Elizabeth Mack founded Freestyle Language Center in 2012 but has been conceptualizing the immersion language school since she was a student at The University of Texas at Austin in the 1980s.
During her junior year she studied in Aix-en-Provence, France, where she lived with a host family.
“Because it was learning French while living with them, and [immersing myself], and connecting to them in their language—that’s why I feel like I got so close,” Mack said. “It was the experience of my lifetime.”
At Freestyle, Mack has tried to replicate that experience for her adult students.
Students attend two 75-minute classes a week at their assessed level. Courses are offered in French, Spanish and Italian with some sessions in Portuguese. On Saturdays students participate in a 90-minute cafe, drinking coffee and engaging in casual conversation in the language they are learning.
The instructors are, “intentionally,” a mix of native speakers and American educators, Mack said. They combine cultural insight with professional training.
Unlike at traditional language schools, Freestyle students are not graded or tested. Instead, they are asked to speak from day one about things that matter to them—their work or their families, for example—and not to repeat random phrases from memory.
It is all part of a curriculum that is based on “authentic materials.” Instead of textbooks, Freestyle uses films, telenovelas and social activities—wine tastings at Austin Wine Merchant, film screenings and museum visits—in the target language.
Austinites are eager learners, Mack said.
“Even without the market research, I knew that Austin is a highly educated town,” she said, so her passion for language turned into a viable business.
The first Freestyle session had four students, the next 20 and the third 60. Last summer the business’ annual growth rate was 1,000 percent, she said.
She attributes this success to a curriculum that integrates the elements of language acquisition in a way that is fun for students.
“Everybody can learn a new language,” she said. “Because we’re human, and this is what our brains are meant to do.”
801 Rio Grande St., Austin
Hours: Mon., Wed. 5:30-8:45 p.m.; Sat. 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m.