Monday, August 27, 2012

Margarita Madrigal - A Biography

Margarita Madrigal (May 15, 1912 – July 23, 1983) was an author, teacher and scholar. She began her teaching career in 1930 aged just 18. By the early 1940s, she had become the best-selling language course author in the United States. Her career as a language author would last 40 years and lead to the publication of more than 25 works, covering 7 different languages.

Early Life

Margarita Madrigal was born in Alajuela, Costa Rica on May 15, 1912. Her father, Ezequías Madrigal, was an operatic baritone (and later a professor of English) from Costa Rica. Her mother, Carolyn Wilhelm, was a concert pianist from Winchester, Kansas. According to Margarita, her parents met when her father "was set to appear in a Kansas City auditorium but his accompanist became ill." He heard that Carolyn Wilhelm, a local girl, was an excellent pianist and asked her to be his pianist for the evening. She agreed "and the romance went on from there." Along with Margarita the couple had a second daughter, Marcella, and a son, Miguel.

Margarita, together with her family moved around a great deal after she was born as they followed her father’s performances and teaching assignments around Latin America. By the time she was eleven she had lived in all five Central American republics as well as in Mexico.

By 1923 however, her mother decided that Margarita had forgotten too much English and shipped her off to her own folks back in Kansas City. There she attended Wyandotte High School, which gave her, she later said, “a little of the Kansas tradition” in her makeup.

Career as a teacher and author

After graduating from high school, Margarita went back to Mexico where she taught English privately to Spanish speakers. She also studied and then later taught at the Puebla State Teachers College. At this same time she immersed herself increasingly in studying Latin American folk music, which she had already learned much about from her journeys through different Latin American countries as a child as well as from her musician parents. She would later play this type of music to her students after she had finished a long class.

Margarita in the 1940s
In 1940, she returned to the U.S. when the University of Mexico commissioned her to make a survey of the study of Spanish in the United States. She returned first to Kansas City and then toured the rest of the country to research material for her thesis. At the end of the same year she settled in Greenwich Village, New York and began offering private lessons in Spanish. Her teaching was so profoundly effective and quickly achieved such acclaim that by 1941 she could count among her students the authors Sherwood Anderson, André Maurois and Ernest Hemingway, Radio and TV Commentators Ben Grauer and H.V. Kaltenborn and World Tennis Champion Alice Marble. In time she would also be employed as a tutor by the FBI, The Rockefeller Institute, Time Life International, as well as numerous ambassadors, executives, judges and even generals.

Margarita in the 1950s
In addition to providing tuition she also began lecturing on language education both in the United States and abroad. More significant than this however, she started putting her ideas down on paper and publishers swiftly put out everything she was able to produce. So began her career as an author.

Her first works became known as the “Invitation to…” series of language courses. First to come out were Spanish and Portuguese in the early 1940s, soon followed by French, Russian, Italian, English and German. The courses became bestsellers, turning Margarita into America’s most popular language course author overnight. The “Invitation to…” series of courses was later followed by a series aimed at children, entitled “First steps in…”, and then later by a series of small, pocket-sized, carry-around language courses, the “See it & Say it in…” range. Finally, there were her magnum opuses, the “Madrigal’s Magic Key to…” series.

It was in these large, five to six hundred page behemoths that she was able to unleash all of her tricks and vast know-how, finally making learning a language an easy thing for the masses to do. Madrigal’s Magic had truly arrived!

Personal Life

Margarita never married. Asked why she had chosen not to during an interview when she was 65, Margarita explained, “I wanted very much to marry but marriage didn't mix with the kind of life I wanted to live. You just can’t get up and leave when you’re married. I wanted to have adventure. I have had adventure.”

This was undoubtedly true but she also had another reason for not marrying, which was that Margarita's romantic interests lay in women rather than in men. She had a number of female partners during her lifetime and, if only for legal reasons, she would not have been able to marry another woman in that period even if she had wished to make a lifelong commitment. One of her partners was world tennis champion, Alice Marble.

Margarita and Miguel Madrigal with Alice Marble

Marble referred to Margarita as "Tica", as did most of Margarita's friends. She described Margarita as "a bright, witty, enjoyable companion" and explained that when Margarita's "live-in-lover left in tears" due to Marble's burgeoning relationship with Margarita she had assumer that "Tica and I would be together." Unfortunately for Marble this was not to be and Margarita instead began a long-term relationship with Doris Dana.

Doris Dana

Around a decade later Margarita was to form another important relationship, this time with the author and classicist Edith Hamilton. Although most probably not romantic in nature it was nevertheless an extremely close relationship and one in which Margarita displayed great admiration for Hamilton. Having first been introduced in 1957, Margarita described Hamilton as "the greatest person I've ever met" and she considered Hamilton to be the greatest prose writer ever produced by the United States.

Edith Hamilton

Hamilton was more than anything an expert on Classical Greece, its myths and culture and Margarita was so influenced by her that when she needed to take a break from her stressful life in New York she chose to spend the first stretch of that break near Athens, Greece. When speaking of Hamilton Margarita said simply that "we were intimate friends."

Later life and death

Margarita continued to teach and to work on new manuscripts and new editions of her existing courses all the way up until the end of the 1970s. However although she still offered private tuition from her Greenwich Village apartment she also increasingly spent time at her weekend and summer home in Mystic, Connecticut. Suffering from overwork and stress she eventually moved out to Mystic on a permanent basis.

She was interviewed about her life and career while living there in 1978 and said, “I think I’m the best language writer who ever existed. I have no pride, no sense of vanity. It’s just a fact.” Many of her students would agree.

Margarita in 1978

During the same interview, Margarita also discussed what had allowed her to produce such excellent work, ending by finally saying that, “If you don’t try to surpass yourself, you haven’t done it. That’s what separates extraordinary people. They try with their hearts.”

During the final years of her life, Margarita began working on a history of the story of the Founding Fathers, which she hoped she could simplify and make easier to understand just as she had done with languages. What finally happened to this manuscript is unknown. Margarita moved away from Mystic in 1979, relocating to Stamford, Connecticut.

Margarita passed away at her home there on July 23, 1983 following a battle with throat cancer. She was 71. She was survived by her sister, Marcella.

Margarita Madrigal's Methods and what made her courses so cool

Margarita Madrigal was famous for one key reason: her ability to teach languages. I myself once spent a year trying to teach English to non-English speakers and did not realize quite how lamely I had done the job until I began using one of Margarita's courses to learn a language. She had an extremely unique teaching style and pioneered a number of methods that made learning a language easy, whether it was with her in person or through using her books. In fact as she explained, she actually “created four methods”: the "Natural Order System", the "Word-picture Method”, the "Madrigal Instant Recognition Method" and her final system, which simply became known as “The Madrigal Method of Language Study”.

This final system, "The Madrigal Method of Language Study", included elements from each of her previous methods, for example the careful “natural” ordering of vocabulary and grammar explanations and the use of word-pictures to help with understanding grammar and vocabulary retention. In addition to utilizing her existing techniques however, she added new innovations: not only did she increase her use of cognates (words that are similar to each other in two different languages) but she also gave guidance on cognate creation (see below), she rejected memorization as a technique for building vocabulary and she designed her courses so that what she introduced at the beginning of the course came up again later in the course in a variety of contexts. Words and grammar were woven in and out of the course in a clever way so that you did not simply end up forgetting everything you had learned once you moved on to a new chapter. Isn’t that great? All these elements strongly characterized the “Madrigal Method of Language Study” and made it absolutely fantastic. For those unfamiliar with Margarita’s courses, it is difficult to convey just quite how her use of these similar words (cognates) together with her clever explanations and overall course structure made learning a new language so incredibly simple. By introducing these cognates (these words we already know from English) she helped make each language she taught far more learnable than you could ever have thought possible.

But this was not all she did. Even more important to the success of her courses were what she called “sentence forming exercises” where she showed her students how to dissect and break up the language they were learning into individual components and then showed them how to put these back together again. For those unfamiliar with her work and how simply brilliant it was I am going to include some examples of this exact thing below so that you can see for yourselves how her system worked and why it made and makes learning a new language insanely easy.

I will begin with an example from “Madrigal’s Magic Key to German”. To give you an overview it is worth you knowing that each chapter in this course is broken down in a way very different to how we were all taught languages in school or college. To begin with, Margarita starts by giving you bits of the language you are learning and then shows you how to slot them together. These are the “sentence forming exercises” and they constitute a central part of your learning. They are scattered through the beginning, middle and the end of most chapters, sometimes being provided as revision “reminder cards” – which effectively are the same thing under a different name. Each chapter also contains (as well as this) clever grammar explanations plus techniques for creating German words out of English words, together with opportunities to use these new sentences that you are now able to create. To understand this better than I could ever explain just take a look at the scan below and you will get an idea how you actually learn to put the components of the language together when using her course. In essence you choose one component from each column and by doing this you are able to make your own sentences in a new language. It is so easy! And as you go through the course you get used to manipulating the language as components so that you can just slot them in and out of your own sentences and so can speak the language correctly and are able to say whatever it is you want to! By doing this you find that you are able very rapidly to speak in complete, entire sentences and you just know how to put them together yourself. It is so cool! Take a look:

Madrigal's Magic Key to German - Forming sentences

Obviously I am missing out the introductions, the explanations and practice sections Margarita provides but you can still probably get the idea. By using this “sentence forming” technique that she teaches the language becomes very easy to manipulate and you find you can quickly and easily read, write and speak a foreign language for the first time. Because she combines this with teaching you how to invent German words (or Spanish words in the Spanish course or French words in the French course) from English words you suddenly find that you can start speaking German just a few hours into using the course. Here are a couple more examples of sentence forming from the German course just to give you an even clearer idea. One is taken from fairly early on in the book, the other is from a little later on in the course: 

This sentence forming is not the only thing that makes these courses great, it is also what Margarita decides regarding what order you should learn things in. She has a great eye for what your priorities should be when you are learning a language. First off, she always gives you cognates (similar words) to play with whenever she can, second, she gives you words to go with these cognates that let you begin making sentences from the very start. For instance, very early on in “Madrigal’s Magic Key to French” Margarita begins by giving you different categories of words in French that you can create from your knowledge of English. She tells you for example that words that end in “ble” in English are common to both languages. So “probable”, “terrible”, “possible” etc, these words are the same in both English and French. Once she has finished introducing these similar words (cognates) she gives us additional words so that we can start using these cognates that we have just learned right away. She does this in one instance, for example, by telling us that “it is” in French is “c’est” and once we know this we can then immediately begin making our own sentences based on what she has told us. We find we can say “it is probable” – c’est probable, “it is terrible” – c’est terrible, “it is possible” – c’est possible. This is all very early on in the course and requires almost no real effort. And once you can make these simple statements Margarita gives us some additional words we can use, which don’t end in "ble" but which allow us to say a little more. But once again because of how she orders it the whole thing feels so easy. I have put an example from the book below so that you can get a better idea:

Madrigal's Magic Key to French - Forming sentences

Margarita really made learning languages easy. Using cognates (similar words), teaching you useful words that allow you to use those cognates right away, showing you how to break sentences into bits that you yourself can manipulate easily, all of these things and many others helped make her courses the best in the world. And she has left this legacy to all of us. It is a legacy that is nothing less than an open door to speak foreign languages available to anyone who speaks English. She lived a fascinating life and produced outstanding works of learning. She deserves to be remembered.

So I hope that this tribute site helps make more people aware of this amazing author and teacher who is unfortunately no longer with us. I truly wish she was so that I could meet her and be tutored by her. That of course is not possible and so I have instead become a collector of her books and works and information about her life. If anyone else knows anything about her that I do not I would really welcome you adding it as a comment below. Her work really does deserve to live on, as does this story of her life.


I am unable to recall all of the locations where I have found information about Margarita over the years but my sources have included among others:

- Her various course books and their dust jackets.

- Courting Danger: An autobiography by Alice Marble.

- The Brooklyn Eagle, Page 10, Tuesday, February 11, 1941.

- The Day, New London, Connecticut, Page 13, March 6, 1978.

The Day, New London, Connecticut, Page 19, July 30, 1983.

The Day, New London, Connecticut, Page 6, August 2, 1983.


  1. i so love your tribute. madrigals teaching was the best ever. her drawings always made me laugh and i never would have passed spanish without her. tica you are gone but not forgotten!!!

    1. Thank you for your comment. It makes me so happy to be able to share this tribute with other people who loved Margarita and her work.

      As you say she is gone but not forgotten.

      Thank you again for your comment and please check back from time to time for new posts.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to compile all of this! I've searched for information on Margarita Madrigal and her method quite a number of times but was unable to find out very much concerning her. She sounds like a real character! What are you planning to write about next?


  3. Jake

    Thank you for your comment. I believe Margarita was a very special and interesting individual and I am so glad you have found what I have written to be useful.

    I am not absolutely sure what I am going to write next but there are some parts of her biography that I will probably expand. Please check back often for new posts!

  4. This is a really great article you've written.

    I don't know if you've ever heard of another teacher, called Michel Thomas, but from my perspective his courses use exactly the same type of method you've described here. A lot of the content in his French and German courses is incredibly similar to the magic key to French and magic key to German content you've described above. I actually own the French and German courses by Michel Thomas and there is so much similarity that I kind of spat out my breakfast in amazement when I read through this. The sentence forming exercises, the cognates, the way the course is put together, everything - it just makes me feel like Michel Thomas totally ripped off Margarita Madrigal's method.

    I would love to know what you think....


    1. JW

      Thank you for your comment and for your compliment. I am only truly familiar with Margarita's courses plus some extremely boring (but thorough) courses the Foreign Service Institute produced many years ago.

      The name "Michel Thomas" does not really mean much to me. What I can say though is that it would not surprise me if a significant number of teachers had been influenced by Margarita. Her courses are incredibly effective tools of language learning and have without doubt inspired a great many teachers.

      Thank you again for your comment and please check back often for new posts.

    2. I don't really mean that Michel Thomas was just influenced by her. I mean that, in my opinion, he appears to have copied Margarita Madrigal's whole method and the kind of content choices she made. The method he used to teach just appears to me to be exactly the same as hers, really exactly the same. I feel like he just ripped off her entire method and then talked about how he came up with it all by himself.

      Buy one of his courses and see for yourself.


    3. I totally agree with JW. I have madrigals magic key to spanish and michel thomas’s spanish and french courses and I always kind of wondered if they had ever worked together or something because their spanish courses are just so similar. But since it seems like he didnt work with her or get her permission to use her way of teaching then – from my point of view – it just seems like he must have copied her ideas and method. Like you say – it’s really sad!

    4. Michel Thomas's and Margarita Madrigal's courses are so similar, it's like a bad joke IMHO. What I'd really like to know is if and when they met and if he ever attended one of her classes.

    5. ive found a few people talking about this over the years. a lot of people have noticed the similarities and i think now theyre just beginning to put it all together.

      searching the web you find that people have ocasionally and innocently been noticing this for almost a decade but i dont think any of us understood what had actually occured until now when its starting to become a little clearer. ive found various people who noticed the similarities over the past ten years:

      in this michel thomas review from 2004

      under an article about michel thomas from 2005

      in a michel thomas review from 2004

      on a forum discussing margarita madrigal in 2010

      there are loads more examples out there of people kind of starting to put these pieces together. michel thomas was really smart though in not releasing his courses until after margarita madrigal and most of her students had passed away. no wonder nobody could talk him into recording them earlier.

    6. Agreed! It is sad - and terrible too.

      The way I see it, he must have taken her method and ideas and then used them as his own. I have the German by both authors and to me the method seems just the same but of course hers was published a half century earlier. He lived a long time and so could wait until she was out of the picture.

      Still don't give into despair about this. If you keep flagging up how good her work was and how interesting her life was more people will know what happened and more people will turn back to the true source of these ideas.

      She deserves the credit and I believe she will eventually get it!

    7. Dear all

      Thank you for taking the time to comment.

      I would like to request from this point on however, that we keep comments to discussing Margarita Madrigal and her work and not other teachers / authors. I appreciate that many of you wish to protect her work but this site is intended as a tribute to Margarita and should be mainly about her. I would also like to keep the tone more positive. So much of the internet is a negative place and I do not wish this site to become that way too. Please think of this as a peaceful garden where we can talk about Margarita's amazing teaching and life.

      So please do not submit additional posts concerning Michel Thomas as I do not wish this discussion of him to dominate my tribute and I will not approve any more posts on this subject.

      Let's keep this about Margarita!

  5. I own Margarita's Magic Key to Spanish and See It and Say It in Spanish books. They are both quite delightful and I have long desired to know more about her.

    Your biography is fascinating. She certainly moved in some interesting circles, both romantically and as a teacher. What a pity she is no longer with us! She would have had a tale or two to tell about the exciting life she lived! I suppose "I wanted to have adventure. I have had adventure." says it all really.

  6. Dear MMT,

    I am a Spanish and French teacher. Do you think it would be possible to use Madrigal's Magic Keys to French and Spanish in a school classroom setting? If so, how would you recommend I go about doing so? The intelligence of her ideas is obvious and I would love to use some of them in my classroom if possible.

    Any guidance you can offer in this regard would be greatly appreciated,


    1. Dear Helen

      It would definitely be possible to use Madrigal's Magic Key to French and Madrigal's Magic Key to Spanish in your classroom.

      Simply introduce the vocabulary and explanations to your students in the same order that Margarita does. Then use her sentence forming exercises to get them creating their own sentences. Pretty soon they will be surprising you by saying things you did not expect they would come up with in a million years of study.

      Let me know how it goes and please check back often for new posts.

  7. I have used and liked both Michel Thomas' and Margarita Madrigal's Spanish courses and while they have a lot in common, there are significant differences. I have little doubt he took some good ideas from her to add to the many other good ideas in his courses (as Einstein allegedly said: "creativity is the ability to hide your sources), but he definitely didn't steal her whole method.

    1. Significant differences? What significant differences?

      I've got courses by Michel Thomas and Margarita Madrigal and in my opinion the method they use is exactly the same, with the only difference being one of format - one is in a book, the other is in a recording, but otherwise I can't see how they're anything other than precisely the same method.

    2. I can see no differences myself. The way I see things the guy just went and took her whole method.

  8. What JW describes is exactly the same reaction I had about 5 years ago. I’d been using Margarita Madrigal’s Magic Key to French when someone suggested to me that I should try the Michel Thomas French CDs. I tried them and had I been eating breakfast I would have spat it out too!! I just thought to myself “this is such a copycat” - and it doesn’t even go a quarter as far in the language as Magic Key to French does!! I’m quite good at French now and a couple of times I’ve taken out my copy of Magic Key to French and used it to teach a friend the language out loud - and for me it’s exactly like a so-called Michel Thomas lesson (and you would not believe the progress my friend made when I taught them that way either). Margarita Madrigal was and still is the queen of language teaching!!

  9. Dear all

    Thank you for taking the time to comment.

    I would like to request from this point on however, that we keep comments to discussing Margarita Madrigal and her work and not other teachers / authors. I appreciate that many of you wish to protect her work but this site is intended as a tribute to Margarita and should be mainly about her. I would also like to keep the tone more positive. So much of the internet is a negative place and I do not wish this site to become that way too. Please think of this as a peaceful garden where we can talk about Margarita's amazing teaching and life.

    So please do not submit additional posts concerning Michel Thomas as I do not wish this discussion of him to dominate my tribute and I will not approve any more posts on this subject.

    Let's keep this about Margarita!

  10. “I think I’m the best language writer who ever existed. I have no pride, no sense of vanity. It’s just a fact.” This sounds exactly like Frank Lloyd Wright when he described himself as the world's greatest architect. I am so happy that I found this blog on a rainy February day in upstate South Carolina. Forty-seven years ago I was a little girl studying French in a parochial school in upstate New York. There all these years I have kept Open Door to French (1963) in my library. I love to look at my 4th grade penmenship answer the question on, say, page 35, "Les trains ne sont pas petits." The final exam included every student standing up and reading "La France"(p. 118)out loud and being graded on her or his pronunciation. I still have those paragraphs memorized. I studied French in high school and lived in a French-speaking country as a Peace Corps volunteer, but I still say that all the Frecnh I know really came from that book and Mrs. Casey, my Quebecoise teacher. Now, fast forward to the 21st century. Due to changes in my life, I may be moving to a Spanish-speaking country. I have never studied Spanish. I told my friends that my plan was to take Open Door to French and translate it into Spanish unless I can find Open Door to Spanish somewhere! So, just last week I was at a used book sale and found a 1961 copy of See It and Say it in Spanish. I am absolutely convinced this will be a huge help to me. It made me wonder: who was this marvelous Margarita Madrigal. Thanks for the research. Maybe you can include her NY Times obit on your site. I'd be surprised if she wasn't written up in the paper.

  11. Hello all.
    Where can i get a copy of 'magic key to French' please? they are so hard to come by...