A Breath-taking Plunge into Hades

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I must admit I have little patience (if none at all!) for computers, technical stuff, red tape administration, ignorance, incompetence and bad taste! Yet I have the patience of an angel when I teach people how to speak, understand, write and read French. However, there are moments in my professional life when I do lose patience and get angry… I am very passionate regarding certain aspects of my work and, if someone ever grazes one of my sensitive spots, I then spit FIRE!

In a couple of days, two of my students (Public Service employees) will be tested on their FSL written abilities so they can obtain their job position’s required levels (one is going for a C and the other, for a B).

The young woman looking for a C wrote the test a month ago and she missed her level by 2 answers (she needed 57 good answers out of 80 questions). According to me, she is bilingual: she spent her grade school and high school in French immersion and she attended McGill University in Montreal. Se can work and live in French, there is no doubt about that in my mind!

The man looking for a B started his FSL training (from scratch) in August 2007, therefore French has not sunk in yet… it will take him years to grasp the language nuances and subtleties (given he will use and maintain his French)… for him to be able to get his level, he will need 46 good answers out of 80 questions (although this version of the test has been replaced with a 65 question version June 2, 2008: something to talk about some time later!).

What are their chances to succeed? If they were tested on their knowledge of the language (grammar, structure, vocabulary, idiomatic expressions, verbs, etc.), I would say Jenn would get an E (exemption) and Dave would probably get his B without struggling too much.

Unfortunately, the way federal public servants are evaluated has nothing to do with the real world and they have to take the tests (writing, reading and oral) on an average of three times before they achieve their levels. Nothing to lift their spirits, or mine!

Prior to their evaluation, we run a marathon of practicing tests (copies of previous tests): apparently this is an indicator of how they will do on the actual test. This idea is odd since, when they go for the real evaluation, the test is anything except similar to the ones they have been practicing with for weeks. I have been working with those practicing tests for years now and all they assess is: tolerance to stress and frustration, strategy, decoding and interpretation skills. Francophones, if they were submitted to such evaluation in French, would fail big time!

To illustrate my point, I did collect a few samples of non-sense questions that appear systematically in those tests. For instance, in the sentence (…) On ne va pas à la conférence _______ l’exposition; on reste (…), I have to pick between ni à, pas de, pas and ni le. Obviously the right answer is ni à although it is inconsistent with the sentence which should read: On ne va NI À la conférence NI À l’exposition!

And what to say about something like this? In the sentence Il mange _________ des légumes, il est végétarien, my choices are: seulement, trop, beaucoup, plusieurs… here I have to switch my French hat to my English hat and pick seulement knowing it is an anglicism. This sentence, if written correctly, should read: Il NE mange QUE des légumes (…); something my students DO know for a fact!

Another type of questions is even more dreadful because, in the multiple choices, there are two good answers: Le chef de section près _______ elle est assise est malade, as usual I am provided with 4 choices (de quoi, de qui, dont, duquel) but! I have two good answers, de qui and duquel. Here I have to guess which one the panel of experts decided was the only correct answer! It is a 50/50 guessing game, something that should never occur in a test!

A sentence like the following, even if not intended to compel me to choose the wrong answer, might just do that: Consultez votre agenda, car l’autobus pour Toronto part _____ Montréal à 20h30. My choices here are en, par, pour and de… If I am tired and less alert than usual, I will see pour Toronto and conclude they want pour Montréal as well, although it is grammatically incorrect in both cases. Wrong! The correct answer is de Montréal. If originally the sentence had been written correctly, I would not have been misled (…) l’autobus À DESTINATION DE Toronto (…)

Of course, I have many other examples, but I would have to write a book instead of a post. On the other hand, I have to underline some recurrent mistakes that, according to the panel of experts, are correct… therefore, when writing the test, I have to rule those out as being mistakes: à titre de renseignements which is the translation of for your information does not appear anywhere either in old or new tests, they use the anglicism à titre d’information (at least they are consistent!). There are lots of c’est ainsi, par exemple and ainsi, par exemple… those are called pléonasmes in French and refer to the use of two words (in a row) with the same meaning: one is more than enough… make your pick!!! But, please, don’t use both!

And what to say about a sentence like this: Est-ce Pierre à qui veulent parler Stéphane et Martin? Even Molière’s work has been re-written in modern language so that we can understand his plays… therefore, why just not write: Est-ce à Pierre que Stéphane et Martin veulent parler (the way we do normally speak and write)?… Nope!

So… will Jenn and Dave get their levels? With this type of testing, there is no guarantee at all… If I had to bet on the winning horse, I would pick Jenn because of her sound background in French. Dave does not have yet what it takes to win such a race (unless he is lucky that day!)… not because we did not work hard enough, not because he is not a good learner, not because of a lack of knowledge… only because he still has to develop and perfect his strategy skills in order to be able to play the guessing game the right way.

As for me, I will feel sick in my stomach until I get their results… and I will be angry at the so-called panel of experts. Who are they anyways? What are their credentials? Where are they from? What is their field of expertise? I know only one thing for sure: their testing tools are more than questionable…

And when you read a staffing notice sent to all government employees talking of “une piscine (swimming pool) de candidats” when referring to “a pool of candidates”, I do wonder… would this notice have gone through the hands of the very same panel of experts? Unless it went through some free translator provided by Google…

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