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Larger Than Life

From escaping concentration camps to cavorting with royalty to plotting an education revolution, Michel Thomas has had one adventure after another. Even he knows his life story invites skepticism.

April 15, 2001|ROY RIVENBURG | Times Staff Writer

His teaching efforts were honored by the French language preservation organization Academie Francaise, which in 1982 awarded Thomas a medal. But whenever he has been on the verge of a deal to spread his language instruction techniques to other subjects, something goes awry, he says. Those who got cold feet over the years include the Ford Foundation, L.A. public school officials and billionaire John Kluge, he says.

Morris, his friend at UCLA, says Thomas "is a remarkably self-defeating individual in certain contexts."

In 1990, when Morris was dean of humanities at UCLA, he arranged a meeting between Thomas and the school's foreign language faculty to discuss using his methods. It was a fiasco. "His way of interacting with the department chairs was the worst imaginable," Morris recalls. "He wouldn't tell them anything about what he does--and he revealed his contempt for what they did."

Secrecy doesn't fly in the ivory tower, Morris says: "You won't get academics to use a 'new' method unless they have some indication that it can be replicated."

But Thomas says his students are all the proof necessary. He doesn't want to reveal his methods for fear his ideas will be stolen or distorted. He adds: "It was evidently impossible for the language departments to watch someone achieve in a few days what takes them years. They couldn't stomach it."

Thomas hasn't given up--he continues to travel and teach. The latest laboratory for his methods is in Britain. Kearns, the principal whose school is experimenting with his system, got interested after reading his biography. She phoned him in New York and persuaded him to visit. Last August, Thomas spent four days teaching French to several 13- and 14-year-olds at the school. The students, who already had some French under their belts, were tested before and after the sessions. Result: Their grades rose from Cs and Ds to Bs and Cs. "Outstanding," Kearns says. If the gains hold, the school will ask Thomas about adapting his methods for wider use.

That's precisely what Thomas says he has wanted all along: a chance to revolutionize the educational establishment. As he once told Robbins with characteristic bravado: "I didn't devise my system to teach languages quickly. I devised it to change the world."

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