be a rock star, and not learn anything about real music.  I practiced and went to lessons, but my heart wasn’t really in it.  Now I’d like to learn guitar for a couple reasons.  First of all, I want my daughters to grow up around music, and I’m trying to teach my older daughter as I learn (we’re working on Jingle Bells right now).  Second, learning an instrument is great for brain health, don’t believe me then check this out. I can’t help but think I’d benefit from more rhythm, coordination, and concentration.  (A bonus to this skill is that I can learn great Spanish songs, which will help my Spanish as well).  So now I’m ready to be a little more serious about playing the guitar. I think I have okay motivation for guitar, yet I have very different reasons for learning photography.

Other than taking pictures with an old point-and-shoot, I’ve never had much interest in photography, well, at least not in taking pictures.  Looking at them was always fun.  My wife, on the other hand, has always loved photography and taking pictures, so a couple of years ago I bought her a DSLR camera for Christmas.  Great gift, right?  Well, actually for the past couple of years we’ve been using the thing in auto-mode the whole time, making it in effect one great big point-and-shoot.  Recently, I’ve taken interest in getting more out of our camera for several reasons.  First, I became the default photographer at a wedding that my wife was in when the photographer didn’t show, and got some okay shots, but nothing spectacular.  Second, I’d really love to get the most out of the camera that we have, as it is a pretty good one.  Third, I’d love to capture our life in a more artistic and meaningful way.  Fourth, who knows, maybe eventually photography could become a side gig.  So these are my “whys” about what I want to learn, but the “hows” are what can come from my experience with learning Spanish.  

What did I do when learning Spanish that can be applied to learning these other skills?

Habits -  This was probably the key to my success in learning Spanish.  I made many habits that I lived daily, like listening to Spanish learning mp3s anytime that I got a chance.  So, what habits will I make with the new skills I want to learn.  For the guitar, practice every day, and make it easy to do so.  I have a mini-goal to practice at least 5 minutes a day.  Some days it has been more, but the point is that even with 5 minutes I’m keeping up with the practice.  I’m also trying to practice in a better way, using a metronome, well, a metronome app to make sure I’m getting my rhythm down, but not all the time, sometimes I’m just having fun with it.  For photography I have a couple of habits I want to follow.  One is to take some pictures every day.  They can be anything, pics of the kids, food, flowers, anything.  Oh, and there’s a catch, this habit must be accompanied by this condition.  I must always use at least a semi-manual mode (like aperture priority or shutter priority) or better yet full-on manual.  If I’m taking pictures, but just using auto mode, then I’m not really learning anything.  This goes back to another habit from when I was learning Spanish, one that I still follow today, if it can be done in Spanish, don’t do it in English!  

Use multiple resources - I feel so fortunate to live in an age where information is at our fingertips and easy to access.  Learning Spanish, I used many resources, and each helped in its own unique way.  I used mp3s and cds, I took two semesters in college, I read Spanish learning books and books in Spanish, I watched Spanish tv and listened to Spanish radio (long before I could understand anything), I talked to people, and tried anything else I could find that I thought could be of value to learning.  While I may not be quite as exhaustive in my new endeavors, I still plan on using several resources.  For learning guitar, there are books, youtube videos, and friends to jam with. I’m working out of two very different books right now, and getting something very different from each one!  For photography I’m starting with books too, well I do work in a library after all.  I’m also taking a photography class on The online class is great, because I get to see the photographer in action and making the adjustments to his camera, but the book slows things down and helps me to internalize the content so that I can recall it later.  There are also plenty of pins on pinterest that have great photography tips!  

Don’t do too much -  Maybe it’s just my short attention span, but I’ve always had success with learning doing little bursts, 10-15 minutes vs. hours of studying.  With Spanish it was often listening to podcasts that were about that length, or looking at a book for a few minutes.  With guitar, no grueling practice sessions until the fingers bleed. With photography likewise, there won’t be any need to take hundreds of photos a day, 2 or 3 will do.  Timing of these activities can be crucial too, the closer to bedtime, the better of a chance the brain will transfer these activities to long term memory.  I’m not saying don’t learn at other times of day, but reviewing a little before bed could most certainly be beneficial.  

Persist - Learning Spanish I remember feeling overwhelmed the first time we traveled to Panama.  My wife had to translate probably 95% of the time.  I didn’t let it get me discouraged, by the next year I spoke some more, and in a couple more years wouldn’t need any translation.  I already feel overwhelmed like this with photography, so many new terms, new concepts, and so many buttons!  From learning Spanish I’ve learned that learning comes with patience, practice, and good habits.   

Oh, and after I get more experienced with the camera expect to see some photography on this blog, as adding photos that I've taken will also be one of my new learning habits.

What about you?  What have you learned in the past, and how will that help you to learn new things in the future?