Laurie Stevens, founder, ℹ Chattanooga School of Language Wins Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce 2018 “Small Business of the Year” award
Interview by Nancy Henderson
Photography by Steven Llorca
NH: What inspired you to start the Chattanooga School of Language?
LS: A personal experience changed my life, both professionally and personally, when I fell in love with the Spanish language and culture. I saw how revolutionizing that could be. I was fortunate enough to spend time in Spain and went to a language school in Costa Rica after I graduated college. It just changed my life. When I came home to Chattanooga, trying to figure out what I was supposed to do next, I said, “I would love to give people a similar experience.”
NH: Why was that trip so important to you?
LS: Learning another language was a passageway into a whole new experience; one I had never had before. I realized that I could actually meet and get to know more people in this part of the world through learning their language, and to me that was eye opening.
NH: What were your goals when you launched the school in 2011, and how have they evolved?
LS: They’re different in that the demand and the need have changed. We started with just three languages—Spanish, German and French—and just a handful of students. Now we offer 17 languages and I’m racing to keep up with it all…every day. Last year was our biggest year. We served more than 1,000 students.
NH: Who is your average customer?
LS: We serve a lot of different markets. We have a location on North Access Road and we hold classes on-site there—everything from group classes in the evening to customized private lessons for individuals who may want a crash course in the language before a trip. I’ve seen an increase in individuals who want and need to learn a new language for their profession. More and more workplaces are realizing the importance of bilingual employees and multicultural skills, so people are coming to us for lessons in those languages so they can increase their market and reach in their business. We also work with a variety of elementary schools, public and private. I’m seeing a rise in interest from administrators and parents to give children access to foreign language at an early age.
NH: How is your teaching approach different from others?
LS: We base our language teaching on the most recent research for language acquisition by presenting the language similarly to how we learned our first language—through a series of messages that are interesting and comprehensible to our student. When students come to us, they’re not—especially at the beginning levels—going to be reciting grammar rules and doing a lot of worksheets. We try and make it as interactive as possible and really teach the language as opposed to teaching about the language. Our classes are fun.
NH: What are you looking for in a teacher?
LS: On average, we have about 20, but we have contracted with up to 40 language teachers before. They have to be an experienced language teacher who’s passionate about sharing the language and culture with others.
NH: Have you run up against any misconceptions?
LS: People are sometimes surprised that there’s a language school in Chattanooga, and I think that’s because they don’t necessarily realize how diverse our community, and the growing need for foreign language [skills]. People don’t realize that we exist because there’s a need for Russian and Portuguese and Spanish and sign language. We just recently added Turkish and Korean because there was a need and a demand for them.
NH: Any success stories?
LS: We do after-school programming at a multitude of schools, and there’s a group of kids I’ve been working with for a couple of years now. It’s just incredible to see not only the difference in their excitement about learning the language, but their progress. Even their classroom teacher mentioned to me, “I can’t believe how they are able to understand the majority of what you say and then respond appropriately in the target language, and it’s just been a couple of years.” To think about what would happen if they were immersed in a school, all day or half the day, in the target language—that would be incredible.
NH: What do you consider your greatest accomplishment so far at the Chattanooga School of Language?
LS: Well, we recently won the Chamber’s Small Business of the Year Award—and that was really exciting. I also feel rewarded in the fact that the role of foreign language, in global education, is becoming more of a topic of conversation. And I’m proud that we’re a) able to meet all these incredible people from around the world and b) that I hear at one time, in one afternoon, five or six different languages being spoken at our facility. That’s so beautiful to me.
For more info, see chattanoogalanguage.com.