North Brooklyn is about as good a microcosm of America as “melting pot” as anywhere in the country. Walking down the streets you’ll hear a broad variety of languages, such as: English, Spanish, Polish, French, Italian, Yiddish and Hebrew, to name a few. At FluentBrooklyn, Sam Maher and his teachers are teaching residents many of these languages, helping to promote communication between people from different backgrounds.
FluentBrooklyn offers courses in Spanish, French, Arabic, Italian, German, and English. Mandarin and Portuguese will be added to the mix over the next few weeks. Maher, the company’s founder, said that language classes are necessary in this city. “New York City as a whole needs them… What’s missing is a place to learn a language where it’s fun and cool. Almost every other competitor is too serious about it. You get a stuffy feeling when you see these places.”
In contrast to mandatory high school language courses or traditional language learning workshops, Maher’s classes are equally focused on fun and education. “Everyone who comes in here wants to learn, and they’re excited and enthusiastic,” said Deborah Hartranft, a Spanish teacher. “It’s a light atmosphere, not too scary or serious, and everyone is trying to have a good time.”
Classes are held once a week, with three hour sessions for the seven-week courses, two hours for the 10-week courses, and are conducted on five levels. “People have really been freaking out about wanting to take Portuguese,” said Maher. “They fill out the contact form on our website and tell us we are idiots or that we are an absolutely terrible company for not offering it. The teacher who does it is Brazilian and said we better start offering it because we’re getting death threats. So I think those classes will be very popular.”
A kids’ program in French, Spanish, and Italian just began, with students aged 9 months to 13 years. English as a Second Language (ESL) classes are also being developed. “We’re trying to cater to the Greenpoint Polish market,” said Maher. “[It’ll be for] people who can struggle through sentences of English, but we’re really trying to get them to a good point.”
FluentBrooklyn evolved from SamTeachesFrench, a company that Maher started straight out of college as a part-time gig. After signing up 600 students, he made it his full-time career. Last spring, he opened up the newest and bigger version of his company at 143 Skillman Avenue, right off the Graham L stop. He also rents space in Manhattan for FluentManhattan, the other leg of the company. Outside the city, he’s organizing trips for students to France and Spain, where they will learn the languages in the countries themselves. There are planned vacations to Morocco, Berlin, Rome, and Tuscany for 2012.
As a level four French student, Ashley Blanch has stuck with FluentBrooklyn because of how comfortable she feels with her teachers. “Learning a new language can be very intimidating but Sam’s approach is so personalized. There’s no pretension in it. He finds teachers that have the same approach. He really pays attention to how you learn and he tries to cater to that. His style is very flexible in that way.”
By the first or second of her Spanish classes, Hartranft encourages students to speak to one another in the foreign tongue. “It helps them acquire the language,” she said. “The first couple of classes, it’s scary and intimidating, so creating an atmosphere where it’s fun and OK to make mistakes is really good.”
At FluentBrooklyn, neither the teachers nor students are uptight. Everyone is looking for a down-to-Earth educational atmosphere, whether they’re learning to say “My name is” in French or “Goodbye” in Spanish. “Our teachers are very young and energetic and they don’t look like teachers at all,” said Maher. “We try to make it like you’re hanging out with a friend who happens to teach a language. It makes the classroom environment casual, cool, and fun. Students don’t feel uncomfortable to eat in class or drink wine and beer. The professors do keep it serious enough where everyone learns, though. It’s a balance between those two things.”
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