Gift of tongues
Michel Thomas has played many parts in his time. As a French Resistance fighter during the Second World War, he assumed enough identities to rival the exploits of the Scarlet Pimpernel. After the war he had a spell as a Nazi-hunter, before pioneering a revolutionary fast-track system for teaching languages that has had the rich and famous knocking at his door for the past 50 years.
The list of past clients includes such big names as Warren Beatty, Candice Bergen, Tony Curtis, Bob Dylan, Raquel Welch, Peter Sellers,Woody Allen and Alfred Hitchcock. All have been attracted by his promise. As he put it to me: "In two or three days you would acquire a solid, comprehensive knowledge of the entire grammar of the target language without memorising, without textbooks, without taking any notes or doing homework."
His service to the stars can cost $15,000 a time, but it is not just the wealthy who have benefited from his teaching. More than 10,000 students have passed through his two language centres in California and New York since the first, inBeverly Hills, opened in 1947. Now, at last, aged 86, he has published course materials in French, German, Italian and Spanish, covering the first 10 or 12 hours of his intensive three-day sessions.
Actress Emma Thompson, who learned to speak Spanish with Thomas, has said:
"He knits the language into your head. It's magical." British viewers saw him in action two years ago, when, for the first time, he agreed to be filmed for a BBC Education television documentary called The Language Master after teaching producer Nigel Levy to speak Spanish from scratch. "I learned more in four days than I would have in years at any school or institute," Levy said later, "because the way he teaches is just so fundamental." In the programme, Thomas was seen teaching French for a week to a group of students on vocational courses at Islington sixth-form centre in London.
Their teachers had been sceptical. Margaret Thompson, the centre's head of French, said students needed aptitude and an appetite for hard graft to succeed at languages. The programme then focused on some students on vocational courses - none of whom had taken a language at GCSE - who made astonishing progress at producing complex French sentences in excellent accents.
At the end Margaret Thompson said: "They have done in a week what normally takes five years. I think the real lesson is that the sheer interest in learning is enough ... he's really on to something very important."
Maria Cox, another French teacher at Islington, told me that the centre had wanted to try some of the tapes Thomas uses in his own two language schools for an intensive introductory course. But he was not prepared to let them out of his control at that stage.
Michel Thomas could have succeeded at any profession. He chose teaching after experiencing all the horrors the Nazis and their French collaborators inflicted on Jews during the Second World War. His extraordinary life has been chronicled by Christopher Robbins in The Test of Courage, a sometimes barely believable bio-graphy published last year that paints a picture of an obstinate and audacious man whose self-reliance is total.
As a young man, educated in Germany because of anti-Semitism in his native Poland, he escaped from the Nazis twice. Early in the war, he was interned in the Le Vernet camp, dubbed the "French Dachau". He escaped after two years and joined the Resistance. He was recaptured and tortured by the Gestapo, but, finding he had the power to block pain, he managed to convince them he knew nothing of any Resistance activities and was released to fight on.
After the war he worked for US counter-intelligence in Germany. In one dangerous and brilliantly theatrical coup, he intimidated the leaders of a Nazi underground group into believing he was the boss of a Nazi super-organisation, then used them to glean valuable intelligence.
Now, his quiet voice almost shaking with anger, he tells me: "I saw how quickly democracy, the free society, was knocked over in the Weimar republic and under Vichy. The same in Austria - I saw the Austrians' triumphant welcome of Hitler, I was there."
He blames elitist educationsystems for the popularity of Nazism. When the elite welcomed Hitler, he argues, "the uneducated masses looked up to Doctor this and Professor that, and followed".
Two of his own teachers had said things about education that stuck with him. One was a maths teacher who told the class: "Anything simple can be made complicated". Thomas wondered if the process could be reversed; "Anything complicated can be made simple."
The other was a university professor in Paris who said: "Nobody knows anything about the learning process of the human mind." "I thought: 'My God, if we don't know how we learn, how can we ever know how to teach?' " He also remembered Thomas Jefferson, who said a nation cannot expect to be ignorant and free. so he went into education, starting with a language school because, of all subjects, a new language was the most alien to learners.
He believes our education systems, based on pressure, testing and constant insistence on hard work, places "a very heavy lid" on the majority of children, which they carry throughout their lives. By removing the pressure and taking all responsibility for students' learning, he lifts the lid and allows the innate human drive for learning to take over.
When people are relaxed, he told me, their conscious and subconscious minds work together and they absorb lasting know-ledge. Under stress, the subconscious is blocked. "What you memorise you forget," he says. "You can cram for an exam, even get an A, but you will forget it." When the pressure and fear of failure is removed, and a subject is presented in easily absorbed chunks, students get very excited about acquiring knowledge.
Over the decades, he has analysed and perfected his own teaching, and trained other teachers for his two language centres.
Soon after he set up the California centre, Jules Stein, the Hollywood tycoon who founded Universal Studies, offered to back a chain of Michel Thomas language schools, but Thomas refused. He wanted to refine his methods and offer them to mainstream education for everyone.
A chance came in 1969. A sit-in at the George Washington Carver high school in Los Angeles, which was feeling the effects of the Watts riots four years previously, had developed into full-scale mayhem. Classrooms had been smashed up, the principal had had a breakdown and a new principal appealed for outside help. Thomas offered to come in and teach a class for a week. Again, he chose languages - although he believes his approach works for all subjects.
Black leaders had complained about the irrelevance of the school curriculum. What could be more irrelevant to violently disaffected black children than French? The principal warned him he would face abuse, and very likely violence. "Just give me a class on Monday morning," he said.
"The first day was wild," he recalls. But in a couple of days, he won over the students. Even the most hostile were drawn in. They learned French by leaps and bounds and begged Thomas to stay one more week. Afterwards, they asked for courses in other subjects that Thomas helped to arrange. A senior teacher who assessed the results wrote a report about the "excitement and satisfaction" of all the students. Thomas, he confirmed, had instilled self-discipline without raising his voice, and with only one sanction: a 10-minute time-out for disruptive behaviour.
Later, Thomas worked in an elementary school, teaching English and maths to young children whose only language was low-level barrio Spanish. The teachers were so impressed that they based the whole curriculum on his methods, and people came from far and wide to see the results.
While individuals continued to endorse the approach, school authorities, university education departments and the education establishment took little notice. Enthusiastic faculty deans or vice-chancellors whom Thomas had taught failed to persuade their language departments to test the method. They wrote off Thomas's results, putting them down to personal charisma or even hypnotism.
Next term, Impington Village College, a specialist languages school just north of Cambridge, will run a carefully-monitored trial of the method. A group of Year 9 students will work through the recorded French course. Then they will have two days with a teacher from one of the Thomas centres. Finally, in two groups, the pupils will spend two more days with her or with one of the college's teachers.
Jackie Kearns, the principal, is attracted to the method, which fits what the college is trying to do. "If children just learn language for situations by heart, they are stuck when they meet it in other forms. If they understand the structure, how the language works, they can adapt to new situations," she says. But she wants to test it properly.
Michel Thomas's great dream has been to make a real dent in educational practice, so children do not have to labour beneath that heavy lid that prevents them learning throughout their lives. Perhaps, now that he has put his methods on the open market, professionals will at last take notice.
Michel Thomas's biography, The Test of Courage by Christopher Robbins, is published by Century (pound;16.99). French, German, Italian and Spanish by Michel Thomas, published by Hodder amp; Stoughton. Up to pound;15 for taster sets with two tapes or CDs, pound;60 for full sets of eight. Special offer for schools: individual languages, pound;40; all four languages pound;120. For orders e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org or tel: 020 7873 6000