If you’ve spent any time at all researching the French language on the internet, you’ve almost certainly run across Laura Lawless. For 15 years, Laura was in charge of the biggest source on the internet for French language instructional content, and the folks that run the site tell me that her materials are still their biggest traffic draw. Laura took time off from her busy schedule as the owner of the Lawless French web site and the marketing coordinator of Kwiziq.com, a company offering a unique artificial-intelligence-assisted language learning system, to talk with me about becoming a French teacher, the future of publishing, the excitement of the start-up boom of the 1990s, and where all of those fantastic verb tables come from.
Me: You live in Guadeloupe now. How did you land in such an exotic location, and how do you like it?
Laura: Before moving to France, we’d spent 9 months in Costa Rica and loved it – I often said that if it were francophone, I could have happily stayed there forever.
Then we moved to France, fulfilling my life-long dream. But after 5 years there, I found that it was just too cold in the winter, even in the south. Figuring that Guadeloupe is basically the illegitimate love child of Costa Rica and France, we moved here 2½ years ago. It’s beautiful, it’s warm all the time, the people are nice – what’s not to love?
Me: Presumably part of the reason that you can live on a French island in the Caribbean (which apparently is heaven) is that you support yourself by doing web-based work. How did you become the goddess of Internet-based French instruction?
Laura: LOL! A combination of hermitry and luck. I’d always wanted to be an interpreter, but that dream died when I was unable to live in France for a year, which was a requirement for returning to Monterey Institute for the 2nd year of my MA in translation and interpretation. So in the late 90s, I found myself working as an admin assistant and, briefly, as an adult ed teacher. Since I was bored to tears doing the first and terrible at the second, I sat down and really thought about what I wanted to do. The answer was work at home and the timing, with the growing importance of the internet, was perfect.
I bought HTML for Dummies, learned how to build a simple website, then started looking for work. I soon found a page of job listings on a telecommuting site, one of which was something like “Be a Guide at MiningCo – I love my job and you will too!” So I took a look at the available topics, thinking vaguely that I might be able to write about dancing or California, and my heart almost stopped when I saw “French language.” I applied immediately, built a test site, my site went live in June of 1999, and MiningCo became one of the most popular sites on the internet under a new name.
Me: OK, that is AMAZING. How did you come to be comfortable in French? Second language instruction is not exactly something that we’re good at in America.
Laura: Many years of studying and eventual immersion. I learned a tiny bit of French – a few pages of vocab, half a dozen essential phrases – when I was about 10, but I really started learning in high school. Sophomore year, my teacher announced a spring break trip to France, and I knew I had to go. I worked at McDonald’s to pay for two thirds of the trip (my parents paid the rest), went to Paris and Tours and Dinard and just fell in love with France.
Very soon after that I realized that I wanted to work in some kind of language related field – but not teach. So after some research and guidance counseling, I came up with the idea of being an interpreter.
Seeing/hearing simultaneous interpretation blew my mind. Simultaneous interpretation is the most difficult form of interpretation–one person says something live, and you interpret it in “real time.” You’re listening and speaking at the same time. Have you ever been talking to someone and heard your name from another part of the room? So you try to listen to what that person is saying while still carrying on your conversation? It’s kind of like that. Simultaneous interpretation is the most efficient form of interpretation from the point of view of rapidity of communication, but also the most difficult–-you have to listen, understand, mentally convert (being sure to take into account not just grammar and vocabulary but also cultural differences), and speak, all at the same time. (Besides, that, you generally have no resource materials, and even if you did, there’s no time to use them.) I wanted to be able to do that. And while I firmly believe that anyone and everyone can learn a foreign language with the right motivation, I do feel like I have a bit of an advantage because of the way my brain works. I’m not bored or frustrated by seemingly arbitrary grammar rules; on the contrary, I’m fascinated by them, and being interested in what you’re learning makes a huge difference.
Even so, it wasn’t until I actually spent some serious time in France – a month and a half in Rouen after 8 years of high school and college French classes – that everything started coming together. Learning from books and in the safety of a classroom is one thing, but the moment of truth comes when you’re actually out there using it. That was when I felt the first glimmers of fluency – I could literally feel my French improving every day. Despite making many mistakes, I started feeling more and more comfortable speaking French, and it just kept getting better after that.
Me: Falling in love is beautiful! Did you fall in love with French first, and then France? Either way: tell me about falling in love.
Laura: I can’t really say which came first – the language and the country are woven together for me. I’d been studying French for nearly two years and it obviously spoke (ha ha) to me enough that I felt compelled to visit France. Being there, surrounded by so much history and culture and this beautiful language that I barely spoke was such an amazing experience. When I did manage to make sense of those strange sounds, it was like magic. I knew they both had to be part of my life, forever.
Me: I can relate! What’s the language situation in Guadeloupe? Do people speak French? Creole? Some combination?
Laura: Guadeloupe is an overseas French department – it’s just as much a part of France as any department on the “mainland.” (It’s like Hawaii and Alaska in the US.) So the official language is French and that’s what’s taught in schools – everyone speaks it.
Most people also speak Antillean Creole, which is based on French but also includes aspects of African languages and Igneri (the language spoken by the Caribs, who wiped out the original Arawak inhabitants of the island). Like all of the many creoles in the world, it is a fully-featured language, not just an impoverished form of French, used by writers like Raphaël Confiant–I can make out a few words here and there, but not enough to get the gist of the conversation.
Me: You had a rather unusual experience with the Internet boom–you worked for a start-up or two, but as a content matter expert, not as the typical techie. What was that like–the vibe, the times, the energy?
Laura: In the beginning, it was fantastic! My site went live in June ’99, so I barely missed out on stock options (which were eventually extremely lucrative for some of my colleagues). Right after I started, the Red Ball was announced: a completely over-the-top promotional event consisting of an all-expenses-paid, 4-day weekend in Las Vegas. IIRC, more than half of the then 650 content creators attended. There were expert panels and expo booths and even a few celebrities. But the best part was meeting other content creators and, to a lesser extent, staff (editors, CEO, etc).
All content creators were freelancers, there was no office we met in daily – or ever – so we got to know each other through chatrooms, forums, and listservs. We talked about work, of course, shared successes and failures, and quickly branched off into personal chitchat, so many of us became friends. Then we met IRL, and let me tell you, there’s just nothing quite like meeting people you’ve known online for a while.
After the Red Ball, content creator events were held a few times a year in different cities, but they were just for company announcements, training sessions, networking, stuff like that. We had to pay our own transportation and lodging. I attended half a dozen over the years and visited the New York offices (where staff worked) a couple of times, and meeting other content creators was always the highlight, by far.
Me: You’ve written a book or two (and their reviews on Amazon are truly impressive–way better than mine!). What are your thoughts on the future of publishing, at least publishing language instructional materials, in these days where everyone seems to expect to be able to find all information for free on line?
Laura: Ugh, I don’t know. I got started teaching online, and my content has always been free, so I thought that when I wrote a book, my readers would all buy it as a sort of thank you, but that’s just not the case. Which is OK, because if it had been a tremendous success I’d probably feel obliged to write more, but I don’t want to. Writing a book is hard, especially when working with an editor and a publisher with whom you have, let’s say, creative differences. Aside from that, I find those monster deadlines – 3 chapters by August – very difficult. I do great with little deadlines – a new lesson by Friday – so working online is perfect for me.
Sorry, got a little off-track there. The thing is that authors do far more work than they get paid for – they do at *least* 50% of the work, but only earn 8-15% of the sale price (and then typically lose 15% or so of that to their agent). I’ll never do that again – if I do feel inclined to write a book, it will definitely be self-published. And since, as you said, most everyone wants everything to be free, I’ll probably have to sell it for 99 cents which means it’s not worth it which means I won’t be writing any more books. LOL, how’s that?
Me: Quite the ride! It seems like all of that experience led really naturally to, and prepared you for, your current project. What can you tell us about that?
Laura: It definitely did! During my 15 years at the network, I wrote something like 6,000 pages of lessons and other types of content, sent 2 newsletters a week (plus several automated e-courses), managed 5 forums, answered countless emails, did all of my own marketing, etc., etc. I was completely obsessed with it and it was very difficult to leave (before you ask, it was my decision and due to creative differences).
I thought briefly about doing something completely different, because the idea of starting over was unbearable. Not just recreating thousands of pages of French content that I don’t hold the copyright to, but competing with that behemoth of a site in search engines. For years, I was at the top of Google for just about every French grammar or vocabulary topic you could think of. Google likes big sites, it likes longevity, and it loves – or loved – my site. Interestingly, a lot of my old content isn’t doing as well any more, so the competition isn’t quite as fierce as I’d feared.
Anyway, that pity party lasted all of 5 minutes, because the fact is that I’m really not capable of doing anything else. I still love French, I still love France, and I still love writing about both of them. So I created LawlessFrench.com
and got down to work rewriting lessons, recreating verb tables, and revamping (and renaming) the Subjunctivisor. It’s been 2 years and I’ve recreated close to 1,500 pages of content, plus written tons of new material.
It’s an uphill battle. Since all my old content is still there, I have to not just rewrite everything, but improve upon it: rethink each topic completely to make sure that I’ve covered it from every angle. Some of my new lessons are considerably better than the old ones. Most importantly, I have complete control over the contents, and I’m very open to suggestions about content, too.
I am starting to place well in Google for a few pages, but I’m probably still years from actually making a living from Lawless French. Fortunately, I got involved with the British start-up Kwiziq
last year, first as an Education Partner with a co-branded site, progress.lawlessfrench.com
, and then by joining the company (remotely, of course) as marketing coordinator. It’s pretty much a match made in heaven, and my only regret is that I didn’t go out on my own a year or two sooner.
Me: OK, an aside: do you type all of those verb tables by hand??
Laura: The irregular ones, yes. When there are patterns, as for regular verbs, I use an existing table as a template and just find/replace the stem.
Me: OK, there’s one more question that I HAVE to ask you: what’s the story behind your last name?
Laura: LOL! Marriage. I normally wouldn’t have changed my name, but who can say no to Lawless? As a friend of mine recently pointed out, Laura Lawless sounds like a superhero name. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of Ls, so that’s why I always include my middle initial.