A year in business has not given Natacha Koblova all the answers she would like to have, although she did learn another language.
The Russian-born 39-year-old polyglot (more on this later) has been in this business of teaching languages for many years. Now she faces the ups and downs of owning an infant language school/business that mixes traditional and unconventional methods.
The Multilingual Language and Cultural Society is a nonprofit organization that sits on South Olive Avenue in West Palm Beach, next to the French bakery. French is one of the seven languages taught at the society and explored through films and social outings such as museum tours and picnics. A recently added event is Breakfast in French, which Koblova describes as an informal get-together for people who want to practice their skills while enjoying coffee and crepes.
During our meeting earlier this year, Koblova pointed out that the social component is essential when learning and teaching a foreign language. The conversation kicked off with a laugh that seemed half pride and half relief, as Koblova announced a startup milestone: “We survived the first year.”
Tell me more about that.
For me the goal was precisely to survive. The first year you try and test many events. Some of them I think would be great and when I try them it’s definitely not a hit. Other events that you think will be simple and nothing special draw big crowds. For me, it definitely has been a learning process.
A lot of trial and error then.
Yes. It’s interesting. I’m in this business for some time now, but still, you never know how the public will respond to new ideas. Before Breakfast in French, we had something similar. It’s a class with French wine. Many students of different levels have the same issue: They are afraid of speaking. They know so much but don’t trust themselves. So at one point I said to myself: well, maybe with a glass of wine they will let go. And it works, you know. You get creative with these kinds of classes and people have fun and learn through games.
We also have regular classes. We teach in small groups with a minimum of three people. It’s not like regular school. Our public is different. When people come here it’s mostly because either they have a second residence or they travel often. We don’t have many students who need to improve the language for a grade.
Would you like that? Would you want to see the business go in that direction or stay the way it’s been going, more exclusive?
Yes. Absolutely, but we would do something specific for that group because it’s a different goal, a different objective. Right now, because of the demographics in this area, that is not our prime clientele.
We do have a French class for children ages 9 to 12. This is definitely something I would like to develop more. I would like to offer more classes for children. You know, French is not taught in schools as much as before.
Before this, you managed a French cultural organization.
Yes. It’s a worldwide organization represented in like 40 countries around the world. In 2010, I opened a local branch: Alliance Francaise Palm Beach, with a main office in Miami. Unfortunately, the Miami office had to close due to foreclosure and, again, because my office was a branch I closed it. I decided to open something completely independent, new and this is how Multilingual started.
This was also my opportunity to add all of these languages. Before, all activities were for French in French. Now we have all these other languages. French is still our primary language, but Spanish and Italian are picking up speed. I was actually surprised to see how much interest there is for Italian.
Absolutely. I’m the perfect example. I started learning Italian here in May (2013) and I love it. It’s really fun.
How’s the Spanish going by the way? I heard you were tackling it.
I understand it. I can read it. I think I got what I wanted to get out of Spanish. But I really love Italian language. And after French, Italian is much easier.
I know you are originally from Russia. When did you arrive at the States?
I came here in 2001. I moved here from France, where I lived for two years. Since I arrived I have always lived in Florida. This is definitely my home now.
Were you always interested in learning languages and cultures or did that grow after relocating?
I got a degree in teaching French as a foreign language in Russia. So it’s my profession, my job, my specialty. I always liked it but now it’s my business as well.
So you have managed to make a living out of your passion.
Am I lucky or what?
You are very lucky.
Yes. I feel like I am because I enjoy doing what I’m doing and since I started taking Italian it has become even more enjoyable. Now I started German. This is a different story. I wanted to find a challenge and I found it.
Be careful what you wish for.
Is it true that after learning one language, the third or fourth one comes easier?
Absolutely. This is why I think I was so optimistic and so ambitious and I was like: Ok. Let me do German now.
Piece of cake.
Piece of cake, right? Well, it’s not. But it’s nice to see that there is still some room for growth.
Do you think someone can master a language without living in the country where it’s being spoken?
I believe so, yes. It definitely requires a different method. You wouldn’t be learning the language the same way. But is it possible? Yes. It requires more discipline and if there is motivation that helps.
The world has this general idea about Americans not being interested in other cultures. Having lived and taught in the United States for a while, do you find that to be true? Is that thirst for knowledge missing?
We have so many students who are pure Americans. Not naturalized, I mean.
But it’s funny, you know, it keeps coming back this stereotype. My students tell me the same joke: What is somebody who speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American.
And they tell me this joke, but they are here learning.
I don’t know if it’s that the stereotype is no longer accurate or that I am fortunate, but I’m really lucky to be surrounded by a group of people who are really ready to learn. They have this interest and passion about different languages and cultures.
I came across the term “polyglots” on your website. Who are they and do you agree they are on the rise?
Polyglots are people who speak many languages. And yes, I think so.
If you want to really discover a country and get more out of the experience, you will make sure to blend in with that life. Otherwise you visit as a tourist. People right now are looking for a different experience.
Also, I have students who want their brains to stay active. We go to gyms and exercise to stay in shape. It’s the same thing with the brain. Language is definitely one of the best things you can do.
I was just hearing the other day about someone who went to Italy and ended up eating in McDonald’s. This goes back to what you were saying about language being one of those venues through which you can really experience a country. I mean, do you stay at the Hilton Hotel or a local establishment? Do you try the local cuisine or hit a chain restaurant?
Yes. What’s the point to travel overseas if when you get there you speak English and eat the same exact thing? What’s the point? Also, I think people welcome you differently when they see you try. You don’t have to be fluent but when they see you are making an effort, they will do everything for you.
Going back to what you were saying about teaching approaches. What can people expect to find here as opposed to a continuing-education night class?
I understand maybe the price is much lower, but here we teach in small groups. You will never see more than eight students. We do this because our main goal is the conversational aspect. Our students don’t need the language for a degree, a grade or to pass an exam. For beginners, the goal is to be able to ask for directions, introduce yourself, order food. It’s a real-life approach.
Of course, there is nothing bad about the classes in the high schools. But we offer events, activities and I think people are looking for this: to recreate in some way Italy, France, to recreate some part of it. For example, when we do the diners at local restaurants I always ask to get a server who speaks French or Italian if that is the case. Students know they will be ordering food in the language.
We do use textbooks and do exercises. For example, this situation was given recently in one of my classes: I’m a representative of an airline company and I have one seat left. You need to fly from Paris to Miami but everything is delayed. Please convince me that I have to give this seat to you. What is going on in your life? What is so important that I have to give this seat to you? Convince me.
We use this kind of material in class, not just something abstract.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it sounds like the Multilingual Society is not very focused on grammar.
Grammar is important. Now, if somebody speaks with mistakes and not a perfect pronunciation but I can understand the person, I think that’s much more important than them repeating the same phrase over and over again.
Going back to the class size, I’m sure your students appreciate the more personal, more intimate setting that allows the teacher to spend more time with each of them. What if the business grew more this year and you got more people coming in but not as many teachers. What happens then?
I would love to have this problem. You can put this in bold in your article: If one day, my headache is that I have so many students that would be great. I’m sure I will find a solution. But I don’t think we’ll ever go over eight students per class.
Right now our office allows us to have three classes at the same time and we have some possibility to add classes on Saturdays, so we still have some room to play.
The Multilingual Society’s summer intensive program runs from Monday through Aug. 30; classes for beginners in Italian, French and Spanish will be offered four days a week, two hours for each class. The Multilingual Society also has recently added three book clubs in Italian, French and Spanish. For more information on either of these offerings, call 561-228-1688, email email@example.com, or visit the society at 210 S. Olive Ave.