Another Ineptitude: “Formal” French!!!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

The adjective formal may take various meanings in French depending on the context: formel, en règle, positif, en due forme, cérémonieux, solennel, compassé, formaliste, conventionnel, raide… When applied to languages, it just makes my face twitch because I do hear stiff (raide)! And, in my book, there is nothing like a français raide!

When I first arrived in Ottawa, I had contracts with Unions… I remember a manager asking me what “kind” of French would I be teaching his staff: French from Paris or “joual” (Québec slang)? Of course, I could not help it and my answer was a bit cynical “And what about French?” … Speechless, he looked at me in total dismay… “Yeah… you know… plain French?”… Neither “French from Paris” nor “joual” can be taught anyways since both are regional slangs!

French… a language that everybody understands, independently of where they are from, is… well… the one spoken on the Radio-Canada News! Accurate words, correct syntax and excellent pronunciation without any accent… No Francophones would ever think of qualifying this French of “formal”! Yet, for some reason, Anglophones are convinced that formal French does exist… IT DOES NOT!!!

Last Friday, I was asking Jessica a series of 200 questions (in a controlled environment) she had to answer using the correct pronouns for replacement and verb tenses… I do believe it is a perfect exercise for civil servants in view of their oral tests: no “real” conversation, only direct answers to specific questions. Suddenly she asked me why I was always addressing my questions using vous“And why not?”… Her answer did not really surprise me… she said her former teacher (actually teachers) had told the class that vous had been traded for tu… that Francophones were no longer using this obsolete pronoun… Since Anglos do not really know the difference, they use tu in all occasions and trust me, by doing that, they might sink into deep shit some day!

I had an argument with one student one day (he was an Union representative) about the proper usage of the second singular personal pronouns (vous vs tu). The week before he had attended a conference in Montreal and he had asked the Hotel staff to address him with tu and call him by his first name. Of course, no one paid attention to his request and just moved on with vous and Monsieur… Since he was insisting, an employee told him it would not be proper/polite to address him otherwise and… he would probably lose his job given that familiarity with clients was not the Hotel’s policies. Right away he thought this Hotel’s employees were oppressed by their employer and, because of that, he would not hold a conference in that Hotel… ever!!! I spent some time (too much indeed because Johnny was an irreducible activist for Human Rights) explaining the difference between vous and tu… but he was very stubborn and I ended that heated discussion with my final argument “Okay then! Suit yourself… and boycott all hotels and businesses throughout the French speaking world!”

Fortunately Jessica agreed right away with my explanation… I told her that, when she will go for her oral test, the examiner will address her with vous and she will have to do the same… only based upon the fact that they do not know each other… Tu is used with family, friends and colleagues (assuming we have some kind of relationship with them); otherwise vous is the keyword! Usually vous is used most of the time at work… I cannot imagine myself on the phone asking a potential client “Comment t’appelles-tu”! It would be like asking someone you do not know “Hey buddy! What’s your name by the way?”… Kind of rude, n’est-ce pas? At some point, Jessica asked me if she had been rude to me by addressing me with tu from the beginning… I reassured her: given the nature of my work, it is important that my trainees feel comfortable with me and addressing me with vous would prevent them from having that essential trust in me!… But I told her we had to use vous when practicing for her exam, so that she would get used to it and sound more natural.

So-called formal French is not only associated with vous and tu… since I never use “est-ce que” to ask questions (I prefer the use of inversion), my students think I am speaking “formal” (assuming they ever heard questions asked with inverted pronouns! most of them do not have a clue!)… actually it is the common way to turn questions. Personally, I link “est-ce que” to “baby talk”… You have to keep in mind I am teaching French for work, consequently my trainees need to speak and write correctly (not formally!)…

There is also the widely spread use of the near future… a tense you will never see listed in the Bescherelles simply because it is an anglicism and… laziness… we do tolerate its usage (only spoken though!) for an action that will occur today, yet I advise my students to use the futur simple all the time… therefore there will be no risks (or temptation!) to use a near future during their oral tests! On the other hand, you will find the passé surcomposé in the same Bescherelles (only conjugated with je though… for space saving purpose)… and amazingly none of my students who ever learned French before knows about this tense! C’est à se demander ce que l’on enseigne dans les classes de français langue seconde! Would I be wrong to say “almost anything” except “correct French”?

Once again, this “sin by omission” seems to be intended to keep learning simple! Simple for who? The students or the teachers? My vote goes to the latter!… The day (which is not tomorrow for sure!) language schools and their alledged teachers will adopt an ethical code regarding the way they teach people in the workforce, maybe I will be able to rest at peace… but, then, I will have nothing left to blog about!…

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

“Si la cause est bonne, c’est de la persévérance. Si la cause est mauvaise, c’est de l’obstination.”

Lawrence Sterne


More Challenging?… I am not quite Sure about this One!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

There is this French teacher in Michigan, Diane, I really do admire… we pay visits to each others’ blogs regularly… Hers and mine, although both about teaching and learning French, are quite different… She teaches pre-schoolers and teenagers while I teach adults in the workforce. Although each of us has experience with opposite “clientele”, there are a couple of things we share: creativity, enthusiasm and genuine passion for what we do… Earlier this week I had left a comment on one of her posts, telling her how impressed I was with her multi-task abilities… Personally, I do believe teaching kids is much more challenging than teaching adults! Her reply was interesting… she wrote she was more at ease with 3-12 year old kids than with teens because she thinks teaching young children who are at a natural stage of language development is easier than teaching teenagers and adults who can be much more challenging…

Obviously we view the universe of teaching from different perspectives due to our personal experience… Actually I am scared of kids!… Their candid way of asking questions (questions that often leave me open-mouth) is so disarming sometimes! And by the way they look at me, I do know I cannot get away with some evasive answer… and they just will not let go until I give them an answer that totally satisfies them! In other words, no bullshit… only honest answers… And God! This can be really intimidating!…

It reminds me of a conversation I had with my niece, Alex, during one of her visit in Ottawa… at the time, she was 5 or 6 years old at the most and quite “mature” for her age… but messy like only kids can be! Therefore I had kindly asked her to put away the toys she had spreaded all over the basement before going out to the park… I remembered I had also offered to help her so it would take less time (Alex tends to visit Dreamland while doing stuff she does not like to do and it slows her down dramatically!)…

While cleaning her mess, she bluntly said “It shows you are a teacher and not a mom!” Of course I was not sure what she was trying to tell me, so I asked why… She then provided me with a sensible thorough explanation (I admit her answer was quite clever for such a young kid and I actually had no arguments to present in counterattack!) “Well… you never tell me what to do, you simply ask me… and you never raise your voice like moms do all the time… it is like you are giving me choices except that I know, by the tone of your voice and the look in your eyes, there will be consequences (bad of course) if I happen to make the wrong choice… and with you, there are no threats… only promises!… and I only know teachers who treat children that way!” Hmmm

I did not quite know what to think of that statement… was it a compliment or a reproach? I had to confirm either one, so I could sleep that night! “Is it a good or a bad thing?” She gave me that charming smile that always had the power to have me melt in a second “Don’t worry! It is good… because you treat me like a grown-up and not like a brainless kid! I am little but not intellectually challenged!” Children are amazingly smart and, if I had to teach them, I would be consistently monitoring my answers so that I would not sound too stupid! Kids are very judgmental and consequently they can serve you daily with real heartbreaks! It is much safer to deal with adults… even if they think you are a moron, they will not tell you!

Viewed from that angle, it is without a doubt less challenging to work with adults! On the other hand, when I consider the pedagogical aspect of teaching adults vs young children I do agree with Diane. Adults are fully developed (well… we hope!) and learning a second language does not come naturally… it requires much more effort and work… unlike children, they are far from being sponges and their abilities for absorbing are almost non existing. They need to be structured and able to make connections with their mother tongue… consequently, I have to provide them with exhaustive explanations and show them the inherent differences between English and French syntax… it is necessary to break down each sentence so it makes sense for them… Since it is important they think in French and lose the habit of translating literally from English, when it is obvious they do not understand one of my questions, I will repeat it replacing the French words with English ones but making sure to keep the same structure… For instance: “Y aura-t-il une réunion des employés à San Francisco d’ici trois semaines?”… if I ever had to repeat this question in English, it would sound like this: “There will have it a meeting of the employees at San Francisco from here three weeks?”… Although I am using English, I am still keeping my students in the French thinking mode…

Most teachers dread beginners and they will do anything to avoid teaching beginners’ class… since most of the time it is impossible to avoid them all, they really suck when they are compelled to do it! If the conversational approach works with learners who take French for mere recreational purpose, it certainly does NOT with the ones who need French for work. And, unfortunately, not many second language teachers are equipped to face such challenge…

More than once I have been accused of using English in class… as if explaining grammar rules and abstract concepts in French to people who can hardly say bonjour were not a big waste of time!!! Let’s use some basic common sense here pleaaaaaaase! Indeed I do not have any casual conversations in French with my students, unless those are occurring in a controlled environment using only what they learned and know well, until they have covered everything they need to know… And when finally we can do it, they sound like they have been speaking French all their lives!… and, most important, I do not have to interrupt them every two words to correct their mistakes! Why? Because they do not make any!!! They learned the correct way to express themselves, therefore they are not carrying on bad habits… Perhaps some would argue my method takes more time. It looks that way at the beginning because it takes some time to teach basics by layers… BUT! when my students jump in the water, they know how to swim like Olympic swimmers!!! They go for GOLD and nothing else!

If both my method and program take all of my students by surprise at the beginning, it does not take long for them to realize their efficiency… because they can actually see their progress… they do not need me to assess them…

Back to my first question… what is more challenging? Teaching children of teaching adults? I do believe both bring equal challenge… Teaching has never been recognized for its true value… Yet it is the most difficult job (also the most important)… If you think being a doctor is more difficult, think twice… behind each great doctor, there was an even greater teacher!…

“Ne vous souciez pas de n’être pas remarqué. Cherchez plutôt à faire quelque chose de remarquable.”


Dinosaur Land… Have You Been There Lately?

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I know someone who has been away from work since May 2007… she is on full time training in the now most popular language school in town (the one with a brand new feature : each individual classroom equipped with a personal fridge! WOW!!! I am convinced having easy access to cold drinks – not included in the package though, trainees must bring their own – greatly helps learning French…)… Well… it does not seem to ease Belinda’s learning process… She had to take both written and reading tests a couple of times before she finally got her B. Yet she was not out of the woods because (I do not remember exactly how many times she tried) she keeps failing the oral test systematically!… she first took the old version, then she was on a pilot project and, finally, she went back and took the final new version. Last time was at the end of June… usually, civil servants who fail any of the tests have to move on with their training and they do not go back to work until they get their required levels… Therefore Belinda is still attending school, but she asked to be re-tested only at the end of August instead of the end of July hoping for better results next time.

Personally, I believe it will make no difference at all… even if they keep her on full time training for months! It is obvious this woman has reached her ceiling… she is no longer learning anything… the switch is off for good! Her only salvation is to get away from that toxic environment… take a few steps back and the time to breathe… then she could have a couple of weekly one-on-one lessons in her office… Right there, she would feel more confident: back on the job, surrounded by her colleagues, in a familiar environment (with or without a personal fridge!) and, most important, productive again!

I just do not get it! It pisses me off upsets me to see how those language schools work! They have one way and they will never adapt their teaching methods according to their trainees’ personal needs… of course, I do know why: they do not have a clue about how to accomodate learners’ specific needs… they are not specialized in the Adult Education field… and I bet they never heard about andragogy principles! It looks like trainees are merely livestock… they feed them for the slaughterhouse (the tests)! I am sure Belinda is relating to this right now… Fortunately, many civil servants adapt to that rigid obsolete teaching style and they manage to survive and get their levels (not without lots of sweat, frustration and more than one attempt)… but there are also many Belindas…

In the Spring of 2006, I contracted as an independent consultant with a language school (the most popular one at the time and, by far, the best in my book… although far from being perfect! if you know what I mean…) to train producers and reporters at the CBC. I had been approached based upon my corporate image and program… Kind of flattering in a way… I worked there for one full year until the CBC’s demands increased and I asked for more money (they were willing to pay the extra amount, but the school thought I had trespassed some forbidden territory! Never talk money with them… they will perceive you as an ungrateful monster! and tell me, why should I be grateful in the first place?)…

Over a period of seven months, I trained seven different small groups of producers and reporters working for The National… Then, I was asked to take over five groups (technicians, cameramen, editors, archivists and local news producers)… each group had 7 hours of weekly training (a full day with me). At first, they were reluctant… they had heard about my methods and high demands, and I knew I had no more than half of a minute to grab their interest… otherwise I was dead meat! They had been on training for ages… but they knew nothing! Their former teacher, a History teacher, would spend mornings giving them dictations (excerpts from Les Filles de Caleb) and afternoons compelling them to watch the TV series based upon the same novel… well, Les Filles de Caleb had been a popular series but, honestly, who cares about what happened in a Québec small village in the early 1900s? All it only ever achieved was operating like a powerful sedative on everyone! I quickly changed their daily diet: grammar basics, conversations in a controled environment for 6 hours… Then I traded Les Filles de Caleb for Rumeurs (a modern up beat urban series with people working in the publicity and communication field – much more appropriate for this audience!)… an episode of 30 minutes followed with a discussion on it.

It did not take me long to realize there were four people who could not follow their peers’ pace… I saw them crying and getting quite frustrated. I took action right away: I re-arranged all the groups and took those four individuals together… of course, it created a real commotion at the CBC… they never had anyone to reshuffle groups and modify the schedule… Unfortunately for them I never budged and they finally gave in after eight days… Useless to mention the ones who had experienced difficulties until that day (because of some learning differences) finally started to understand and make noticeable progress… After I left, one of them told me the school had put the groups back the way they were before I made modifications… and she said she was bursting into tears again! In a way, I felt bad for them… but hey! I cannot save them all, can I?

My point is… when a teacher (given this person is actually a “teacher”) sees that nothing works, it is time to show some creativity, consider other options and find solutions… and sooner, the best!!! Otherwise, many other Belindas will be added up to the list of failures…

“Comment se fait-il que, les petits enfants étant si intelligents, la plupart des hommes soient si bêtes? Ça doit tenir à l’éducation.”

Alexandre Dumas fils, écrivain français

A Sudden Shift of Wind…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I have been operating my own business for 20 years now… I first started in Montréal under the name of Langplus: back then, I was working with large pharmaceutical companies, accounting and law firms, commercial insurance brokers… On site one-on-one French training was considered as luxury goods by employers and that privilege was saved up for Presidents, Vice-Presidents, CEOs and Partners. In the course of more than 10 years, I trained only two women who were partners in large accounting firms. In other words, I was offering and providing an exceptional service that was, most of the time, included in the annual performance bonuses of high ranked staff.

I often wondered how those people would have reacted if they had known that my previous clients were “guests” of Federal penitentiaries!… It made no difference at all in my book! but perhaps it would have in “theirs”… I never treated CEOs with more deference than my guys behind bars… in my eyes, both inmates and corporate executive officers deserved equal respect (I bet for a minute there you thought I treated the latter in a cavalier manner!)… Actually, my experience in prison taught me a few good lessons I never forgot and always applied in my business: you can exert your influence on someone without being either authoritarian or manipulative… but still asserting yourself. And of course, although younger than most of my corporate clients at the time, I was never impressed by them… I had been around hardened criminals and murderers long enough to learn not to judge people on what I saw: among them, there was an ex-lawyer sentenced to life in prison for having killed (with premeditation) his partner!… Each of us has the inner potential of crossing the fence, no matter what we do for our living!…

I have been digressing again… should I tell everyone I am the kind of person who likes smelling the roses along the way? When I write a post, don’t worry, I know exactly where I am going! Yet I cannot help it… I have to follow the thread of my thoughts and, sometimes, it takes me in Dreamland!!! However, I always come back to my initial topic…

Dès lors… de retour à mes moutons!

When I launched my business in Ottawa, mentality had changed a bit: I started teaching mixed groups (a first for me!) where there were more women than men… Since I had always taught to “male only” groups (and by no means standard!), I needed to adjust! It took me a while though… I was used to a different audience: a bunch of tough guys I was able to kick asses around without thinking twice because usually men get angry, but forget in no time! I quickly realized this approach did not work with women after I saw a couple of them burst into tears because I had asked them (and insisted in spite of their reluctance to do it) to conjugate the verb “être”! Some quit and the ones who stayed were real pain in the butt, because they had never forgotten the trauma I had inflicted them before their colleagues! Oh well… women are like that… so I tried my best to change my blunt manners and, to certain extent, I was successful.

There is one thing that never changed in the course of my practice: only people in management positions can have one-on-one training… Until not long ago, I always worked with people in their forties and fifties – aging crooners like myself (no offence! reality being we are no longer spring chicken folks!) – I could always relate to because we were products of the same generation… it was (and still is) easy to find some common interests to discuss in French…

Last November, I met ZZ… a young man who took one-on-one lessons with me for three months. Since he was quite advanced in French, we were able to have “real” conversations… the problem was to find some mutual interest we could discuss! Ô miracle!!! During a casual conversation on TV shows, we found out we were both addicted to the series LOST… Before the fourth season started in January, we went on a marathon and watched again the previous seasons on DVDs (at home, not in class!) and we always spent 30 to 45 minutes discussing our theories. We had found a connector and we forgot the age gap between us… I also realized how quick he was at refreshing or learning grammar rules and concepts. And I was quite impressed with his methodology… Of course, his school years were not that far behind him and he still remembered the terminology used in grammar (in English as well as in French).

Then, in March, I started one-one-one training with Jenn (my youngest student so far… 23 years old)… freshly out of McGill University, this young woman was a dream to work with… Teaching her was so easy… even when we were covering stuff she had never heard of before, she grasped it in no time and, most important, remembered and applied it immediately. Once again, in spite of our age gap, we connected right away… and we were never out of topics to discuss…

More recently, I started to train Susan and Jessica, both in their late twenties… they are savvy and it is easy to introduce complex notions because they absorb quickly. Actually, Susan is sooooooo enthusiastic with her French lessons, sometimes it is scary!… On the other hand, I really do appreciate it because she does not hesitate to put every effort in her learning and that only will help her to achieve her goal. With someone like her, I can set the bar very high and I know she will be able to eventually reach her full potential. Jessica was a bit more reserved when she started her training… the first time I could feel she was on guard… but I do think she is okay now… she is also a quick learner and I have no doubt she will reach her required level in French… I know I can push her (she is a smart cookie) so she will give me her best.

There is a shift of wind… I believe I will have more and more young fellows to train… if, at the beginning, I were not sure I could connect with this generation of young adults; I now see it differently… I do learn a lot from them… as much as they do learn from me…

“Il est aussi difficile de gouverner une maison pleine de filles que d’alimenter un grand feu avec des brindilles.”

Proverbe Tamil

Le Culte des “Mots-Liens”: An (mental?) Aberration!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I must admit that, before teaching French as a second language within the Public Service of Canada, I had never heard about the so-called “mots-liens” in French! However, I was constantly reminded of their importance… At first I thought everybody was talking about articles, prepositions and conjunctions… well, it made sense, right? Until the day I was told I was not emphasizing enough the famous mandatory “mots-liens”, if not deliberately ignoring them… I was kind of surprised since I had always insisted on the connectors mentioned above…

Then someone gave me a list (and what a list! I do not even remember how many pages, but there were many… too many indeed!) containing all the “mots-liens” they needed to memorize in order to be successful in all their tests (written, reading and oral)… My reaction was “what in the hell is this???”! Trainees had to memorize and ultimately use words like néammoins, en revanche, en outre, outre cela, d’une part… d’autre part, à prime abord, certes, en effet, de fait, en fait, dorénavant, désormais, nonobstant, cependant, toutefois, par conséquent, conséquemment, en conséquence, premièrement, deuxièment, troisièmement, finalement


Who speaks (or even write) using those words in the 21st Century??? Of course there are some we use occasionally (mainly when we write) yet expressions like outre cela and en revanche have been “reléguées aux oubliettes depuis belle lurette”!… Today no one is preoccupied with style any longer, only with efficient communication. Do you know anyone who speaks English with expressions such as hence, henceforth, furthermore, thus, thus far, on one hand… on the other hand, nevertheless??? I do not!… with the exception of Robert Guy Scully (a well known erudite bilingual Canadian former journalist) who even speaks French in the passé simple tense. But, for some mysterious reason, he sounds so natural that we do not even notice the stylish language he is using (soooo melodious indeed!)… yet coming out from anyone else’s mouth, all these obsolete expressions would sound pompous, if not ridiculous!

 I created turmoil among many of my students who had been brainwashed by Le Culte des “Mots-Liens” gurus when I told them to forget about the list! Some of them had even designed templates containing almost all the connectors, planning to fill in the blanks with whatever! Useless to say it took me lots of patience to de-program the most recalcitrant! But, I am stubborn and I never gave in… My job was to teach them how to communicate efficiently in French and that meant to bring them back to the basics: grammar and syntax!

This week I started with a new student: Jessica is going for her B in oral expression… she was told, by another teacher, she was close to her level. It did not take me long to assess her… she is only an A and, in order to bring her up to the required level, we will have to work seriously on her weaknesses (verbs, prepositions, pronouns, etc.). I just do not get it! Why most language trainers do not speak the truth? Is it because they want to sound “nice”?… Is it because they think their students will not like them anymore by telling them the truth? Or is it simply because they have no clue regarding the language requirements of each level?

Yesterday, going over some essential grammar points, I realized Jessica had never heard about important notions… I could not help it, I bluntly asked her: “What did they teach you?” The only plausible answer she could come up with was: “I don’t know… maybe they just wanted to keep it simple.” If keeping something simple means ignoring basic rules essential to a good understanding of the second language, it has the opposite effect than the one sought in the first place! French is complex… not complicated! Yet, by not providing the basics, those teachers are indeed complicating it. And it seems I am always the one called to the rescue so I can fix the mess they left behind!

Without pretending to generalize, I know for a fact that most FSL teachers/trainers in Ottawa are not qualified for the job… They are either former History teachers, engineers, scientists or accountants who happen to speak, write and read French (for a large number, French is not even their mother tongue!)… I never understood that phenomenon! Would you let an accountant perform heart surgery on your child? Or a cardiologist advise you financially? Or an electrician fix major water leaks in your basement??? I do not think so… Then why giving the responsibility for training thousands of civil servants to just anyone who is not qualified? What kind of results can one expect?

I am specialized in my field… I have educational background and years of experience to support my expertise… yet… is it really valued and recognized? Well… I think the ones who contract with me do when they need someone to put out fires and have no one else to turn to!… It is a bit upsetting though… I would prefer them to trust me right from the beginning. When they contract with language schools or anyone claiming to be FSL teachers, it seems they are only looking at the cost… yes indeed my fees are higher (although not by much)! But I obtain results in less time than my competitors (no need for anyone to under’go full time training with me)… on the long run, by choosing qualified people, they would actually save the money they had intended to save by contracting with cheaper providers… Quality, professionalism and competence come with a price tag…

Robert G. Scully who announced his retirement as a journalist but will continue to do some television shows...

Robert G. Scully quit the CBC/SRC as a journalist in 2000, but continued to work for television... A great reporter I always loved watching and listening to! Impeccable grammar/syntax in both French and English...


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

“On sait que le propre du génie est de fournir des idées aux crétins une vingtaine d’années plus tard.”

Louis Aragon, écrivain français

Photo Credit:


Long Weekends and Summer Holidays: My Worse Nightmare Come True!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Dave is currently spending his summer holidays in PEI and will be back August 18… Before he left, he was supposed to file his accomodation request for his second attempt at the written test. He was told it would take 4 to 6 weeks before he could have a re-testing date. Since I have not heard from him, I suspect he did not do it! Well… he was kind of disgusted with the whole thing when he left… perhaps he needed to put it on ice for a while. What I fear the most is that he might be quite rusty by the time he will get back! I do not believe he will hear much French in Prince Edward Island!!! Of course, he took all his books (grammar, short novels, Astérix) with him swearing he would review and keep up with his French… Unfortunately, experience taught me otherwise! Most of the time, the books stay in the suitcase!… Can I blame my students for not making the time while vacationing? Not really… I am not sure I would be more disciplined than they are.

Learning a second language is not like learning anything else… when you get away from it for more than a day or two, you start forgetting simple notions and regressing quickly. I always remind my trainees that what took them three months to learn and assimilate will take only three days to vanish!… Advanced students do not face that problem because French is kind of engrained in their brain, but it is another story for beginners. Fortunately, what seems gone forever can be easily retrieved yet it takes a while… therefore, there is no room for new stuff! During that time, the meter is running… This is problably why I hate deadlines so much! Language cannot be learned in a specific time frame… there are moments when people just soar, then there are moments when they literally suck! Learning a second language is made of ups and downs… sometimes, my students reach a ceiling and they cannot absorb anything new for a while… THAT stresses them out more than necessary! For me, it is only business as usual… I only have to be patient and tell them “On se calme le pompon… tout rentrera dans l’ordre sous peu!”… Their brain is only overloaded with information, abstract concepts and rules… it takes some time to sort everything out. Let’s not be panicky here, life is too short!!! And…after all… it is only French!!!

Nevertheless there are a few small things people under’going language training can do to maintain their knowledge… it only requires commitment and a minimum of effort!… It actually sounds pretty much easy, doesn’t it? Except that, in reality, it is not as simple as it sounds…

One hour per day… only one lousy hour… I am not asking anything else from them! Instead of reading the paper in English, they can choose to read Le Droit (even if they merely read the headlines!)… Watching a TV program in French will not kill them either: Radio-Canada has excellent shows… they only have to pick one that agrees with their taste and interest and watch it on a regular basis… Listening to the radio in French while driving is not that demanding… is it? La Courte Échelle (Québec Publisher) has a great variety of novels for juniors (from age 8 to 16)… easy to read and quite interesting! Bottom line, it is a matter of choice

For instance, yesterday Susan told me she had rented a made in Québec movie (Maëlstrom with Marie-Josée Croze) over the long weekend… I was indeed very proud of her! She could have watched it in English, but she chose (wisely) to watch it in French… she admitted she had selected the English sub-titles, but hey! who cares? If it made her feel more comfortable, why not? Living in Canada is a bonus because, by law, all DVDs must be in both English and French… all it takes is a couple of clicks: Menu, French and Select… C’est l’enfance de l’art quoi!

On the other hand, this morning, Seema struggled through the entire two hours of her session with me… She was totally lost (and I seriously doubt it was because of the backlash caused by the Backstreet Boys’ presence at The Marshes last Monday… Sam did recover! Unless mom is a secret admirer of these guys… actually I saw them on the news, I would not even pay attention to them if they were sitting next to me! What fame can do… n’est-ce pas?)! The results of three days away from French… she left the classroom feeling guilty! Guilt is probably the worse feeling to live with… and there is no need for it! Seema is a very well organized woman, in both her professional and personal lives… since I know she has the required self-discipline, it falls to her to make the time for French and stick to her schedule. I work with adults and I cannot tell them what to do as if they were toddlers… They have to make that choice for themselves and, then, they will get rid of the annoying guilt that consumes their lives!… And… do I have to remind my students of their upcoming tests? The clock is ticking buddies!!! Consequently, apply your freedom of choice wisely…

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


“Dans sa pleine liberté, l’esprit est pareil à cet insecte stupide qui passe la moitié de son existence à filer un cocon, et l’autre moitié à le détruire.”

André Suarès, écrivain français


Grammar Limbo!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Today is a day off… I took Seema and her 17 year old daughter for lunch at The Marshes Golf Club (2 minutes from my place). Food was excellent, the view magnificent and the patrons, well… awesome! Two of the Backstreet Boys were there playing golf (there will be a concert tonight at the Scotia Bank Place)… apparently they were giving away tickets and backstage passes! Sam was on the verge of passing out! She certainly regretted her stop to the restrooms: those precious few minutes would have allowed her to actually meet with the guys when they dropped off their cart!!! Seema and I, being older, were not sharing her enthusiasm… but we certainly had fun watching her! She was told every time there is a concert at the Scotia Bank Place, the stars stop by The Marshes to play golf: she is now seriously thinking of getting a job there next summer!

Sam and Mom... slowly recovering from the fact she had missed the BOYS!

Sam and Mom... slowly recovering from the fact she missed the BOYS!... Sam! Not Mom!!!

Now back to French… and everything it entails! Sometimes I do wonder… Do I spend too much time teaching grammar? Some would argue that, what is the most important, is being able to communicate efficiently orally… I certainly do agree on that! But it is equally important to communicate efficiently in writing. Around here, written French is really poor and… it bugs me!

For a long time, studying languages has been depreciated : in school, intelligent students were encouraged to go in Sciences or, if they were really rebuffed by that field, in Social Sciences. Now that suddenly communication has a value, people are asked to know how to write correctly overnight! Francophones have a hard time writing in their mother tongue, therefore is it fair to ask Anglophones to master written French as a second language?

Personally, I see language learning as a package: speaking, understanding, writing and reading are inter-connected… And the mere idea of seing my trainees as illiterate products kills me! And… without the grammar basics, they cannot speak anyways!

With civil servants, I do not ask myself the question twice: they are trained to pass tests! Writing and reading are part of their learning (like it or not) and… those tests would not be more difficult if they were tailored for Francophones! There is a dichotomy though: their employer want them to be excellent in French yet that very same employer cannot communicate efficiently… in their everyday simple communications as well as on their numerous web sites. In my book, a web site that did not passed in the hands of a good editor or proof reader is like a boutique with dirty shop windows: I really do not feel like entering it and, if I find the courage to, I do not want to stay…

As for badly written job ads… would you apply? I would not! I will not even sign with snowblowing contractors when there are spelling mistakes in their flyers!!! For me, it shows a flagrant lack of professionalism and I have my doubts regarding their business success… Looking at the French version of the Public Service of Canada job posts, I really do wonder… But hey! It is the government… no matter what, they will survive!

I know how difficult it is for Anglos to learn French grammar (as a matter of fact, I do not know many Francophones who master it!)… but it is a necessary pain in their learning process… I certainly do try my best to alleviate the weight of all the non sense rules French has carried on thoughout centuries, but I do not ignore the most difficult ones either… and the day I will be asked to stop teaching grammar, I will retire… French is French… If you are up to the challenge, you will enjoy learning it… and if you are not, well… learn Esperanto!

“Quand on ne peut revenir en arrière, on ne doit se préoccuper que de la meilleure façon d’aller de l’avant.”

Paulo Coelho, écrivain brésilien

Pluricultural Main Dish!…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

What I love the most about my job is the fact I can mingle with so many different people each day of my life… although all Canadians, most of them come from other countries and they bring spicy flavour to each class. It is certainly a great opportunity for feeding conversations with diverse points of view and stances… while learning French, everybody also learns a bit more about their peers’ cultures, customs, religions and traditions. Some friends of mine wonder why I do not belong to any social networks on the internet: well… I can connect with people from around the world right here! Why would I spend my time in a “virtual” universe talking with people I will never actually meet when I can do it in the “real” world… with individuals who may eventually become my friends?

Extra-curricular activities are part and parcel of my students’ training… I cannot conceive teaching them French without providing them with consistent exposure to our French-Canadian culture. Of course they all are well adapted to the main stream (English) of our culture, yet they do not know much about the other side of the medal.

Going to the movies and theater is something I do often with them… and I always favour Québec movies and plays rather than “made in France” productions because, beyond the language itself, there are huge cultural differences… In order to communicate efficiently with their francophone colleagues, acquaintances and friends, they need to understand their idiomatic expressions and, above all… their humour! I am not saying that I avoid anything that is not “made in Québec”, but I do concentrate on what will be more useful for them to know.

This week, I took James (a Chinese-Canadian born and raised in Nova Scotia) and Seema (a sweet Indian woman who arrived here less than 15 years ago) to see the movie “Cruising Bar 2”… a parody of Québec male stereotypes starring Michel Côté, one of our best actors. I had extended the invitation to Alice (a woman born and raised in South-Africa), but she had planned to go biking that evening… the following day I was told she had read my blog instead (certainly not with the goal to perfect her French! Perhaps I should write in French from now on…)… For James, the experience did not cause him any difficulties because he is now quite advanced in French. Also he had had the opportunity to watch “Cruising Bar” on TV (a 20 year old movie featuring the same characters) a couple of weeks ago. For Seema, a beginner, the experience was exhausting! She relied on the visual part of the movie, more than on the dialogues, to get the gist of the story… and it was obvious she was not acquainted with this kind of humour so particular to the Québécois. She actually learned quite a lot this week!

I have to open a parenthesis here… Is there anyone out there who can explain to me the reason why, in a city of 750 000 inhabitants (of which a good proportion is francophone), not one single movie theater is featuring films in French? Maybe they do not know that Francophones in this country are the biggest consumers of movies because… if they knew, I am convinced they would trade a couple of stupid American movies such as Batman, The Incredible Hulk, Ironman, etc. for a few ones with more substance for the brain! Unless they consider they do not have to make any effort to please their French-speaking clientele since they all are bilingual (if so, they are missing the whole point! it is not merely a matter of language, it is a matter of culture! Hollywood movies are simply not our preference…). All this to say we have to go across the bridge each time we want to see a film in French! It would be neat if some movie theaters (not necessarily all, but at least one – especially in the Ottawa east end where there is a large concentration of Fancophones) had the courtesy to feature the popular ones made in either Québec or France…

Another cultural and social activity I do privilege with my students is lunching and dining out… Sometimes I pick the restaurant (then I take them where they serve French, Mexican, Spanish, Caribbean, “nouvelle cuisine” food) but, most of the time, I let them choose… Seema loves Chinese, Jianlin (a woman born and raised in China) loves Thai and James… well… James loves Chez Cora, a Québec chain that serves breakfast all day long! It is always quite an adventure to eat out with my trainees… it is anything except boring!

English... and some French!
Mandarin… French… Cantonese… Common denominator: English… and some French!
English... and soon, more French!
Mandarin… French… Hindi… Common denominator: English… and soon, more French!

My advice: Never ask the restaurant’s owner to take a group picture for you!!!

You may end up with something like this:

Jianlin - La Dame dragon - Seema - James - and... "en prime", the chairs!

Les trois mousquetaires: Jianlin - La Dame dragon - Seema - James - and... "en prime", the chairs!

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…

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