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

 

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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 Little Common Sense would not Hurt? Would it?…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Still wrapped up in the Jenn and Dave’s saga, this morning, I came across another non sense… Because of special accommodations, I had requested (6 months ago) that Dave’s FSL tests should be formatted to suit his special needs and that he should be given more time (because of its duty to accommodate, the Public Service Commission had no other choice than accept my request, though the paperwork took forever!)… Consequently, he wrote the first part of one test Monday morning and he will write the second part Friday morning.

In the meantime, we are still working on those practicing tests (useless to say that this exercise is totally draining and frustrating, without mentioning it does not really help!) trying to develop strategies that will allow him to pass his B level… because, right now, it is about anything except knowledge of the language. When there is no reasonable solution to a problem, we are still left with the creativity card, aren’t we? The question is: how can we go around the problem with a minimum of collateral damages? I am not a trainer this week, I am a strategy coach… one who yells on top of everything! I do admit I lost my temper a couple of times this week. But, Dave is a great guy and he does not take it personally… Heureusement! Nevertheless, this process is excruciating for the two of us… He fails, I fail also!

Would it cross your mind to give a Grade 5 class a Grade 12 test? I hope not!!! It would be a disaster for those kids’ self esteem and self confidence, wouldn’t it? Well… believe it or not, the experts who design the tests measuring the Canadian civil servants’ abilities in their second language apparently think it is fair to submit everyone to the same tests, disregarding the level they are required to obtain. The gap between an A and a C is huge! Someone with an A level can hardly get by in the second language… Someone with a C level (although ranked as barely functional) is expected to grasp (almost) all the nuances and subtleties of the language… The B level is somewhere in between and its definition has never been clear to me: my understanding is that it is the minimum level you must have in order to be able to fill in any position with the government (only a few positions are described as unilingual English), but this is only temporary since, sooner or later, those positions’ required level is turned into a C.

Would it be that complicated to have two different tests: one to assess the B level and another to assess the C level? Since the actual tests’ content targets both levels, it would take less than one hour to sort out the questions pertaining to each level and then split the test in two… of course, there would not be enough questions on each test, but adding a few more would not be that painful! Anyways it would certainly be less painful for the panel of experts than it is for people who have to write the tests the way they presently are… All it takes is a little common sense! The question is: is there anyone left with such a basic and essential quality in a machine where everything is buried under red tape administration, bureaucracy, documents with no significant content or message?

Language training in the Public Service, after 35 years, is now out of proportions (and somewhat out of control)… This is something (it appears) that was never actually regularly assessed, reviewed, scrutinized or submitted to quality control… I do believe it is only a matter of time before the bomb explodes! Based upon the Canadian Law on Official Languages, it is impossible to rewind the tape and go back prior to 1972… Bilinguism is here to stay (like it or not!)… But, the whole process has to be studied and put back on track with a maximum of efficiency and a minimum of expenses: so much money has been and is currently wasted on this massive training of the Public Service workforce… it is time tax payers enjoy a break!… All it takes is a hero with a bit of common sense

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

The #1 Fear Factor

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

In this series of posts, I will write about topics relevant to on-going language training, answering questions, discussing issues most learners have, facilitating their learning process and much more. My findings are the combined results of andragogical (andragogy is the word used for adult pedagogy) theories and my sound experience in the field.

That being said, I thought of starting this series with the universal myth of AGE… How many times did I hear “I am too old to learn a second language… I cannot concentrate any longer… I cannot remember anything… I wish I had learned French when I was a kid… etc.”? Too many indeed! This is why I always dedicate a couple of hours at the beginning of any training to explain a few facts so that this negative attitude will not affect my trainees’ learning.

Small children actually learn a second language much faster than adults and children in grade school. But not because of their age! It is only due to their lack of reasoning, questioning and knowledge: they are like sponges absorbing anything the world throws at them and they copycat adults. They only do what they are being told to do until they find their own ways and that comes when they develop the ability of reasoning.

Never ask a 4 year old child to translate the word chair in French or the word chaise in English, the answer will be “Duh!”… Small kids divide the world in two: French and English… they do not connect both languages! Yet, when they start reasoning and making that connection, they go through confusion and it is not uncommon for some to spend a year or two refusing to speak either English or French. Fortunately enough, this phase goes away after they figured out the reasons why they were so mixed up! Although some of them stick to their decision of speaking only the language they chose.

Adults (young or older) do not go through development stages as children do and, because of that, they learn differently: they need to understand the whys and the how, they need answers that make sense to them, they need to connect their mother tongue to the second language and they need to make use of their life experience (their best asset in their learning process).

Yes! There are some deterrents to their learning, but those have nothing to do with their age. All depends on their environment and not on their abilities to learn… Young adults are normally fast learners because their school years are not far behind and they have a methodology.

From my own observations, I would say that adults in their thirties and early forties are the ones who struggle the most due to the pace of their personal and professional lives: they are working towards promotions at work, if married, they have small children requiring lots of care and attention, they often have all sort of training going on in order to broaden their knowledge, they are either hockey moms and dads or soccer moms and dads… and most of the time they learn a second language for the mere purpose of getting a promotion! This generation X is seeking results overnight and they easily get frustrated when they realize that learning a language takes time and lots of effort.

Learners in their late forties and over are probably the best learners of all! The Baby Boomers are not as eager to get a promotion because they are already planning their retirement, therefore learning another language is a personal goal rather than a professional one. Their children are adults and do not require their devoted attention any longer so they have more time for themselves: learning a second language is still a challenge for them, but they enjoy it more than their younger peers who feel pressured all the time.

Hopefully this article demystified an old myth and will encourage people of all ages to consider the positive aspects of learning a second language and jump into a pool of fun… because adults are not much different from children: they learn better and faster when the door is open on creativity… But that will be the topic of another article… Stay tuned!