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"Efficiency and joy in learning French are priorities at my online school"
Isabelle Nicolas, Soprano & Founder of Prêt à Parler CH
How can a young mother launch and expand her business? How can one start afresh in a new country and make the most of it? Which advertising tools work best and require no investment?
Isabelle Nicolas has many stories and tips to share. Up to now she has lived in 6 countries, radically changed her profession from opera singer to language teacher, started her business during pregnancy and developed her own teaching methods, which her clients claim are the best they have ever tried. In this interview Isabelle tells why she felt like a stranger in her own country, how French-speaking cultures differ from one another and what business skills she has learned from combining motherhood and entrepreneurship.
Isabelle, tell a little more about your background. Where did you grow up, what was your childhood like?
I’d say I had a very privileged childhood. I grew up in Canada in a nice, quiet town about an hour’s drive from Montreal. Nevertheless, I grew up in a kind of European culture, because my father is originally French and my mother is Belgian, but they both moved to Canada with their family when they were little. We had a very girlish household; I am the oldest of four sisters, so we were in love with fairy tales, liked to dress up and pretend we were Disney princesses.
That sounds wonderful. What kind of future did you imagine for yourself in such an atmosphere?
As a child I was fascinated by music. My grandfather loved opera, and every time he babysat us, he would bring recordings and play famous pieces, overtures, arias. At the age of 3, I started music lessons, then I learned to play the xylophone and later the piano; that was my true passion. But to be honest, I did not intend to make a profession out of it. The thing is that both my parents are doctors, and they wanted me to go down that way too. Since I’m a very rational and academic person, it seemed like the right choice. So, until I was 17 years old, I planned to become a doctor.
Yet you chose to study opera over medicine. How did that happen?
In college, as I was preparing for medical school, I concentrated on mathematics, biology, physics and chemistry. Very soon I realized that this was not my cup of tea and I was very unhappy with my choice of subjects. To have at least a little fun, I signed up for extra singing lessons. This immediately became my favourite thing. I started singing classical music, took extra piano lessons – and all the wonderful feelings from my musical childhood came back. And all the theatre, the costumes, the performances… I just fell in love with this! It felt so right that when my singing teacher suggested I apply for a musical program, I decided to go for it.
I remember that my parents said to me: “Why would you do this with your life, do you really want to live on the street later?”
Was it a hard decision? How did your parents react to this news?
I just thought: “I don’t like what I’m studying right now, and music is what makes my heart beat faster.” It was also incredible to be included in the program: I had barely started singing and I was already in it. But for my parents it was hard, they didn’t accept it at first. I remember that they said to me: “Why would you do this with your life, do you really want to live on the street later?”
But I understand their concerns. In Canada this field is not as recognised as in Europe. People don’t realize that behind this profession there is a university degree, there are scientific studies, language studies and a lot of practice.
How did you deal with such reactions?
I am a very stubborn person; if I want to do something and someone disapproves of it, I want to do it even more. For the next two years I worked very hard because I had to catch up with other students who had been practicing music since early childhood. At the end of college, my singing teacher recommended that I go to McGill, one of the top 10 universities in North America for music and opera. It was a really big deal to get there – and I got in! At that moment my parents saw that I was very committed and they were really proud of me.
What was this experience in McGill like for you?
To study at McGill, I moved to Montreal and found myself in a whole new world – mainly because of the language. I came from a French-speaking community. Although Montreal is part of Quebec, where French is the first official language, almost everyone there communicates in English. It was a total shock for me, I felt like an expat in my own country. But it was also a good feeling because I started to open up to new cultures, languages and communities. I took it as a challenge and I got so much from this experience.
What exactly did change for you?
The great thing was that, as part of the McGill studies, you could do your language training in the country where it is spoken. So I did a summer in Italy and a summer in Austria, it was amazing. That was when I discovered Europe and its music scene, and it was an experience that opened my eyes. I just fell in love with Europe and realized that I wanted to move there after graduation. So after my master’s degree I applied for several scholarships and competitions and finally I got into the Queen Elisabeth International Voice Competition in Belgium.
I just fell in love with life in Munich… and with a man also living in this city.
So your first destination in Europe was Belgium. What exactly did you do there and how did this situation develop?
Right, I gave some performances and concerts there, got into the second round of the competition, but unfortunately I didn’t make it to the final stage. Then I thought about my next step and considered improving my German. That is why I moved to Düsseldorf, Germany, and a few months later, on the advice of my friend, I decided to move to Munich.
Munich is a wonderful city with a huge music scene and I really loved it there. I joined the opera house and worked in all kinds of opera-related jobs that I could only get there. At first, I was giving guided tours in French and English, then I gave a series of concerts, was singing for their children’s program, and saw many amazing performances. So I just fell in love with life in Munich… and with a man also living in this city. It was a real coincidence. He’s British and moved there the same month I did. We were both new in town and met completely by chance in a French bakery. It was very romantic!
That sounds like an amazing start to a new life, both professionally and personally. What made you change the career path then?
Yes, it was amazing. But you know how the music world works: To get a role, you have to go to auditions, apply for new performances, wait for the decision. I can’t really complain, I got many contracts, but it wasn’t always enough to pay the rent. So I thought I needed something on the side just to feel more comfortable. I remembered that at McGill I always helped my colleagues with French and English and I always loved languages and teaching. So I applied to various schools and was almost immediately hired to teach Business French.
How did you switch to this new and different profession of language teacher?
As I do not have a degree in pedagogy, I actively studied different methods of teaching. But probably it was precisely because I had no formal background that I was able to look at this subject from a different angle. I then developed my own method, which was completely practical, without any nonsense. It was aimed at quick results and efficient solutions. Interestingly, my clients told me that this method was better than any other method they had used to learn French before. I also developed a real passion for teaching. Unlike opera, where you work hard for weeks until you give a performance and see the reaction of the audience, in teaching you see the progress of your students in every lesson. And that just makes me happy.
I thought: I’ve already done it twice, started over again in Montreal then in Munich; why not try again in Geneva?
After all this, your life has been turned upside down once again. What exactly happened?
My husband- then boyfriend- got a job in Switzerland and asked me to move there with him. He had just proposed to me a few weeks before that, so naturally I decided to follow him to Geneva! I did not hesitate, but this time was not easy for me. In Munich I was already deeply rooted, I had my connections, friends, work. It takes time to develop all that, and in Switzerland I didn’t know a single soul. But I thought: I’ve already done it twice, started over again in Montreal then in Munich; why not try again in Geneva?
And how did the transition to a new life in Switzerland go for you?
The first year was pretty tough. Although I spoke the local language, it was a challenge for me to find my way around and understand what I wanted to do, who I was here. I did a lot of auditions, started performing, did a fair bit of concerts. At the same time, I continued teaching languages here and there, but this time independently instead of belonging to a certain school.
- Mandoline, French melody by Claude Debussy, Isabelle Nicolas, soprano & Roberto Rega, pianist
Starting to work independently in a new country, how did you look for customers and promote your service?
My husband helped me to create a website and I also became active on social media. From the beginning, I decided to focus on other expats in Geneva, so I advertised my services on the Facebook expat groups. In fact, I got very busy very quickly: I had 35 clients and a full schedule. Classes were held face-to-face, so I was running around the city all the time to get to my clients’ offices and homes.
This is really great. And how did you come to the decision to develop this independent teaching into a school?
Everything changed when I got pregnant. In the last months of the pregnancy it became difficult to work at such a rhythm, so I decided to try working online. Fortunately, my clients were willing to continue using such a format and I was able to establish my digital learning program. But a few months before my baby was born, I realized that I couldn’t dedicate as much time as I wanted to online teaching. The choice was simple: either stop this project for some time or build a team. I chose the latter, found an assistant and hired two teachers. I trained them in the way I would teach my students, and so Prêt à Parler officially became an online school in 2018.
Over time we have grown, and today we work with 7 teachers, a chief of operations, a customer service manager, a social media specialist, an IT manager and a web designer. As for the development of the customer pool, it wasn’t too difficult: the more customers we had, the faster word got around. Word of mouth was and remains the most important advertising channel for us.
French is a very beautiful language, a language of love. But if you focus mainly on grammar and rules, you might not notice it.
What approach do you offer, what sets you apart from the competition?
We are quite untraditional compared to other schools. French is a very beautiful language, a language of love. But if you focus mainly on grammar and rules, you might not notice it, because it’s really not that simple. That’s why we use a different approach in our school: we usually start with improving your pronunciation and speaking skills, which become the basics on which you can further develop your knowledge.
Secondly, we use modern digital solutions to make the learning process easier, faster and more environmentally friendly. We use ZOOM, which not only allows you to hold the lessons online, but also to record them, share exercises in real time and enables your teacher take notes for you in a checkbox without interrupting you. Finally, the team is our main advantage. We are super friendly, empathetic, patient and positive. We are all bilingual expats, which I think is of particular importance. If you have similar experiences, you can better understand what the student is feeling and what could help him/her to get results faster. This contributes to my main goals in language teaching – efficiency and joy of learning.
Speaking of efficiency: What goals can your customers achieve in learning and how quickly?
We teach all levels from A1 to C2, general and business. As for speed, we focus on the goals of each individual student. In 2019, for example, a new law was introduced that requires immigrants to prove their language skills in order to renew their Swiss permits. Depending on the type of permit, you will have to prove level A1, A2 or B1, for which you normally only get 90 days. It can be very stressful if you have never learned the local language, and you are running against the clock. For these specific cases, we have prepared a special program specially designed to pass the exam in such a short time.
What are your plans for the future, how would you like to develop the project?
One of my goals is to extend the services of Prêt à Parler by including English courses, which I would like to accomplish by 2021 or 2022. And more generally, I would like to become a kind of ambassador of the French language in Switzerland. I wish to show that French is much more than just Paris or France. It is Canada, it is Switzerland, it is Belgium, it is French-speaking Africa. There are so many places in the world where we speak French. Each of them has its own fascinating culture and character.
What are these cultural differences? How do the French speaking countries differ from each other?
Well, I can only talk about how I feel. I would say that people in Quebec are very open, easygoing and fun, they are also very social and friendly. In France, and especially in Paris, intellect comes first. You could be judged by how well you can present your ideas and your arguments, how rich and lively your language is. That’s why some people think Parisians are arrogant, when in reality it comes from this intellectual competition. When it comes to Switzerland, I think it is absolutely wonderful how polite and courteous people are. Their French is very gentle and respectful, while at the same time it is formal, unless you know the person very well.
This is very interesting. Now let’s look at the topic of your project from a different perspective: As a mother of 2 babies, how do you cope with your business and family duties?
I have to admit that it took me a while to adjust to this. I’m a workaholic, so I can work around the clock when I need to get things done. It has changed with the babies, because now I have to be there for them. But we were lucky, or rather it was a blessing in disguise that my husband was able to take care of the babies for 1.5 years. It happened that he lost his job and was on forced paternity leave until the end of last year. This allowed me to focus on the expansion of my company.
This is really a rare opportunity. And in which direction did you develop the project at that time?
First, I stopped teaching and concentrated on business development. I really love the management and organizational part, I enjoy developing teaching programs, providing training for teachers and coordinating the process. Secondly, I have learned to focus on what is really important. When you don’t have children, you take as much time as you need to do your job, but now that I only have a few hours a day, I just have to prioritize and delegate. I’ve learned that there’s no other way.
What is the one thing that has been particularly difficult for you on your entrepreneurial path?
I would say that working from home is both positive and challenging. On the one hand, it allows me to spend time with my babies whenever they need me. But although as a mother I am never alone, sometimes I miss the flair of a city. That feeling of being surrounded by other people, having a nice cup of coffee, chatting with other professionals and getting inspired. But I have found a way to fulfill this need in cooperation with my current collaborators as well as with other entrepreneurs. I have joined several communities where we support each other, meet from time to time and carry out joint projects.
You will doubt yourself; you will think that you are not good enough and your business will never be successful.
From all your experience as an entrepreneur, what advice can you give to those who are considering starting their own business?
Work hard, keep an open mind and listen to your gut feeling. If you feel that something is not right, don’t do it. Appreciate your time, it is precious. Spend as much time as possible on what makes your company stronger. Work with like-minded people, with those you can have fun with, but always stay professional. Work together with others, even if it doesn’t bring immediate results. It always has a positive effect in the long run, always.
Finally, be aware that you will certainly have to go through hard times. You will doubt yourself; you will think that you are not good enough and your business will never be successful. But if you feel that your idea, your approach is right, do not give up. It is perfectly normal, every big business has started small at some point; every great artist, every successful entrepreneur has experienced difficult moments. The only thing you can do to overcome them is to move forward regardless.
Thank you very much for this inspiring conversation and your valuable tips. We wish you every success with your project!
Photo credit: Isabelle Nicolas-Johnson, Lynne Faires Seale, Mayra Franco Photography, Florian Hossfeld, Amod Mulay