Michel Thomas Publisher Reveals How She Changed The Face Of Language Learning

michel thomas language courses

Michel Thomas is one of the best-known language teachers of all time.

His language courses are supremely popular, and his teaching method has a “magic” to it that seems to make language learning easy for many people.

But, he was a highly secretive person.

In fact, for many years, he refused to talk to anyone about his method, and only taught behind closed doors.

So, how was it, that he was finally convinced to make his courses available to the world, and create his first published material?

This is surely one of the most fascinating language stories ever told… and I’m delighted to be able to discuss this on the podcast and in these interview notes.

You see, it all began in the late 1990s, when Sue Hart (pictured above) was Commissioning Editor at Teach Yourself Languages.

One day, out of the blue, she received a phone call from Michel Thomas himself.

In this exclusive interview, Sue reveals exactly what happened, and how she was able to convince Michel to do the unthinkable…

(Click the play button to listen to the interview. The main points are summarised below.)

How Sue Became Aware Of Michel Thomas

As the new commissioning editor at Teach Yourself Languages in the late 1990s, Sue discovered a memo from a colleague attached to a tape in a filing cabinet.

It read: “You might be interested in this!”

  • She had never heard of Michel Thomas before
  • Attached to the memo was the BBC Horizon programme: The Language Master
  • Sue was bowled over by the documentary and decided to explore the possibility of creating a course

About Michel Thomas’ Language Teaching Methods

  • Michel was worried that his method would be copied
  • He taught students face-to-face at his language institute in Los Angeles
  • He developed language courses on tapes, but they had to be studied on the premises, and they would be locked away at the end of each day
  • Michel would teach the core lessons, but he did bring in teachers to help students with vocabulary practice etc.
  • Each time he taught a course, it was different. He was a master at responding to the students.

How Sue Persuaded Michel Thomas To Create Commercial Language Courses

  • Sue wrote a short letter to Michel Thomas in his New York office, including a Teach Yourself catalogue
  • A week later, she received a personal phone call from Michel. They agreed to meet next time he came to London
  • Negotiations took two years, from initial discussion to signing the contract
  • Michel never put anything in writing – there was no written record of any discussions throughout the entire negotiation.
  • He didn’t write or respond to letters. Everything had to happen face-to-face.
  • He would travel to the UK two or three times per year (always first class, always staying in the best hotels!), and they would meet often to discuss the project, always very informally, as nothing was in writing.

Why Michel Decided To Finally Release His Method To The World

  • He was beginning to accept his mortality – he was in his mid-80s at the time of the negotiations with Teach Yourself
  • They knew there was huge potential for the new language courses, but weren’t quite prepared for the level of success
  • Sue believes the main reason for the success of the courses is the fact the methodology works
  • The methodology itself is also very attractive to people:
    • No pens
    • No homework
    • No memorising

Creating The Courses

  • They had no idea whatsoever how the recordings would work, as nothing had been revealed by Michel!
  • Students had to be recruited for the recordings
    • A man and a woman
    • A British and American voice
  • An advert was placed in the Daily Telegraph asking for volunteers. They were inundated with responses!
  • The recording of the first course took place over two days – 8 hours each day. Michel taught straight through, without the need for a break.
  • He had no notes during his teaching.

About Michel Thomas

  • He enjoyed his celebrity status and enjoyed name-dropping the famous people he had worked with
  • Sue never spoke with Michel about how he learnt his languages. He claimed to speak 10 languages, and Sue remembers hearing him speak at least 7.
  • He said language learning is one of the most alien processes the brain can undertake, and that’s why he chose to work with language.

Quotes About Michel Thomas

  • “What you understand, you know. What you know, you don’t forget.” – Michel Thomas
  • “My biggest regret is that we didn’t film the teaching.” – Sue Hart
  • “Your learning is my responsibility.” – Michel Thomas
  • “Language learning is one of the most alien processes the brain can undertake.” – Michel Thomas

To view Michel Thomas’ language courses on Amazon, click here.

Did you enjoy the story? If you have any comments, or questions for Sue, please leave them below!

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  • acutia

    “He developed language courses on taps”

    Language learning on taps, sounds great – where can I sign up?

    Maybe you mean “tapes”?

    • Haha… sarcasm to rival my own! 🙂

      • acutia

        Hi Olly, Just so you know, I replied a few days back to this comment but it never turned up. It contains links to Michel Thomas related Youtube videos, so maybe your Disqus settings have filtered it.

  • Really lovely interview and one to revisit.

    Michel Thomas has been quite a big influence on me, especially the parts about taking responsibility for the students and their understanding, relaxation and not “trying” but letting imaginative things happen … and then learning to develop and exploit a kind of curiosity of what is going on in your brain. That curiosity can then become a skill you can access on tap (or on tape 😉 ) …

    Taking responsibility for the students understanding is probably the biggest challenge for any teacher, given that there are at least 4 learning types and 6 sensory modes. That’s why I ultimately can’t imagine a full language learning process without writing either.

    But I think the point is that anyone can encode information very quickly and reliably decode it relative to the individual process at the point of contact. In this case, we have to consider the “theatrical frame” Thomas used.

    We know how important these frames are when it comes to memory and learning from the memory competitions, mounds of research and endless anecdotal evidence. The applications stemming from how one first makes contact with information to encode it matter a great deal. So much success in encoding has to do with the framing.

    This relates to the brain chemicals produced during novel or pleasurable situations (like the production of norepinephrine). These chemicals are very powerful in helping determine the extent to which information is encoded or not encoded thanks to the brain’s opioid reward system … or it’s opposite, the insular cortex, which creates a pain response when things seem too hard. Again, situational frames trigger one or the other.

    All of which is too say, it’s not difficult to understand why the Michel Thomas method can create credible results for certain learning types, but also why it was such a huge success. It’s also such a memorable “frame” in and of itself with the student-teacher image and all the theatrical metaphors it creates, leading back to brain chemistry and its role in learning.

    What I wish could have been asked was about the persistent beeping on parts of the recordings. I’ve always assumed this was some kind of hypnotic anchoring attempt that he requested from a production standpoint to stand in for some kind of anchoring he may have done in live teaching.

    Have you ever come across anything about that? Or if there is the opportunity for a follow-up question along those lines, I’d be very interested to know more about the intention behind the beeping.

  • Daniel

    A big thank you to Sue for participating in this initiative!

    I’ve been fascinated by Michel Thomas (his life and work) since Christmas, but I had never heard much about him before then. This was a fascinating interview!

  • Allen

    So did he produce courses or not? If so, how may they be obtained?

    • Hi Allen, yes he did – very much so! There are links in the article, but I’ll add them again at the end to make it clearer.

  • Barbara Filgate-Cobham

    Just watched the documentary and enjoyed it immensely. I was sad to hear that the Michel Thomas Korean program is not that great, but I will definitely remember his programs for future languages!

  • ElfinW

    ” Language learning should be excitement” . B-E-A-U-T-I-F-U-L

    I can’t imagine learning a language without writing but I do get where he was coming from.

    Olly, thanks for sharing this with us. You’re such a good storyteller!

  • Very interesting post and podcast! Thank you for sharing. I had never heard of Michel Thomas’ language teaching method. I have decided to learn Italian using it.

  • I remember watching this clip on YouTube 5, 6 years back, and it was so inspiring to see a master at work – not just a master of languages, but a master of TEACHING languages. The way schools teach languages is rather non-specific, they just expect you to learn these things in succession and master all aspects of it.

    Michel Thomas transfers the responsibility of doing that to the teacher – the teacher is in charge of everything – ambiance, methodology, strategy, progression – and all of this is tailored to the group of students he works with.

    This reflects the way learning used to happen in a master-apprentice relationship – you literally observe the master at work, and the master teaches you things in a seemingly random order, but everything has a specific purpose.

    This fits language learning particularly well, because learning languages is very difficult for someone who’s never done it before – it can be overwhelming to remember all the bits and pieces, and also design an optimal strategy to work through these challenges.

    A truly gifted, attentive teacher removes all that and just passes on all the knowledge the student needs to know in a way best suited to him / her.

    Amazing, truly amazing teacher!

    Sorry for ranting on, and the interview was very interesting as well!

    Thanks for sharing this with us Olly 🙂