Imagine your first day at a traditional language school. You arrive in a classroom with desks in neat rows. Your teacher writes conjugations on the blackboard. You take notes and perhaps feel too intimidated to ask questions. Now picture a different kind of school: You’re in a cozily decorated room, clinking wine glasses with a classmate or playing cards, all while casually discussing your favorite Netflix show in French. You’re at Coucou French Classes.
Léa Perret pitched her idea of creating a new language-learning experience to her cousin Marianne in 2013, and, ten years later, Coucou has become the go-to destination for French learners and Francophiles in the United States. Today, members of the Coucou community regularly mingle at French movie nights, cheese tastings, and disco-themed soirées.
Although Coucou has expanded from New York City to Los Angeles and now offers a variety of online classes, its pedagogical philosophy remains the same. “We’ve always been a company with progressive, feminist values,” Léa says. “When I first taught French in other settings, I noticed that most textbooks contained stereotypical depictions of families: a father going to the office, a mother taking care of their kids. One of my goals was to broaden students’ visions of the Francophone world. I wanted to introduce students to famous French women thinkers and queer Francophone culture, for example.”
Soon after opening their first location in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, Léa and Marianne ditched traditional grammar textbooks and wrote their own. Their now-famous Coucou method embraces the contemporary and the colloquial. Coucou students not only study classic French texts. They also learn how to use French slang confidently and practice writing casual text messages. Perhaps best of all, they form close relationships with their classmates and teachers.
Marianne, who oversees the school’s ever-evolving curriculum, explains, “We’re really proud to have hired so many teachers over the past ten years who don’t fit into neat boxes – one trained as a professional opera singer, one is a former chef, and another one is a children’s book illustrator. We want to continue finding educators from all over the French-speaking world who think differently and can share their passions with our students.”
What’s the most important thing Léa and Marianne have learned over the past decade? The secret lies in creating a unique community. “I think we have built something unusual,” Léa says. “If we were a traditional school, the pandemic would have negatively impacted us, but, instead, we gained students. I think people of all ages and backgrounds feel welcome at Coucou, and they want to bring others into our community. The stories our students and teachers share with each other about their struggles and triumphs create this powerful sense of belonging.”
But it’s not just students who feel at home at Coucou. “Victoire Lester, one of the first teachers we hired, has now become our CEO,” Marianne says. “She’s an incredible leader, and I think her journey within our company is a testament to how our school promotes the personal and professional growth of students and teachers.”
For Coucou’s ten-year anniversary, the cousins are planning two parties – one in Los Angeles and one in New York – with French cocktails, live music, and dancing. When asked what they will toast to, Léa and Marianne say in unison, “L’avenir !” They add that although they have always placed language-learning at the heart of Coucou, they see their business expanding well beyond the confines of a typical school. “Our project entails creating new bonds through a shared interest in Francophone culture,” Marianne says. “It’s about cultivating empathy and reflecting on what it means to be a global citizen.”