When language teacher Michel Thomas first came to the United States from France in 1947, he brought with him an example of his prowess as a communicator: a Nazi-trained attack dog captured near the end of the war. He turned it into a pet.
“Establishing a rapport with such an uncomfortably vicious animal was more a learning than a teaching experience,” Thomas says. “It required reaching an understanding, a relationship of friendship.”
Thomas, now in his late 50s, has since used basically the same approach to teach French to Barbra Streisand and English to François Truffaut. He has also taught Spanish to a group of Los Angeles elementary school teachers and nearly a dozen other languages to businessmen and scholars. But Thomas is best known for the household names on his class rolls. A columnist once advised out-of-town visitors: if you want to see celebs, drop by Thomas’ school.
Once called The Polyglot Institute, it has grown into the Michel Thomas Language Center, with branches in London, New York and Miami. Michel and his staffs have turned out at least 10,000 mostly satisfied students.
One of them, actress Ann-Margret, took an intensely concentrated 13 hours’ worth of French lessons from Thomas last summer after attending the Cannes film festival and feeling less than au courant. “At the end of my last session with Michel, I went out of there just staggering from all the words and rules going through my head,” she said. “But you don’t forget the way you forget what you learn in regular school. If you don’t remember something, he puts the blame on himself. You relax and soak it up like a sponge.” Thomas explains foreign grammar in English, unlike some other language courses, then moves on to conversation. He stresses classroom relaxation and forbids homework and conscious memorizing—”never try to remember,” he urges.
His low-pressure technique originated in his memories of the less than exhilarating classes he attended while growing up in Bordeaux. His father was a textile manufacturer. Thomas relished the hours he spent reading, however, and went on to study psychology in Paris and Vienna.
A Sorbonne professor’s statement that “nobody, but nobody, knows anything about the learning process of the human mind” inspired Thomas, he says, to devote himself to “the psychology of learning.” But the war began and Thomas spent eight years in the French army and the Resistance, where his fluency in German helped him survive. After the war he decided to emigrate to Los Angeles and put his teaching theories into practice. Over the years he has attracted such celebrated pupils as Grace Kelly, Tony Curtis, Janet Leigh, Raquel Welch and Bob Dylan. Thomas says he can teach any language in the world, the more common in an 80-hour course that costs $960 minimum for private lessons.
Thomas, fluent or nearly so in a dozen languages himself, achieved a second reputation—as a chic, swinging bachelor during the 1960s. (His romance a decade ago with saftig German starlet Christiane Schmidtmer even made the gossip columns.)
Nonetheless, his academic credentials are beyond dispute. The Los Angeles city schools use him as a local resource. He took over a Watts class for an experimental week after student riots in 1969 and taught “the most irrelevant subject available, French.” Attendance after the second day was perfect.
Still, Thomas admits that his methods do not always succeed. He recalls one student, the late Jayne Mansfield, who took a three-day course in Italian so she could talk to an Italian producer with whom she suddenly had fallen in love. Mansfield went straight from Thomas’ class to a rendezvous with the man and, while the lessons worked, the romance didn’t. “Unfortunately,” Thomas says, “they broke up as soon as they could communicate.”