Quickly does it for Thomas

11th August 2000 at 01:00
I tried out the Italian tapes. It was an extraordinary experience. Thomas forbids you to try to memorise, take notes or mentally revise what you have learned. You must simply relax, listen, use the pause button when he asks you to say something, and have a go.

All his teaching is in English. The recordings are made with two real students, so you hear their efforts and mistakes, and Thomas's prompts and responses to them. Picking up one word or grammatical form at a time, you are soon producing long sentences.

The course is designed to embed the basic structures of the language - not to teach you how to order a beer. Thomas says he never corrects a mistake. "I teach students to correct themselves," he says. If students have forgotten a word, he gives them time, then prompts with the first syllable. Often tha's enough. As you progress, you do start correcting yourself, and hear your two fellow students doing it. At one point on the Italian tape, Thomas says: "It is very important not to try to do it by sound. It's a thought process. When you speak in English it is also a thought process - it is not automatic. The only difference is that sometimes in Italian you will have to think something out before you say it."

I was halfway through when I went to Italy. I am a veteran of crash courses, but always end up completely tongue-tied. This time, with help from a pocket dictionary, I was treated in shops and restaurants as though I spoke Italian. I managed to talk fearsome security guards at a posh bank into letting me see its art collection. For the first time, trying to speak Italian was fun, not frustrating.

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