Michel Thomas was one of the most remarkable people I ever met. A Polish-born survivor of labour camps in Vichy France and agent of US counter-intelligence, he founded a “Polyglot Institute” in Beverly Hills in 1947 and went on to create a range of best-selling language courses, in person and on CD.
After just eight hours, Thomas helped beginners gain practical and functional use of whichever language they chose – as I experienced myself. “If we put our minds to it, he told me, we could all be multilingual.”
I learned a huge amount from Thomas about new approaches to learning. And I’m not the only one. Emma Thompson, the Oscar-winning actress, remembers learning Spanish with him as “the most extraordinary learning experience of my life – unforgettable”. Woody Allen paid tribute to Thomas thus: “I had years of Spanish in school and could never speak a word (but) with Michel, you learn a language effortlessly.”
His teaching method, which took him a quarter of a century to refine, is sufficiently unusual to have been granted a patent. When I asked him what makes it so successful, he explained: “There is nothing to memorise,” he explains. “You are not allowed to take notes. And no homework. That is absolutely not allowed. Not even mental homework.
“If (students) make a mistake, that is fine. I will lead them back to correct their own mistake. I never correct them. The most important thing is not just to reduce but to eliminate all kinds of tension and anxiety that is associated with learning.”
Be Yourself In Any Language does not pretend to do what Thomas did, in the sense of teaching a specific language, and building up a vocabulary. But we share with Thomas a determination to show what is possible when tension and anxiety are removed – to show that absolutely everybody can flourish, and be themselves, in any language.