Interview with the founder, Chris

Hello Chris how are you?

I’m alright Chris, thanks for taking the time to interview me.

My pleasure, Chris. For those who are discovering this website, what is OuiCommunicate about?

OuiCommunicate is an online language school that specialises in teaching French to speakers of English. We have a self-study online course and we also offer online classes. Students can buy one or the other, or the two together.

Apart from building websites, do you have a background in teaching?

Yes, I am a qualified teacher for Europe, the US and the UK. I hold a Master’s degree in Linguistics and Literature with a specialisation in English and German. I then did a Post-graduate degree to be a teacher and I also have a handful of TEFL qualifications.

In layman’s terms, this means that you can teach in schools?

Yes, I can teach in schools, either private of State funded. For the USA, obviously it depends on the different States in which a teacher must get approved. But otherwise, the short answer is yes.

Let’s talk about the angle first. Why classes for speakers of English?

The idea came from my experience tutoring on one of the big international tutoring platforms. I would meet students from all over the world, to whom I would teach French or English. The realisation struck me that I saw a lot clearer in the mistakes of students whose native language I shared. 

To put things plainly, I could not offer the same degree of guidance to a student who had Greek or Tagalog as a first language because I didn’t know the structure of that language. I could hear the mistakes and approximations but I didn’t know why they happened.

This led to specialising in certain types of students?

Exactly. For example, if a speaker of French wishes to learn English, they will approach it as a speaker of French. This means a certain linguistic “highway code” that is deeply rooted in their mind.

They will assume a certain number of things about English: the way it is supposed to sound, the relation between letters and sounds, the way the system of tenses work… there are so many assumptions. 

The skill I have is to know what  my students are going to do even before they do it.

Can you provide an example of a typical case?

Yes! When we use a language there is a high degree of “automation” (for lack of a better word). The subconscious tells us what is allowed or not. Speaking isn’t only rational and controlled.

This can be seen when a speaker of English tries to use the Conditional in French to express a past habit. In English, we can say “I would always” + whatever past habit we want to express. But in French, this tense can’t be used to do this.  Instead, you have to use the “Imparfait” tense.

It is fascinating to see speakers of English opt for the Conditional without even rationalising why they are doing it. Almost as if their brain is guiding them on a subconscious level.

These are split-second decisions made by the student. I think that the big “advantage” of these classes is that I will pick up on this type of thing as soon as the student says it. And I will also know why it happens.

From the student’s perspective, are there other advantages than you speaking English and French?

I would hope there are ! Firstly, there is the love of the profession ! They say that teaching is a calling in life. I don’t know if this is true, but I feel extremely fulfilled in this profession.

It is a nonstop pursuit towards self-improvement, and ultimately the improvement for the students. We are never quite on top of our game, There’s always a surprise around the corner. 

How does the cultural side of the language play a part in the job?

I can think of several things: firstly, it comes in handy when doing one-on-one classes. We can share a joke, use the same references….there’s a degree of comfort that we can enjoy. Another reason for this is that student and teacher understand each other perfectly. Not only on a “word” level but also on a level of manerisms, a way of expressing a certain question…If you’ve ever spoken English with a person in a foreign country, you might have noticed there’s a degree of limitation. You can never entirely “feel” the person as you would someone in your usual surroundings. Your next door neighbour for example. It doesn’t flow as well.

I’ve had this experience with some of my teachers in college. Some were German and said things in a way that got you wondering “Are they angry?” It was a clear case of the intonation getting in the way of the message.

Another example was the French-speaking professors who would sometimes use the wrong “rise/fall” on their sentence in English. The message sometimes came across as a bit blunt.

The other advantages is that I know how foreign languages are taught in those schools. It also helps me place the most relevant French skills in the lessons for having lived there long enough.   

Speaking of which, you used to live in Europe?

Yes, I lived right next to France in a tiny country of Belgium. Then I moved to the UK for several years, an now the USA.

The term “linguist” is used on the website. What should people know about this?

I would describe a linguist as an “analyzer of language”. One who observes and tries to understand the goings on within a certain language, or between several languages or even within a time frame.

How does this linguistic side of your profession come into play?

I think that a background in linguistics is crucial when teaching languages. A person might end up a very popular or even “good” teacher (however we define it) without linguistics but they would always be lacking that frame of mind that comes with the degree.

What linguistics does for me is to look at the languages I teach with a scientific eye, and not fall into the anecdotal.

Anecdotal is quite prevalent on social media. Anyone can set up shop as a teacher.

Yes, any 14 year old with an internet connection can create a school or a at least a Youtube channel. Just as any monolingual with a business background can. There is little barrier to entry.

And I don’t mean that they shouldn’t, but more often than not they will lack a scientific way of thinking that college brings you. Hence all the millions of “Top 10 things the French say” videos which are entertaining but serve very little purpose.

One of these teachers might create an amusing video on how a certain language is “impossible to learn” because of the various homophones.  For example “verre/vert/vers” that respectively mean “glass/green/towards” in French. A linguist will just say “Yes they are called homophones and exist in every language. Let’s establish how useful they are to be learned. Are they really an obstacle?”

In a sense, it’s a bit like making a video that marvels at how trumpets, tubas and trombones sound similar. A musician will say “Are you sure you are qualified to teach music?”
How can students use this new website and what should they expect to find?

The website is actually the fourth version of it since 2018. Hopefully, it is its final version.

Students can expect to find a French course that covers almost the entirety of the French language. At this stage of its development, anything that can be put into an exercise has been done. And if anything is missing from the curriculum, I invite students to point out what is missing and I will make the exercise at once.

Practically, students create an account and buy a yearly membership. If they complete all the exercises within the website they will have a very advanced understanding of French.  Just click on the video of your choosing and learn wherever your curiosity takes you.

Is there a step-by-step method?

No there isn’t, nor would I say that one is needed. Again, this is where Linguistics comes into play: there is no “rule” in languages that says you should first learn greetings, then graduate to speaking about the weather, before learning the names of colours.

Our students should always ask themselves “What do I want to learn?”  It is a personal quest through languages that also helps students acquire a method. It would make very little sense to force students to get through chapter 1 on “easy verbs” before allowing them to open up chapter 2 on “long words”. 

Every student is at a different level and uses French in a different way. A person living in Quebec or France might have more use knowing “commands and suggestions” (the Imperative) than a student who has little interactions in French. If your purpose is to pass an exam for school, the focus might be more on spelling and grammar. etc.

And this applies to vocabulary also?

Yes, although we have “flashcard” videos to improve on specialized vocabulary, the focus is clearly placed on the mechanical side of French. Meaning, “How does it work?” One student might have no use in knowing the word for “car door” or “appointment” while another will. Naturally, we can’t impose either word on either student.

But both students will absolutely have a need for the Present tense. There are parts of any language that are foundational and this is what we focus on. OuiCommunicate gives useful tools to students. On the side, if they have a use to know the French word for “hammer”, it’s very quick to look up on any dictionary. We just specialize in the areas of the language that require more figuring out.
What is your own experience with language learning?

At this stage I am learning the finer points of American English : )  But in all seriousness, I grew up in a country that had 3 national languages: French, Dutch and German.  At home, we spoke English and French and I also went to school in French.

Our neighbourhood was completely Dutch-speaking, which I started to learn at 8 years old in school.  At age 32 I learned German at university. As a hobby I also like to learn Danish but more in an “on and off” way.

It sounds a bit confusing !

As confusing as it sounds, I feel it gives me a slight edge as a teacher if only because I was prepared psychologically to view multilingualism as the norm. I’ve had disagreements with some French teachers from France specifically in that France is the only country of Europe to whom multilingualism is structurally foreign. Switzerland, Belgium and Luxembourg all have second and third languages.

For all their ill-deserved reputation as bad language learners, there is more Spanish in the public sphere in America than there is English in France. I think it’s reasonable to ask if taking French lessons with a “French” French teacher isn’t a bit contradictory. 

What are some things that people might not know about teaching?

I would say that the main thing is the mental representation that some students have of teachers as a pitcher of water. As if knowledge was like water that we pour into a glass. For that matter, many college teachers believe this to be true also. As if lecturing and “telling” was all that was needed for learning to take place. “I said it in class, you should have listened!” is a classic that teacher say all too often.

I am a strong believer in the saying “Repetition is the Mother of all Learning”. One of the issues with schools is the lack of guidance that is offered in terms of what learning means and how it is done. It is probable that if everyone understood the method, there would be no “bad” or “good” students. But there is a form of amnesia which is for instance quite visible on TV talent shows. We like to marvel at the skill of a performer who sings in an amazing way or juggles with knives, but we only look at the finished product. Behind the scenes, there is a commitment to repeat these actions thousands of times. Perhaps this is what we should really marvel at:  the commitment and mental fortitude it requires. 

So very often, adults and even children come in with a flawed idea of what should take place in a class. They will believe that their attendance equals the class. Even though they might rationally know that attending a lecture doesn’t own them a college degree!

In actual fact the role of teacher is never to “put” the information in someone’s mind. We organize the topic, we structure, we provide shortcuts, we filter through the unnecessary, we correct you, we develop a mental picture of your understanding, we suggest new paths…but we never “make” you know.

Will people know all about French by using OuiCommunicate?

Probably not all, but they will have a very good understanding of all the “mechanical” sides of French and a lot of new vocabulary besides. Probably the biggest takeaway from our way of teaching will be to walk away with a method that students will be able to apply to other languages. 

To answer the question, we must keep in mind that there are many variables that make up a good language user. Even between 2 native speakers, there are differences in level. Some of the variables night be the speed at which the sound forms a thought in your mind. How well do you understand native speakers? Or how well can you adapt to different circumstances of conversation? No school can guarantee knowledge in all fields of a language. 

This being said, our programme covers quite enough French – and more!

How big is the company? Is it a one-person operation?

Yes it is. Just me and myself. Funny thing is, I couldn’t employ staff even if I wanted to. I would have to find a person who closely matches my set of skills in order to maintain consistency.

What do large language companies have over you?

I’ve had job interviews in the past with very large teaching companies whose ambition was to be worldwide leader. I was never overwhelmed by the internal workings of these companies, and without claiming to “know” what goes on there I do have a few legitimate questions such as their size and ambition.

If you have a massively sized language school that employs hundreds of tutors, you are obliged to standardize the teaching, otherwise every teacher/tutor would just do what they feel like and there would be no point in purchasing this particular brand. It would be like every shop making a different type of Coca-Cola which makes no sense.

Since they now standardize a “method” of teaching, it also pre-supposes that it is a method that “works” and that can be applied to large numbers of customers. However, in my experience, there is no such thing. You can’t follow one set way of teaching ! Every student is different and circumstances change all the time.

Also, as a teacher of English and of French I know that we don’t teach those two languages the same way. There are different priorities due to the makeup of these languages. How do we then standardize a thing that by definition can’t be?

Second, I wonder how it is possible to maintain any type of quality control. The supervisor would have to know as many languages as they offer AND also have experience teaching them. Three languages would be remarkable, four an oddity. Some of these teaching “mills” offer upwards of 20 languages. Who ensures that they are doing a good job?

My third question is about the personal investment of their tutors. If they are just a drop in the ocean, a cog in the machine then what incentive do they have to deliver the best possible teaching?

Fourth, I often wonder about the motivation of the owners of these companies. Very often, they seem to have a business or marketing background. It seems to me that their first choice at college was not to be a teacher and to get their hands dirty. To us linguists, there is a badge of honour: we were in the trenches for 5 years reading these impossible academic papers and aiming to go into teaching. I think it is worth asking “Why languages?” Why do these Johnny-come-latelys want to get into this specific field?

What does the future hold for OuiCommunicate?

I aim to grow the business and hopefully enable learners all over the world to acquire French to a high standard of quality. I genuinely believe that we’re one of these companies that people are delighted to find and stick around once they do.

I’m also working on my other teaching venture (English for skateboarders) and my third language website will the exact opposite of this one: English for speakers of French.

Thanks for the talk, Chris.

Thanks a lot.

The end.




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