Never lost in translation

Mar 15, 2024 | Articles, Business Transformation, Consulus Columnist

How Freddy Nicolas turned setbacks and stumbling blocks into a mission-driven business

Steps away from the bustling Trevi Fountain, its travertine stone gleaming in the Rome sunshine, and into a quiet and shaded courtyard, is a modest language school responsible for the success of countless religious and professional foreign students in their endeavours.

ProLingua, in business for more than 30 years, is run by Freddy and Leila Nicolas, a husband-and-wife team who are themselves transplants to Rome, and who have dedicated their lives to the cause of helping others learn and live the language of the Eternal City.

There are dozens of colleges and other religious institutions, on top of the prestigious Roman universities including the Gregorian, Urbanian, and Lateran, where the training of priests and the religious have taken place for hundreds of years.

It was the sheer frustration of not understanding a word of what was being said in one of those institutions that pushed Freddy to start what has become a successful foreign language instruction programme. It has helped countless people all over the world who have come to Rome to make their mark.

And the secret, Freddy says, is not studying the language.

It was the mid-1980s, and Freddy had arrived in Rome from Lebanon. He wanted to become a priest and was to join a seminary and begin his multi-year studies. But Freddy spoke only French and Arabic, and soon found himself struggling, not only in the classroom, but outside of it when trying to talk to his peers.

Italian was the lingua franca, as well as the language of instruction, and the required courses in theology and philosophy became nearly impossible challenges. Freddy bought a grammar book, tried flash cards, and worked to translate and memorise Italian vocabulary; but he had little to show for his efforts.

“I was in the library reading the books in French in order to be able to understand what the teachers were saying. I started to secretly record the lessons, against the rules, but four hours of lessons meant double the time in listening and looking through the dictionary for every word.”

He was even more discouraged when he could not communicate with his fellow students and forge relationships with them.

“It was a privilege for me to be [at the university] where you had the opportunity to meet people from all over the world, people who were coming to prepare themselves to be leaders in their countries and communities, to make an impact. I was observing how much people wanted to interact with others, but the language barrier was a limitation.

“Believe me, it was a very frustrating situation,” Freddy said of his first weeks in Rome. “It was an incredible effort. I was losing weight, and I was not able to sleep.”

Then he gave up. “After three months, I was unable to continue that way. I decided to stop and said to myself, ‘I don’t want to understand anymore. I will spend my time [studying] in French. If I understand it, okay. If not, I don’t care.’

When I changed my attitude, I started to understand my classes.”

He surprised himself and his classmates by sailing through his papers. “I was proud of myself. [But also] what happened is something I have to understand better.”

There came a chance for a scholarship in Germany, though it meant taking classes and passing yet more exams in German, in another language new to him. Freddy was adamant and managed to convince his superiors that he could manage.

Then his professor introduced him to a particular method of learning German. “He showed me an article that explained about learning a language during sleep. I didn’t think he was serious.”

Eventually, Freddy accepted the idea. “Every night, I slept with headphones on, listening to German. On some days I asked my friends to show me what they had studied, and to explain some grammar and context. After three months, I passed the exam, and I had my scholarship.”

The experience was profound, and helped set Freddy up for the next phase in his life.

“The important lesson I learned was that my mentality has a very big influence on how I behave and connect with the outside world,”

freddy nicolas, ceo of prolingua international

“The important lesson I learned was that my mentality has a very big influence on how I behave and connect with the outside world,” he says. “If my mind’s convinced me that I’m not able to understand, I won’t. [But] when I don’t let my mind dominate and create frustration, I can connect with the outside world and start to learn better.”

Despite his efforts, however, Freddy was not able to continue in his journey to become a priest. Circumstances and his discernment led him to leave his congregation when he could not imagine completing the required sabbatical in his home country of Lebanon, which was nigh impossible as the country was embroiled in a war at the time.

He did manage to complete his education at the university, owing to the support of a particular professor. Freddy wanted to do something in return for the support and decided he could help new students avoid the pain he went through at the start of his term, and obtained permission to start language courses.

“All the Vatican universities at that time had only Latin and Greek, and not modern languages. I found that the methodologies [in teaching French and English] were very traditional, and they were too expensive for students coming from poor countries.

“I understood [their predicament] better because of my experience. I was able to observe the learning process of people from different countries and cultures. The background of each person is unique – their culture, their thinking. People coming from Asia have a language which is completely different from the Latin languages [for example].”

Even though his services were welcome, Freddy suffered yet another grievous setback. He was pushed out of the university after he had come up against an influential person in the church hierarchy, while trying to improve how a certain church leisure activity was organised.

Still, as Providence would have it, that meant the start of the language school today. And, despite being hurt by his experiences with the institution, Freddy still wanted to help the Church where he could.

“My aim was to give a service to help others to develop themselves, to build the ability to connect with others, to improve the quality [of instruction] at the university where one meets people from all nations, to do something better,” he asserts.

He started small – finding space for lessons at a small church, making the tables and painting the rooms himself. His classes grew as people told their friends of an Italian language school catering to students at the pontifical colleges. 

Freddy’s perseverance and sense of mission paid off. Over the next decade he assembled a team of teachers and trainers, while continuing to learn about the didactics of language learning. He found the methodology that had served him so well as the well-documented communicative approach to language teaching, or a method that emphasised interaction and communicating real meaning in learning a language.

“Language becomes an instrument, a bridge, to connect with other people.”

freddy nicolas, ceo of prolingua international

As Freddy puts it: “We create bridges for the future. Language is an ability, which you have to develop in the person, instead of just feeding information to them. You have to help the person use the language, to connect to others. The immersion into the new language becomes an instrument, a bridge, to connect with other people and their culture.”

“I didn’t become a priest, [but] my vocation was to facilitate the learning of people to [help them fulfil their vocation]. In some way I participate in all their future missions.”

Author: Michelle Teo, Contributing Editor

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