The #2 Fear Factor

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

If age is the #1 fear factor (read my previous post) for most people thinking of learning (or being compelled to learn) a second language, FAILURE is certainly the 2nd one! But… the question is: what are they afraid of actually failing? Of course, people learn a new language at different paces… some pick it up very quickly, others may need more time… but I never met anyone who could not learn at all! We all learned how to speak our mother tongue, didn’t we?

In my practice, I observed that Anglo-saxons were the ones who feared new languages the most… And I have no rational explanation for such a phenomenon… They believe (falsely) they lack the necessary skills, therefore they are not the most confident when they enter a language training program. Around here, Francophones say it is only because Anglophones are too arrogant to learn French (or any other languages)… I totally disagree on this! When they brag about the fact they do not need to learn a language they will never use anyways, they are only masking their fear… They have their pride and they do not want to admit publicly they are scared.

Compared to French, English seems much easier (is it???)… Obviously there are less rules due to the fact that the English world is not divided in two: feminine vs masculine… so many rules in French are derived directly from that particularity alone! And learning how to conjugate verbs is not an easy task either… In French there are no words such as would and will to turn a verb into either a conditional present or a future. That being said, every language has its differences and difficulty levels… for instance, in English, learning the right pronunciation is probably the most difficult… take the sound “ough” in words like though, trough, through, tough, thought… it is quite a challenge for anyone who does not have a “good” ear!

If I had to come up with some kind of explanation, I would say that, in North America, native Anglophones did not feel the need to learn a second language for a very long time… but the world evolved and being unilingual may close a few doors in terms of job opportunities. It is probably the reason why now so many English-speaking Canadians send their kids in French immersion schools… the very same people who, less than 20 years ago, did not see the benefits of being bilingual… while their parents are still afraid of failure, those children have a positive attitude and they enjoy learning French!

Among civil servants who must learn French in order to get or keep a position, this fear is even greater… because not only they do feel inadequate, but they have the Épée de Damoclès hanging above their heads: the fear of failing their tests!!!

Today I started preparing a young woman for her oral test… she told me how nervous she was: there was no need for it because I could feel her stress the minute I met with her… it was obvious she was not anticipating to have any fun during her 8 weeks of part-time training!

Anyone else would have not paid attention and would not have let her express her true feelings and fears… They would have started the army drill right away, letting her know that she had little time and she could not afford to waste any of it discussing issues that were irrelevant. Well… I did waste some time with her to discuss what indeed is very relevant to me!!! And while doing so, I slowly brought her back to some grammar basics… it did not take long before she felt totally at ease! When she left, I knew I had gained her trust and, from there, everything will soar… I admit we laughed a lot and we made fun of the upcoming oral test, but she also actually LEARNED more about French…

I managed to put her fear of failing the test asleep for at least the duration of her training… of course, she will get nervous again when we will approach her testing date. Yet I am convinced she will be confident that she will succeed and if she ever failed her B that first time, she will not take it as the worst moment of her life… she will only try it again until she gets her level! At least, no one will have had her feel like a failure. Hey! the woman will get 32 hours of training before her test… what do you expect??? Being realistic about what she can achieve and what she cannot will help her to go through this much more easily…

And Susan… I promise you one thing: I will do my best to make your training enjoyable and useful… I will not push you around and force French down your throat for the mere purpose of passing a test… I do not keep official statistics records on my students’ achievements! Give me your best girl, and I will be proud of you!…

Road Signs and Signposts in Delirium!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Okay… Ottawa has not yet been officially declared bilingual, although it is the National Capital of Canada… a country that has two official languages (English and French). Since this city shelters the Federal Government, one would think City Hall would have embraced the law and policies on bilinguism a long time ago! Nope! Quite a dichotomy, don’t you agree? Nevertheless, both Ottawa and the province of Ontario make every effort to “translate” road signs in French… yet the results are often pathetic, if not hilarious!

Personally I am rather ashamed of living in a city where almost everything that is written in French sucks! It seems even more obvious this summer with all the road repairs across town and the widening of the highway 417 in the west end. Actually I would prefer having all the signs in English only! I am convinced I am not the only Francophone here having noticed how bad the translation is… One would guess that both the City of Ottawa and the Ontario Ministry of Transportation have translators and editors… it seems they do not use them unless the ones they have can only do literal translation… and if it is the case, well… replace them with staff qualified for the job! Professionals who do understand the language nuances and can adapt texts in a way that the message will be clear to all.

Because of the nature of my work, I travel across town daily to go from one client to another and… I cannot help it! All these road signs and postsigns are flashing before my eyes and, at the end of the day, I am irritated… I am thinking of the tourists from Québec, France, Belgium and other French-speaking countries: we (myself included! unfortunately…) must look like Barbarians! Both my city and my province bring disgrace on me! I have to admit this is something I take personally… go figure why!

I collected a few horrific samples (rather an easy task by the way!)… For instance streets, roads, highways are fermés around here (of course they do not agree the past participle, which most of the time reads fermé – masculine, singular – and often the accent is missing ferme… then I think of a farm!). Yes, fermé is the translation for closed… but all depends on the context! Unless there is a door, a lid or a trap, we cannot fermer something in French… the correct translation of street closed is rue barrée! But, the winner is without a doubt: La nuit Fermetures des voies Eagleson-Moodie! I admit I do not really understand this road sign (even in English!), since both Eagleson and Moodie are exits, not lanes…

Speaking of exits, there are a couple of them closed on the 417 at the time and we have to use alternative ones… In English, I have to use Moodie, in French they want me to utiliser Moodie! To do what with it? I utilise a pen for writing… tell me, what is the use of an exit? In French, we borrow an exit (a road, a street, a highway, an elevator, stairs, etc.)… Use Moodie should read Empruntez Moodie

Because of the works on the 417, there are warning signs for motorists to pay attention to the trucks entering and exiting the construction site using the left lane… For months, Truck Entrance was translated with Entre de camion: entre means between and camion should be plural camions (I doubt there is only one single truck entering the site)! I do not know what happened but, this week, I noticed this sign had been corrected (although the accent is still missing… yet it is an improvement! There is still hope!) and replaced with Entree (if they had written Entrée, it would be peeeeeeerfect) de camions.

Downtown, Bank (one of the busiest streets in Ottawa) is closed for major repairs (for a third year in a row) and because stores’ owners were furious, the City decided to install a sign saying Business as usual… In French one can read Commerces (or Magasins? I admit of being a little fuzzy on this particular detail) ouverts comme d’habitude… L’art de compliquer les choses! Commerces ouverts would be enough for every Francophone to understand (we speak French, but we are not retarded!).

Deers are continuous threats to motorists’ lives around here… therefore there are plenty of road signs to warn them of the possibility of being hit by one of those mastodons (not a pleasant encounter, trust me!). There is one close to the exit to my place that says Night Danger Next 15 kmDanger de nuit Prochaine 15 km… would it be that difficult to agree the adjective prochain with kilomètres (masculine, plural) and write Prochains instead?

And the list goes on… and on… and on… but I kept the best one for dessert! Believe it or not No Standing has been translated with Ne Pas Rester Debout!!! Okay then, if I cannot stand up, give me a bench or even better a couch where I can sit or lie down for a while!

Perhaps I should offer my services? Well… I do not think so… I am convinced there are a couple of excellent translators and editors out there who would be thrilled to get a job with the City Hall or the Ontario Ministry of Transportation. May I make a suggestion though? It would be so simple to send a few inspectors to Gatineau, Québec (it is only a bridge away!) just to take a look at road signs and postsigns… it would not cost anything to the Ottawa tax payers and it would make the Francophones happy! And I am sure that the Ville de Gatineau and the Ministère des Transports du Québec would be more than flattered to help their neighbour with a lexicon on correct terminology… free of charge, as pro-bono!!! Because the Québécois are proud of their language and they will do anything to protect it and keep it in good shape…

At least, no one has translated “Dead End” with “Fin Morte”!!!

My pride as a Francophone, although severely endangered, is still alive…

The End of the Road… The End of my Rope…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

That’s it!… The verdict came in Wednesday (quite fast actually!)… Of course Dave could have pushed the issue further, but the PPC would have dragged the process for months. The question was: was he ready to invest more effort and energy into something that would probably totally drain him and leave him without any gain at the end? I would have myself chosen to pursue only for my very own satisfaction of having shaken the tree… but, it is not about me! It is about a man who can no longer be under such stress without seeing his condition worsen. And, since he will have to take his written test (the current 65 question version) again, he has to think of that stress first! He has not decided yet whether he will re-write his reading test (he already got his required level, but we both know he can get a C) or not… that will be up to him.

The answer from the PPC was really disappointing… Actually it did not answer the requests that were made: It was a long reasoning on the benefits of converting raw scores into standard scores… apparently, in some instances, candidates would find “standard scores easier to interpret because the numerical values for the mean and standard deviation are consistent across test versions”. In other instances, candidates would prefer “raw scores based on familiarity with these values”. What do you prefer? I do not need your answer because I know for sure you prefer to know the exact number of questions you got right!!!

When David told me he had obtained 42/80, I was quite proud of him because he had answered more than half of the questions correctly… At the time, we were not aware that both, the cut-off scores and his score, were standard! At least, the PPC was kind enough to provide him with his raw score which is 36/80! That changes everything! He did not get half of the answers correctly… as his trainer, it is what I need to know because it is the only way to assess his actual level and try to figure out what his weaknesses are (of course, if he had access to the test he wrote, it would certainly help! but in our dreams! that will never happen!). He was also provided with both, the raw cut-off scores and the standard cut-off scores:

  • Level A    Raw 27    Standard 36
  • Level B    Raw 41    Standard 46
  • Level C    Raw 58    Standard 57

Apparently the fact that the scores would be reported as standard scores was publicly communicated in advance on the PPC web site (given someone can find the said web site, which is incorporated in the Public Service Commission web site!). How come then Jenn, Janet and ZZ who had done thorough research prior to their tests did not know (and still do not!) that their results were actually not reflecting the exact number of correct anwers? Also they never questioned the fact they had not received any official signed document stating their levels, assuming it was part of the new procedure… Dave searched in the PPC archives to find such a public announcement: all he could find was a memo sent to assessors to tell them the PPC would do the conversion into standard scores (therefore they had to forward all candidates’ answer sheets to the PPC) in order to avoid any mistakes. Average John/Jane Doe would not even understand the content of such a message anyways, thinking it is addressed to specialists and has nothing to do with the tests themselves. Usually, when communicating news or modifications publicly, we use plain English to make sure everybody will understand… not some internal statistical jargon… Anyways…

Before all of this, although I always thought the Commission’s testing tools were questionable (once I met a guy who had obtained an E – exemption – in reading and a X – no knowledge at all – in oral interaction… he admitted he knew nothing, but had always been very lucky at lottery and multiple choice exams!) and seemed to be focused on figures (for mere statistical purposes I guess!) rather than on knowledge of the second language, I had never contemplated the possibility of finding out flaws such as the ones I discovered while researching for Dave’s appeal. All I can say is that all this is very sad… and even more sad because the PPC will always come up with some rationale or reasoning that actually no one (unless they are experts in the field) can argue.

What will be next? Well… since Dave’s new accommodations will take long, his training will be extended (again) until he will re-write his tests.. and since his raw score brought his weaknesses to light, I will have him review some grammatical basics (I do think we will have plenty of time for doing so…)… all this will postpone his oral test and I will not be able to focus on that until he gets his required level in writing. What a waste of time and money!

I realized the machine is way too big to try and win a battle against it… however, it is every single civil servant’s right to ask questions and request more information when they think their rights have been encroached upon. It is a matter of self-respect and integrity… and, perhaps, if there are enough people out there to start asking questions, the Commission and the PPC will eventually show more transparency and communicate better with the people they are assessing. If nothing else, Dave won something worthy… he standed up for his rights and found the courage to rock the boat because he knew he was right… In my book, he is a true winner!!!

This blog moved here, if you are ever interested to read more on those issues…


And… to whom it may concern:

The cut-off scores for the new 65 question written test, in effect since June 2, 2008, are expressed in RAW scores, as well as the obtained scores!… 8)

B = 33, C = 47, E = 57

The cut-off scores for the reading test remained unchanged and are also expressed in RAW scores, as well as the obtained scores!…

B = 38, C = 51, E = 59



Who ever Said a Second Language Teacher Had to Be a “Bore”?

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I met numerous second language teachers in the course of my practice and… Gawd! are they tedious! Where does that come from? I have no idea!

I remember, a couple of years ago, there was this full-time French class with probably 8 or 10 civil servants… they had already been in training for three months at the time and, whenever I was on a break and walking by their classroom, I could see them yawning, studying the ceiling, dozing off or reading dictionaries! Their teacher, who was a middle-age woman, was sitting at the end of the table most of the time reading the paper (if not knitting one of those tacky dishcloths!)… It crossed my mind, a few times, to enter the room and throw some shocking statement at them so they would come back to life! But hey! It was none of my business, right?

They spent nine months in that classroom and I never heard them laugh even once! If they ever kept memories of their learning experience, the only thing they probably remember is the daily omnipresent heavy atmosphere: I doubt they have any good or funny stories to tell their colleagues and friends.

If I am never thrown off by my new trainees’ negative attitude or distrust, it is precisely because I know where it comes from! It only comes from their peers’ disappointing experiences. Therefore I do not blame them for giving me that dirty look the first time they meet with me.

I know, for a fact, I have only 60 seconds to grab their attention and arouse their curiosity… If I ever miss the train, I am in trouble for sure! Fortunately, I am an expert in the field… Thanks to the time I spent behind bars!!! I do remember “vividly” that very first day when I was introduced to the 78 convicts I would spend my entire days with… Slowly walking through the study room with the warden, I knew I had to show them right away who would be in control… Yet I also had to let them know they could trust me: they would always be welcome to voice their opinions and I would listen to any reasonable requests…

I did manage to establish that connexion in less than two minutes and, because of that, what could have been the worst time of my life became the most enjoyable experience…

When I accidently recycled myself into a French second language teacher and had no interesting materials to rely on, I created my own method and program using what I knew would captivate my “picky” clientele’s attention: their life experiences!!! And… what do inmates best relate to? CRIME!… I knew that trying to teach them a language using “political correctness” and generic topics (take traveling for instance… no one sentenced to life in prison shows interest in such stuff! Why? Simply because they will not be traveling some time soon – if ever!) would not be efficient.

Having been blessed with a super-imagination and quite a creative side, I started to write stories and dialogues about hold-ups, criminal investigations, murders, forensic analysis, trials, con-artists, police interrogations, etc… making sure to have policemen, prosecutors and judges look ridiculous and criminals look smart! It had an immediate and resounding success at the jail box-office… and useless to mention it had a direct impact on these guys’ learning! They started to discuss in French like Molière in no time!

After I left the milieu, I continued to use the same approach… either in the corporate world or in the Public Service… Everybody has life experiences and I bank on those to teach. Also, I do not know anyone who is not passionate about something… I give them the opportunity to talk about what they love most (instead of talking about internal policies, health and safety programs or some other boring work related topics).

For instance, a professional fisherman managed to communicate his enthusiasm for fishing tournaments to a bunch of incredulous women… Another one who was partial to gamble designed a conjugation activity around crap… A fellow who belonged to a Rocket Club had us build rockets that we launched in a park downtown Ottawa (we were like kids and our unusual activity attracted quite a crowd that afternoon!)…

Launching Rockets in the Elgin Park - Ottawa

Launching Rockets in Elgin Park - Ottawa

And, since I do not know a woman who does not enjoy a shopping spree once in a while, I took a couple of them on a day trip to Montréal…

Wine loosens the tongue!
On a Patio Downtown Montréal: Wine Loosens the Tongue!

All it takes to improve learning and turn it into a fun adventure is the will to achieve…

I do not Achieve Miracles! But!… With “un zeste de” Patience and Common Sense…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Learning a second language is not easy (especially French… so have I been told!)… and, whatever approach you take, there is no fast way to do it. It takes time (lots of time! therefore be patient!), motivation, effort and hard work. Unfortunetaly, there are no short-cuts and anyone who promises you some fast-track or crash courses will no be able to deliver (so, when looking for either a language school or a private tutor, if you hear something like this… it should raise a red flag!). I do know what I am talking about because I have been teaching French as a second language for more than 20 years. I am no miracle achiever and… no one is!

I was not supposed to be a Corporate FSL Program Developer and Trainer to begin with… I ended up in this field, let’s say by accident. I actually was a French Literature Specialist! For some time, at the beginning of my career, I worked as a Pedagogical Advisor and French Literature Professor for a private college… my assignment though was with the Correctional Service of Canada. Inmates who wished to get a higher education or complete their studies had the opportunity to do it behind bars (they still can do so)… Based in a medium security penitentiary located in the province of Québec, one day, I saw a fresh herd of Anglos unable to communicate in French land in Cowansville Wonderland Resort: that was a problem! Most people there (staff and guests) were unilingual French! Consequently, I had been asked to try and teach them French on my spare time (as if I had any!). I was not “thrilled” with the idea, but hey! I always loved challenges!

Since I had been quite successful at injecting enthusiasm for French Literature Classics into a bunch of guys covered with disgusting spiders, macabre skulls and sweet “I love my mom” from head to toes (of course I am referring to their spooky tatoos!), I thought it would be a piece of cake! I purchased numerous books and started to teach FSL… Oh my dear God! I could read the message on these Anglos’ faces: What in the world are you talking about? Get the hell out of here! So I bought other books… and other books… and some more… until I exhausted everything that was on the market back then! Always that blank look!… But! I just could not surrender! I am very stubborn you see!…

Unable to find any satisfying pedagogical materials to work with (of course, everything was there grammaticaly speaking… but the order used to introduce new notions, concepts and rules was just unbelievably wrong!), I sat and decided to seriously ponder upon the problem at hand.

My first questions were: how would I learn best a foreign language myself and how would I be able to retain and integrate all my new knowledge with enough confidence to try and use it? The answers were: by being able to make connections with my mother tongue (without literally translating though!) and by gradually adding new notions and blending them with the previous ones until they become a reflex.

I had noticed that most methods were divided into specific sections and, at no point, there were any connections made between the different rules, notions and concepts. For instance, if students were learning the imparfait, they would be working exclusively with this tense. They would never be introduced with exercises or situations forcing them to use ALL the existing past tenses in French. Eventually, they would be briefed on the concordance des temps, but it would always remain abstract in their minds.

For me, knowing how to conjugate verbs is a must, but I spend much more time teaching the usage of all different tenses and moods, so that the time-line of a message is not confusing for the listeners (most of the time, Francophones switch to English because they simply do not get the message… the core of a message is transmitted through the verbs and if those are misused, this message is then lost forever!).

I finally came up with what I call an interactive progressive method. Thanks to my tough demanding guys in Cowansville, I was able to use them as guinea pigs (for their own good should I say!) in the process of designing and validating it. Useless to say that, each time I would see that look on their faces, I would go back to my work bench and find another way to catch their undivided attention!… I now have a top notch product that I use for all types of training (tutoring, corporate training, etc.)

It consists of 6 books (from beginner to advanced levels) of which the first 2 are dedicated to the basics of French (a house without solid foundations will collapse sooner or later!)… the stucture of simple sentences, the pronouns, the annoying little words (prepositions, articles, possessive, demonstrative, etc.) and everything essential to a good understanding of a message. By the time my students are finished with those, they are ready to enter a more complex world because all the basics are well integrated and they can focus on more difficult notions.

 I am no genius… I am only someone who actually made the time to work on a better way to teach and facilitate learning (by putting myself in my students’ shoes!). And none of my former or present students ever complained: indeed they all say that, for the very first time of their lives, they finally get it! I am concerned with only one thing… GET RESULTS… And, trust me! Results I always get…

I do use the same method to teach civil servants although the ultimate purpose of their training is to pass tests… there is no need for me to teach them to the tests because the approach I use allows them to achieve both: pass their written/reading/oral tests and communicate efficiently in French… Instead of having the feeling of being tortured during their months of intensive training, they have fun and value the opportunities bilinguism offers them…

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more about those issues…


My Unfailing Optimism was Severely Shaken!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

When I thought things could not get worse, but only better; I have been confronted with harsh reality… The crushing news came in Wednesday and I have to admit I reacted physically by literally throwing up! My first reflex was to jump on that computer of mine and write a post… Then, I thought it would be wiser to calm down first because I would probably (well… certainly) have used a language that does not suit my classy and sophisticated personality. Actually I was ready to go on the rampage and attack almost any living soul on earth (that bad!)!…

Yesterday, although I felt a little less vindicative, I chose to postpone my writing and I took Dave to the movies instead of having our regular class: I truly believe in the therapeutic virtues of pedagogical activities when frustration level reaches a critical point. Although I could feel he was upset with the news as well, I thought he was displaying stoicism under the circumstances: something I cannot do myself… you see, I am French… therefore I have character and I have been cursed at birth with a latin temperament (or should I rather say “temper”???). Anyways, watching “Astérix aux Jeux Olympiques” had an immediate soothing effect on both of us… We crowned the afternoon with a beer and some nachos on a patio, on the Québec side of the Ottawa River. That was the perfect setting to discuss calmly about the next step to take following the negative response from the PPC (Personnel Psychology Centre).

I doubt the lady who wrote that response will ever come across my blog, but I would suggest her to adopt another tone when addressing people’s requests or comments. Although a psychologist, she totally lacks interpersonal skills! Without mentioning writing skills… because the explanation she gave to justify the Commission’s decision not to review Dave’s results (in spite of their own wrong doing) is not clear at all… I suspect it is on purpose: more confused the explanations are, chances are the reader will feel inadequate regarding the technical aspects of this field of expertise and, consequently, will drop the case. Too bad for her, but Dave will only bring the issue one step further on a higher level of the hierarchy (that alone should annoy her enough! A little taste of her own medicine will be more than a beneficial lesson for her…)…

In that maze of lies and hiding games, I must say though there is at least one sensible individual among the PPC staff who attempted to attenuate the impact of such a decision on Dave’s spirits… of course, probably being one of the last in the PPC food chain and one of the last survivors of a dying out species (i.e. reasonable, fair, understanding, humane), she does not have the power to overturn the decision that was made… but she took the time to write him an email inviting him to call her if he ever wished to discuss the issue further. What struck me was that she did not cc that memo to any of her supervisors… rather unusual in the Public Service of Canada!

Without getting into details right now (at this point I do not have all the info I need to confront the Commission and, then, prove them wrong), the current debate (which is of a very intellectual and statistical nature) is around standard scores vs raw scores. Apparently, the cut-off scores of the 80 question version of the written test were standard scores, but the cut-off scores of the new 65 question version of the same test are raw scores. To make a long story short, this is the reason why the PPC refuses to convert Dave’s results into percentage. “It would not be appropriate or meaningful”… to quote the nice lady! Pardon me? What are we talking about here? Between October 1, 2007 and June 2, 2008 people’s marks would not have been their raw scores?

I have been contacting people who have taken the 80 question version written test while it was in effect… none of them ever received the usual form officially issued after having taken either reading or written tests showing their marks and the cut-off scores for each level (all of them in raw scores). Only one of my contacts did not get back to me and I suspect his answer will be exactly the same: no official documents to prove anything! Unless he got one in October… he was one of the first candidates to take the 80 question version (he failed so he had to take the test again in February)… before the standard scores came into effect… Because I think the shift occurred some time after the new test was implemented (after the Commission realized the failure rate was dramatic!)…

Right now, it is where we stand… in the middle of something that is even more complicated than anticipated… furthermore, the monumental flop of the written test reform would have been shadowed and covered up (I have a document claiming that the 80 question test was a valid and reliable measurement tool… and most tested people achieved their levels… why to convert their raw scores into standard scores then? And why to come up with a new 65 question version?)… Questions, questions, questions… and so far, no answers! I do believe it is time for the Commission to account for its flaws and wrong doings and to be transparent… It is the least past, present and future tested civil servants deserve…

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…

Imagine the Consequences… If Only THEY Knew!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Finally, Jenn and I managed to get together for that “celebration” drink yesterday… I really enjoyed our time together although it was pure madness in the weather department! Sunny wall-to-wall, then five minutes later, pouring rain! Indeed we cannot really plan an entire evening on a patio this summer without occasional tropical rain… Oh well… we are Canadians and we are tough, aren’t we?

We ended up at Heart and Crown, a popular Irish Pub in the Byward Market… I really enjoy going out with my students: I teach them French and about my culture, in return I learn alot from them… For instance, yesterday, Jenn told me she would “teach” me a little bit more about Irish traditions and customs. Then she showed me the symbol on our place mats and I realized she was wearing a gold ring with the exact same design. She explained to me that, if you were wearing it with the tip of the heart towards you, it meant your heart was taken and you were not available… on the other hand, if you were wearing it with the heart pointing to the world, it meant you were indeed available and open to meeting someone. I thought it was very sweet and subtle at the same time! I went to bed last night knowing I had learned something new…

That being said, we still have not heard anything regarding Dave’s appeal… He filed his request last Wednesday, consequently tomorrow there will be a follow-up! We cannot let these people breathe for too long, otherwise they settle in their bureaucratic ways and then, we do not hear from them in weeks, even months! We already lost more than six months, enough is enough! He cannot afford to stretch this situation any longer… and there is nothing like pressuring for answers to keep people moving on issues! When it comes down to harassment (if you do not harass bureaucrats, you will never see the end of anything! It is deplorable, but there are no other ways… unless you are ready to wait forever!), I am a pro! And, honestly, I am fed up with this whole story… I only want to see it solved, so we can move on and prepare him for his oral test… Should not everything be solved to our satisfaction and should it become a little ugly, it is comforting to know his directorate fully supports him! However, I doubt anyone involved will take the risk of seeing this whole story become known on a large scale…

Speaking of spreading… Imagine for a second what would happen if the candidates who took the written test between June 2 and June 13, and missed their targeted level by one or four answers (which means they will have to re-write soon!) knew about the truth???

In a previous post, I had pointed out the discrepancy between the cut-off scores of the new written test (65 questions) before and after June 16. Since the new test came in effect June 2, we are talking about only two weeks!!! During that short period, candidates needed 51 good answers in order to get their C… then, candidates who wrote the very same test a bit later (on or after the 16th) needed 47 good answers to get the same level… Janet, who took the exam during that “floating” period got her C with 52 good answers: that was close! Imagine she would have had 50 good answers… she would have failed, right? But, on the 16th or after, she would have succeeded with the same 50 good answers. I do not know how many people write SLE tests each week… Normally, a testing room holds 40 people and there are tests each working day (in many different locations)… How many people took the written test between June 2 and June 16? A lot!!! And… how many missed their levels by 4 answers??? Just imagine if they knew about it… because of course, it was not publicized… it came to my knowledge because I happened to know a couple of individuals who were tested during those two weeks and after…

When I started this blog, I was not anticipating much traffic since I was writing about issues that concerned only a very small proportion of people (mostly located in the NCR area)… I was amazed when I found out it actually generated regular traffic. What suprised me the most was the terms used in search engines: obviously these people were looking for legitimate information regarding SLE tests in the Public Service of Canada (and they landed here instead!)… I could not figure out why! I always assumed people about to go on second language training were provided with some sort of package containing all the info they needed and all the useful links to the Commission website… NOPE! I was told everyone is more or less left in the dark and has to find information by “googling” on the net. In French we call this le système D for DÉBROUILLE-TOI! (or DÉMERDE-TOI!)… Incroyable, mais vrai!

One would think transparency is required so that people can be well informed before they go on training… Well… I thought so… I know why Jenn had to wait for almost three weeks before she got her results… The Commission was probably wavering about “should we change or not the cut-off scores on the written exam? If so… how many good answers?…”

Okay, they finally modified the pass marks… but, what about the ones who failed during the period these bureaucrats were pondering upon what to do and how to do it? Of course, the cut-off scores between June 2 and June 16 have been eradicated from the Commission’s website (if they ever were posted!)… and who will go back there regularly, unless it is publicly known the cut-off marks are changed from time to time? No one!… This is probably why the decision-makers just keep sweeping everything that could be alarming under the carpet… much easier to deal with, don’t you think?

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…

Choosing a Language School is like Picking a Flavour at the Ice Cream Parlour: It is at One’s Own Peril!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I always had the feeling there were more language schools per capita in Ottawa alone than in both Montréal and Toronto combined. Of course, I had nothing to support it… therefore, last week, I spent a few minutes researching… Indeed, I was right! With a population of about 750,000 Ottawa has 12 language schools per 100,000 compared to Toronto (close to 5 millions) with 2 schools per 100,000 and Montréal (close to 3.5 millions) with 4 schools per 100,000. Edmonton (which population is about 860,000 – similar to Ottawa’s) has 4 language schools per 100,000.

On top of the 80 something private language schools listed in Canada 411, there are the schools ran by the government and people like myself who provide the same services, but are not considered as “schools”… I am pretty sure no city in the world has so many language vendors! But, the beauty of it is that they all have enough business to stay alive (thanks to the Public Service Commission’s policies on official languages!)… well… sometimes, a couple do not make it… then, they re-open under another name.

Since I am someone who likes to know what the competition is, I occasionally offer my services as a consultant with those schools… there is nothing like seeing things from inside! And… it gives me solid grounds to promote my business, emphasizing on what I do and what they do not do!!!

They all are more or less the same… Even if some are better than others, in my book, none of them meets the standards of the industry (corporate second language training). This is probably why they do not flirt with the private sector (that requires customized programs, tailored to meet its specific needs), although there is quite a potential with all the high-tech companies established in the Kanata area.

Their websites are generic, promoting the neighbourhood and the parking spaces available rather than their programs! It seems more important to have a refrigerator in each individual classroom, a spacious kitchen with a couple of microwave ovens, a cosy lounge room with phones and a fitness center or biking trails nearby than quality training services…

Civil servants who have to find a school for their one-on-one training usually choose one based upon the environment, assuming the program is the same everywhere… FALSE! There are no specific programs… most of the time, teachers (hired as cheap labor and only required to speak French and have a university degree – no matter the field) are left on their own: no prior training, no method, no program and little guidance! They use whatever they can find as pedagogical materials and they make tons of photocopies! À la plus grande joie des fournisseurs tels que Xerox et Canon! It does not take long before trainees are down in the dumps…

Have you ever been to one of those Ice Cream Parlours where they offer more than 50 different flavours? I did! I have to admit my guilty pleasure, between June and September, is eating ice cream every single day (Thank God, I do not have to watch either my waistline or my cholesterol rate!)… There is always an endless waiting line because people just cannot make up their minds! Once or twice, I went for something based upon the look of the product… but, I ended up disappointed (if not truly disgusted): it tasted anything but ice cream! Consequently I always opt for plain vanilla… because, bottom line, what I want is ICE CREAM, not some chemical product with no taste… This is why I prefer having ice cream at home with my favourite topping (raspberries or blackberries with a soupçon of chocolate syrup and pecans! Nirvana!): I then taste everything…

I see language schools as those ice cream flavours… a blend of anything, without what people are really looking for… As a provider of the same services, I do only offer vanilla flavour (which is the core) then I add up whatever topping depending on my students’ individual needs and learning styles. With me, there are no frills (and no fridges!)… only French! Because what really matters are the results… And all my students will state that their experience with me was/is positive, enjoyable and painless (hmmm… a bit painful at times, but no permanent scars that would show in court!)!

Would it be that difficult for language schools to work more on the “content” of their curriculum and less on the “container”?

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…

The Longest 45 Minutes in Canadian Civil Servants’ Lives…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Dave went on appeal regarding his SLE results yesterday… All involved offices met to discuss his case this morning… and he should get a verdict soon! I truly believe this issue will be solved to his satisfaction: I do not see how or why it could not be! What he requested is reasonable and fair… We shall see!

In the meantime I thought I could post a de-brief a student of mine had sent me a couple of years ago, right after his oral testing… I really do not know why I kept his email for so long! Perhaps because I thought it was a great description of what he (and others) had to go through in order to get his C level. Ian was a sweet guy in his early 30s back then, but kind of stiff! I spent two months with him, preparing him for the test… We had numerous clashes and, despite I agreed with him 100% most of the time, I never stopped making his life miserable so he could perform at his best. And he did! He got his C “haut-la-main”… Ian was against the use of words like enchanté, merveilleux, magnifique and the use of his hands while speaking French (like Francophones do)… Gawd, did he ever give me a hard time! Finally I convinced him to use both so he would sound and look more natural… He just had to pretend he did not know the real meaning of these words and forget who he really was for 45 lousy minutes of his life! Later on, he thanked me for having pushed him in this direction…

Here is what he wrote me the very same day (count on the military type to be detailed in his description) he was tested:

«The waiting room is civil service chic. Lots of emphasis on function and little on aesthetic value. It’s kind of like a hospital waiting room. Still the chance to people watch, but instead of trying to figure out who is the most sick, I found myself wondering who looked the most stressed. My vote went to a girl who was mumbling French expressions to the ceiling and sighing loudly! After waiting a few minutes, my examiner came out to get me. I would suggest that people be prepared to engage in small talk WHILE walking to the exam room – can take a minute or so to navigate the maze of exam rooms.

The exam room itself was about half the size of the classrooms at school. Cozy for two people, but by no means uncomfortable. The examiner sits at a desk with a computer behind her. I sat off to one side. I was even offered water – all part of the process of putting me at ease I suspect.

The tape recorder was about halfway between me and the examiner. I do not think that the mise-en-train was recorded, but I’ll admit to being a little fuzzy on this detail. The examiner did not read from a prepared script at any point in the interview – she was clearly bouncing off what I said in the interview to move to the next question.

The mise-en-train did not go exactly as planned. “La fin de semaine” was not on the list of topics, and I didn’t want to discuss sports because it’s boring. I hoped she would pick “cinéma”, but before we even got there I tried to defend why I had only selected two topics (instructions said to select AT LEAST 2). I said that I was too busy and didn’t do much but work. She said we could always talk about other things in a hypothetical way – e.g., what sports would I like to discuss if I had the time? The conversation went a little all over the place (I mean in a good way, but it certainly wasn’t restricted to just one topic). She asked me what I had been doing with the summer and I opened the baby (pandora) box (sorry, didn’t want to, but it seemed inevitable given that the mise-en-train didn’t have the topics I’d expected). I tried to steer the conversation to C.R.A.Z.Y – with some success. She cut me off because she wanted to see the film! I offered a few general observations without giving away any details and made sure to say it was better than Hollywood films and that it was “magnificent”.

The actual oral exam began with the typical questions – where did I work, followed by the famous responsibilities question. She didn’t pick up on order paper questions, but did press for more details on committee appearances. All other questions (opinion and otherwise) started from this point. The examiner was clearly bouncing from one thing to the other without a clear set of questions. Even opinion questions started from (i.e. not necessarily directly related, but at least a bit) work related stuff. Examples? Why did I have too much work? Why couldn’t the government hire more people to handle increasing workloads? Why was there more work in a minority government setting? What did I think about the government burning out young people on the job? Did I think that people with kids (note the baby related theme emerging again – but wait, there’s more…) got preferential treatment compared to people without families? What do we do in a prep session with senior officials before a committee appearance? What happens in committees?

I will also note that the following questions were NOT/NOT asked : What are your tasks? Please describe the organizational chart of your directorate/division/group/ministry. Finally, I got absolutely zero long questions of the type others have received. There was no script for the examiner – she was clearly making up questions as she went along.

The wheels may/may (repeat the word for emphasis – it’s a military thing) have come off the cart during the jeu de rôle. The topic? You guessed it – baby related. Scene was that I was talking to a colleague who worked in the same directorate and she’s expecting a baby. Her career is important to her and her husband and they’re looking for advice on how to handle parental leave. Is 12 months too long to be out of the workforce? Should they divide the time? How does it compare with the private sector? I think I did not too badly once I got going, but I stumbled out of the gate. Details are little fuzzy…

The wrap-up phase of the interview passed in about 30 seconds. Then I had to fill out a form again – right in front of the examiner. I was a little annoyed that I had to fill this out right then and there – since I had to indicate my level of education and my rank at work. Don’t see what bearings any of that has on the exam so I was upset that I had to provide it. Oh well, I signed as required.

I also had to leave my sheet with notes in the room. Mercifully, I had taken all the notes in French, so I don’t think that represents a problem. However, if students are planning to take notes during their exams, they should know that they will leave them with the examiner before they walk out of the exam room – and they may wish to write as much in French as possible (rather than taking point form in English).

The final thing to do was to complete an evaluation of the exam experience. The front part of this form was optional (again place for name, rank, education, etc.), then included 30 multiple choice questions. I was to fill this form out in the lobby – if I wanted. I thought about it – even started the process – then decided that I was suspicious of people matching my form to my exam, so I left without completing it.

So that was the exam experience. Total time in the exam room – about 40 minutes. The examiner was fair and pleasant. I got the impression that she was asking more general questions rather than specific ones, but that may just be wishful thinking on my part (i.e. the more general the questions, the more likely I was being evaluated for the C level, rather than the B ranking).

I‘m generally happy with my performance and I don’t think that I misinterpreted any of the questions. The whole thing was more of a conversation that started with my responsibilities, rather than a series of random questions. That said, I made mistakes and struggled with some vocabulary, but I’m going to cross my fingers and hope that it was enough for a C.

My final comment is related to the small talk with the examiner in the hallway – both before and after the exam. I watched other students as they met their inquisitioner (sorry, examiner) and it seemed like one awkward meeting after another. If nothing else, this first impression is vital and it is worth investing a few minutes to practice to make sure that things get off on the right foot. I think I did okay on this score, but it is definitely something I will take more seriously the next time around (hopefully 5 years hence).»

Ian took the old version of the oral test, the one I do believe left some room for some creativity along the way… Now that a computer is choosing questions randomly, I do not think there is room for any conversation at all. His advice about “small talk” is very clever… it is important to connect somewhat with the assessor because, this kind of testing cannot be 100% objective… and, if the evaluator likes you and thinks you are charming, chances are you will be in a better position to get your required level! Never forget this: people are not robots and, until the day you will be tested by a computer alone, you can still make a good impression on the examiner!… SO!… Make sure you smell good that day and you are not wearing the stinking socks you had on your feet when jogging the previous day!

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…

Another Falling Down on the Job!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

 I am always flabbergasted by how some great sensible ideas end up into something… well, how to say this?… Indefinable would be the word… I think…

Last week, I accidently found an interesting article by Kathryn May that had been published on the Front page of The Ottawa Citizen October 7, 2006. At the time, the president of the Public Service Commission, Maria Barrados, was announcing that the federal government was about to introduce a new oral language test in order to improve the failure rate of senior anglophone civil servants. The Commission was also planning to revamp the written tests.

She kept her promise because, as of today, all three tests (oral, written and reading) are in effect! It actually took between one and almost two years to come up with these new testing tools… considering the legendary bureaucratic slow pace of any government, I would say it is not so bad! It could have taken much longer…

By now, everyone knows how skeptical I do feel about the new tests. Of course, both written and reading tests desperatly needed a new “look” (the old ones were just not measuring anything: except perhaps people’s abilities to translate literally). I am not convinced the new trend will really evaluate civil servants’ knowledge of the second language… there is still too much emphasis on useless details and “mots-liens” and not enough on verbs, grammar and syntax. But, I must admit it is much better than it used to be… therefore, there is hope! If I hang on there long enough, I might see the end of this tunnel before I do retire!…

What caught my attention in this article was the description of what could be the new oral test. Right at the beginning, it was stated that it would not be any easier (no surprise there!), but the format would be updated to better reflect the latest trends in language testing (some examples of these “trends” maybe? nope!). In other words, an only 30 minute artificial one-on-one “conversation” with an evaluator and a tape-recorder in the middle of the table had to be replaced by something less intimidating… I do agree on this one: I have been told many times that it looked like a police interrogation, minus the two-way mirror!

I do believe at the time Ms. Barrados was interviewed, her panel of experts was still in the brainstorming phase of the project… because everything was in the conditional mood and highly hypothetical (though somewhat reasonable and kind of enticing!). According to her, the test would still be grounded on a conversation with an assessor, but could be built around discussions about a video or a presentation both, the candidate and the tester, would have watched together (how picturesque! side-by-side… like two good friends at the movies! any free pop-corn with golden topping and pops?). Another option would be candidates “shadowed” at work to observe how they use their second language on the job.

The president suggested that, with the new test, civil servants would also know why they failed and what they would need to get ready for the next one… reminding that, with the old test, people did not know why they had failed… ???????????????? I do not know where the president was during all those years, but for having listened to dozens of tapes and read reports on the reasons (I did not always agree with) for failure, I can assure you those people DID know!

Almost two years after this interview, the new oral test has been implemented June 16, 2008. AND! It has no resemblance with whatever was suggested by Ms. Barrados back in October 2006. How can we contemplate an idea and, then, end up with something like this? I told you: Indefinable is the most appropriate word I could come up with to describe such a process…

Les Bonnes Intentions Tuent!

This blog moved here, if you ever are interested in reading more on those issues…

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