An Interview with Laura K. Lawless

Laura K. Lawless runs a website called LawlessFrench (previously About.com). She runs the entire French site by herself, a valuable resource for all students. I recently interviewed her about learning French, her site, and more. Here's what she had to say:

How did you get interested in learning French?
It all started with a calendar I got when I was about 9 or 10, with the numbers 1-10 written in a different language for each month: German, French, Japanese, etc. I was fascinated by this and tried to learn them all. At that time, my older brother was studying French in high school, and one day he helped me with the French 1-10, and then taught me 11-20. And that was that - I loved it and chose French as my foreign language when I got to high school.

Why do you think it is important to learn a second or third language, especially French?
There are so many reasons - understanding the world, getting to know other people and different points of view, being able to watch movies and read books in the original language (I don't like reading translations and I absolutely hate dubbed movies), better job opportunities... I could go on and on. For me personally, the most important reason is being able to communicate in foreign countries. I love traveling, and it's a lot more fun when I speak the language. I can't tell you how many times I've met people in France or Costa Rica or Morocco who were happily surprised, even delighted that I speak their language. It shows them that I respect their language and culture, and they in turn respect me. On the other hand, I felt like a complete jerk in Italy, and I always feel bad when the other person switches to English for my sake. (I know sometimes they're happy to do it, because it's an opportunity for them to practice, but it makes me feel like I should have done more.)
As for learning French in particular, aside from the fact that it's a beautiful language, it has had an enormous impact on English, so if you are at all interested in English linguistics, you can learn a lot from French. Plus it's an official or administrative language in dozens of countries, and an official language in many international organizations.

What advice can you give students new to foreign language about the challenges of learning French, or any new language?
Be patient and don't be afraid to make mistakes. When I started teaching adult ed French, I had one student who was afraid to open her mouth, and another who thought he'd be fluent by the end of the 10-week course. Learning a language isn't just about memorization - you have to use it. Being able to conjugate avoir and knowing how to count won't do you any good if you don't get out there and speak. And it will take a long time to learn, especially if you're not immersed. No one would ever think they could "master" chemistry or calculus in a few months, but for some reason people often think perfect language will just magically start coming out of their mouths. It's hard work, but it's worth it, especially if you fall in love with the language along the way.

What does your job at About entail?
I'm the French language Guide at About.com, which means that I am the person behind the French language site. (Many people refer to the site as the French guide, but it's not - I am.) I write all of the lessons and quizzes, record the short sound files, send two newsletters a week, oversee 4 forums, maintain links to dictionaries and other tools/information I can't provide myself, answer hundreds of emails a week, and constantly think of new lessons to write and old features to revamp. (My to do list never gets any shorter, because for every lesson I write, I think of at least 1 or 2 more.) I get a lot of emails thanking me and my "staff" for the great site, when in fact it's just me (other than my two forum hosts and a couple of friends who proofread certain features). I've been working on it full-time for the last 8 years.

How do you keep your French fluent when you're not in a French-speaking country?
It's not easy. Working on my site helps, because it keeps my thinking in and about French all the time. My husband and I usually chat in French a couple times a week, and I also read in French and listen to the radio or an audiomagazine once in a while. The truth, though, is that I do start losing a bit after a while, but as soon as I go to France I get it back almost immediately.

Do you have any memorization tricks that really helped you?
Well, for verb conjugations I just kept writing them out and saying them out loud until they were mine. When I can't remember the gender of a particular word, or whether it has an accent, or how to spell it, I write it on a post-it and leave it on my computer until I do (usually takes a couple of weeks, and then I never have trouble with it again). For the longest time, I had to keep looking up "to be part of" because I couldn't remember if it was "faire parti" or "faire partie," so I finally wrote faire partiE on a post-it and that finally did the trick.

What's an aspect of French culture that you really enjoy that's missing in North America?
Aside from the language and the great conversation that goes along with it, which is what I really long for, I miss the food: fresh bread several times a day - hot croissants in the morning, freshly-baked bread at lunch and dinner. Bakeries in the US always seem to close by noon, and the bread isn't as good anyway. I also miss the coffee - very few restaurants serve really good coffee in the US, and I can't stand Starbucks. And the wine and cheese, and the outdoor marchés, and the crême fraîche with berries, and the butter on toasted brioche.... And the French appreciation and knowledge of good food is delightful - everyone knows about pairing wine and cheese, they love to eat and drink good food. It's such a great way to live.

5 comments:

  1. Laura does an absolutely amazing job with About. I subscribe to the newsletters and am frequently astonished by the wealth of information I receive. In fact, it can be overwhelming at times.

    If you are any kind of serious about learning French, her About.com section should be your top online go-to resource - without a doubt.

    I can't believe she runs it all by herself.

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  2. I agree. I utilise many ways to learn french, and many times when I get stuck, Laura's lesson on the subject fixes me right up.

    Well done and thank you.
    Renier

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  3. I've always been afraid of making mistakes. But with Laura's advice I've realized that *that* is the biggest mistake, and I've started to get over it. Merci mille fois, Laura!

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  4. Le site Web de Laura est étonnant!

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  5. Laura puts out an extraordinary amount of information, beautifully digested, clearly explained. I hope she makes a fortune doing what she does; she deserves it.

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