By Barbara McMurray, Special to the Laguna Beach Independent
“Bravo, come parli bene!” (“Wow, how well you speak!”) Sean Cook heard this often as a young man fulfilling his post-college dream of living in Italy in the 1990s. No matter how clumsy, nonsensical, or unintentionally X-rated his attempts at speaking, he found the Italian people boundlessly generous and forgiving of his gaffes.
“Love the language, Don’t learn it because you need it for a job, for a certification, or because it’s good for your brain. If you like it, that is enough. And don’t ever let anyone tell you a language is useless.”
The lesson of effusive encouragement stuck with him. Fast-forward nearly three decades, and Cook’s new Laguna Beachbased online language school, Ciao Languages, is rooted in positive reinforcement and empathy, which he views as powerful motivators to try harder.
During his 27 years in Florence, Cook met and married his Sardinian wife, Patrizia Amati, in 2002, and had two sons, Jan, 14, and Thomas, 17. After working on a business plan for a few years, he moved back to Laguna Beach with his family in mid-July. They enrolled the boys in Laguna Beach High School and now live next-door to his mom and stepdad, Pam and Al Oligino. With a partner in Taiwan, Cook and Amati run the newly launched family business together. Amati also teaches Italian to her clients in person.
Cook has deep experience running language schools. Besides working as an English teacher since 1994, he also owned and managed a foreign language school in Italy for 18 years. Although he does not classify himself as a polyglot, he speaks fluent Italian, conversational French, and knows “a handful of phrases” in German and Japanese. He is currently studying Mandarin, online naturally.
Ciao Languages’ lessons—in French, German, Italian, Spanish, and many others —are offered exclusively online via Zoom video conference with native speaking teachers. “The Ciao Languages course catalog is constantly being updated and is meant for frequent and return consultation,” Cook said.
“We have a huge worldwide network and can find any teacher for any language a student wants to learn,” he noted. “Our goal is to help students begin to understand and speak a new language immediately. A variety of levels and timing options are offered so students can learn on their own schedule.”
Ciao classmates, Cook said, interact together online once or twice a week and cheer on one another’s progress. Services include assessment, access to digital and non-digital content, live online lessons with language coaches, and feedback aimed at encouraging and guiding students as they progress to the level of fluent speaker.
The company hires only native speakers who share an enthusiasm for getting learners up and running in their new language.
“We’re focused on making the online environment as human as possible,” Cook said. “We use modern teaching techniques with lots of helpful slides that prompt the student to speak as much as possible and practice as much as they can. We want students to have a genuine communicative experience, to be able to express themselves in a foreign language.”
Dismissing theories about the pragmatic benefits of being bilingual, Cook could be called a passionate purist for his belief in the only real reason to acquire a new language: love.
“Love the language,” he asserted. “Don’t learn it because you need it for a job, for a certification, or because it’s good for your brain. If you like it, that is enough. And don’t ever let anyone tell you a language is useless.”
Getting his nascent business off the ground means Cook is teaching again, even though he was accustomed to a staff of 14 employees when he sold his business in Italy. Two morning a week at 5 a.m., he is now seated at his computer, teaching English to a group of Taiwanese students.
Soon, he added, Ciao Languages will unveil a partnership with a digital content provider that will give students more at-home practice opportunities and new ways to explore their love of language. (ciaolanguages.com)