Triviality or… Significance?

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

After a long weekend spent in Montréal, it is time to get back to this blog of mine… Believe it or not, my English is kind of “rusted”! Well… kind of… Let’s say I have to trade my French hat for my English hat! Before I get into the heart of my topic, I want to open a parenthesis. For those of you who follow this blog, you certainly noticed that I have short fuses regarding bad French… especially when I come across ads or road signs. I have been advised several times to just let it go… I am fully aware there is not much I can do to correct this lamentable situation. On the other hand, let it go would mean surrending my rights as a Francophone… and hopefully I will get offended by bad French for as long as I will live! The day I would renounce would be the end of me… Then I would become an assimilated product… BUT! Do not worry… this will never happen!!!

Montréal is the champion of road repairs… there is always something going on, year after year… actually, this city’s road network always look like a giant construction site! When I lived there I paid little attention because it was part of my daily life… now that I live in Ottawa, where road repairs are done in a much less noticeable way, I hate driving in Montréal.  Of course, useless to mention that traffic is bumper to bumper most of the time… yesterday, on my way back home, highway 13 looked like a parking lot: since I was literally sitting in the traffic, I had time to read the road signs. I am so used to the ones I see every day in Ottawa that I almost lost the correct French expressions and words from sight… It was pure delight to see “Accès à la 40 Est barré” instead of “Sortie Moodie fermée”, “Accès au chantier” instead of “Entrée de camions”… I never thought one day I would sit in my car and be overjoyed by road signs… it was like seventh heaven! Unfortunately, this feeling only lasted for 90 minutes: reality hit me hard when I reached Ottawa!!! Oh well… 90 minutes are better than none…

Last week, Joseph had sent me a link to an article written by Colleen Ross, a reporter with the CBC. He thought I would be interested in a recent study showing that people living in two cultures might unconsciously change their personalities when they switch language. Ross, intrigued by this study, wrote that she kind of experienced some change herself: she thinks she adopts a more aggressive behaviour when speaking German and displays more joie de vivre when speaking French. Of course, German is not the most romantic language in the world! I tried and learned it for a while and yes! because of the pronunciation, I do believe I sounded angry all the time! When I flirted with Italian language, because of its fluidity, I felt I sounded too mielleuse… which certainly does not agree with my personality! Since language reflects culture, it somehow activates identity… I really do believe our mother tongue triggers who we are only because, depending on what language we learned first, we do process information differently… Yet I do not believe that switching language modifies personalities or identities.

Unilingual people living in bicultural or multicultural environment are different from the ones living in one culture… only based upon the fact they get exposure to other cultures than theirs. For instance, unilingual Anglophones living in Québec are quite different from those who live in Ontario or Alberta… Even their English is different: they use gallicism the way Francophones use anglicism… they are branching the toaster instead of plugging it… they go to the dépanneur because they do not remember the word in English… they will talk about their kitchen skills instead of their cooking skills… they paint with a spatula because they do not know what a palette knife is for!… they take the métro in Montréal because the word subway was never in usage… they go to the pharmacy… And yes they do exude exuberance and joie de vivre! Without having to switch language!…

Back in the early 90s, I had a couple of students in a large national accounting firm… partners were a mix of Anglophones and Francophones… most of the time, they would not get along too well… referring to each other as “Maudits Anglais” and “Damn Frenchies”… One year they had a three day national conference in Calgary and they all attended. After they came back, I noticed a drastic change regarding rapports between Anglos and Francos… and of course, intrigued, I had to ask “What happened in Calgary? What drug was used in the food?”

The answer I was provided with did not really surprise me… When the Anglophones got to Calgary, they immediatly mingled with the English-speaking crowd, leaving the few Francophones on their own… At dinner, on the first day, they were sitting with colleagues from different cities in Canada when they suddenly realized they had absolutely nothing in common with these guys! Then they could see and hear their Montréal French-speaking colleagues having a blast! When the Anglos at their table started to comment on these loud Québécois and make fun of them, they took sides with no hesitation! They moved to their Montréal colleagues’ table and never looked back…  Afterwards Anglos and Francos reconciled because they had taken consciousness of their similarities… before this experience they had only looked at their differences…

For or against this study’s results, I firmly believe that exposure to bicultural/multicultural environment is a plus and people who stay confined in their own culture are missing out… what they would never do or say due to their cultural background might be acceptable in another culture… therefore are they expressing all facets of who they are or could be?…

“La meilleure façon de ne pas avancer est de suivre une idée fixe”

Jacques Prévert


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…

Urban Myths Die Hard!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I was in Montreal for the long Canada Day weekend… Every time I have a few extra days off, I do love to go back “home”. I got used to my life in Ottawa, but something is missing… it is not quite a city yet (though we now have our share of murders!)… anyways nothing to compare with Toronto or Montreal.

My Montreal’s friends still wonder why I moved in Ontario (I had my personal reasons): we always end up by having those heated conversations around English vs French… they cannot understand why I do not insist on living in French all the time! Well… it would take too much of my energy and… I do not mind switching to English when I cannot get my message across in my mother tongue.

One of them now works for an Association with two branches (Canada and Québec). Of course he has to come to Ottawa often and, on the weekend, he was complaining about the fact no one dares to even try and speak French to him… colleagues as well as Government representatives. Like many other Québécois, he is convinced Anglos are too arrogant to learn and, if they do know French, they will not make an effort.

Do I agree with him? Not quite… Actually those people are terrified! They do not know enough to feel at ease with their second language. Perhaps they would try in a casual setting, but certainly not in a formal meeting!

One of Ottawa’s urban myths is that Anglophones can learn how to speak, understand, read and write French in four months of full-time training! Where does this weird statement come from? I have absolutely no idea! The only thing I am sure of is that every single soul in this town does believe it! Was there someone out there who achieved such a hard task years ago and, then, set the standards for the whole Public Service? God knows!…

Is it ever possible? Unless someone is what I call a faux-débutant, no way! Someone with no knowledge of French (except for a few basics learned in high school) cannot learn in either 4 or 6 months… But! The Public Service of Canada does believe it can be done! The language schools promise they will bring people to a B level in this amount of time (useless to say they do not believe in what they promise!)… and the trainees themselves believe so, until they realize (normally after a few weeks) they will not be able to make it (then, it is the ensuing series of panick attacks and disgust!)…

Consequently, training contracts are extended endlessly until people get their required level. Learning French this way is a traumatic experience, nothing else! For months, they have trainers (who would need serious training themselves!) forcing abstract notions down their throats until they can pass the tests! Therefore… what do you think happens once this dreadful process is over? What would YOU do? Exactly!!! Since they feel inadequate in their second language, they prefer to stick to English!

To my friend in Montreal, I will just say that people he sits with in meetings simply do not know how to use French in real life contexts… Yes! they had training but they never learned how to communicate. Who’s fault is it? Not theirs!… Once again, the system is responsible for this national failure. Why? Because no one seems interested in reviewing an obsolete process that has been in place for so long… Pure laziness? or… refusal to admit one’s guilt?

Until the day someone will stand up and ask for change, this Ottawa’s urban myth will be around and well alive… Who will be brave enough to stop feeding it?

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


Welcome to the Land of “Bienvenue”

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

There is a running joke among my students… one of them, who often has to go to Tunney’s Pasture (a campus with only Public Service buildings located in the Ottawa West-End), renamed this complex “The Land of Bienvenue”. Why? Because every time he says “merci”, Francophones reply with the traditional franglais “bienvenue” (the literal translation for “you’re welcome”)… on the other hand, when someone tells him “merci”, he always replies with either “de rien”, “il n’y a pas de quoi” or “je vous en prie” (the correct expressions to say “you’re welcome” in French). I can imagine those people’s faces: they probably think he is an arrogant Anglo who wants to show off his unfailing French! Too bad, because they would gain to follow his example by correcting their anglicized language…

Due to its geographical location, Ottawa is a nest for contaminated French… because most Francophones in the NCR work for the Government and, consequently, speak English more often than French. Inevitably, both languages are kind of blended in a slang that is specific to this area and that is called “franglais” : a mixture of English and French… actually an unilingual Francophone would have a hard time to understand this language, which is what I refer to as “English syntax with French words”!

Yesterday, I experienced another misunderstanding of that type… I had to call the National Call Service Centre and, by force of habit, I asked for service in French (though everytime I do so, I regret it!). The young woman I spoke to was obviously an Anglophone, but hey! since she was responding to a call requesting French, I assumed she was bilingual… she was! well… kind of! During the whole conversation, I had this imperceptible feeling she was not really grasping what I was saying… being bilingual means grasping nuances and subtleties of the second language. A couple of times, I was tempted to switch to English… then I thought it would be rather rude and I kept dealing with her in my mother tongue although my discomfort was only growing bigger and bigger! She was a charming individual though : very helpful! But not quite ready to deal with technical questions addressed in French.

Later during the day, I received an email notifying me that my request had been forwarded to the Help Desk. Quelle horreur! In the Action Requested field, the question (in English) was not even close to mine… I thought if I were not taking action right away, I would eventually get an answer (but not the one I was looking for) and I would have to start over again… Since I have no patience for red-tape administration, I replied to this email re-phrasing my question IN ENGLISH this time, to make sure there would be no further misunderstanding. A few minutes later, I got a confirmation that my email had been attached to the original request. This morning, I received the answer I was looking for and I was able to move forward!

Of course, nothing is simple when dealing with the Government and I also had to check a couple of things with the Agence du Revenu du Canada. This time, I did not hesitate when I asked for service in French: this Department is located in Shawinigan, Québec and I knew I would talk to someone who would understand me. It took 5 minutes at the most and I had my answer.

There is certainly an effort on my Government’s part to accommodate its French-speaking citizens, but it seems it does not work properly. I consider myself lucky to be fluent in both, French and English, because when I cannot be understood in my mother tongue, I can easily switch to English… although I would prefer to be served in French. But, what about Francophones who are not bilingual? Do they not deserve a better service?

I made a decision this morning: from now on, I will ask for service in English when I will have questions to address to the Public Service of Canada… only because time is money and I have other things to do with my time than waste it on trying to get my message across, when I can do it in my second language and accelerate the process.

This is the Land of “Bienvenue”

Plague… Do you know what Plague is?

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

PLAGUE (Merriam-Webster):

  1. a) a disastrous evil or affliction: CALAMITY b) a destructively numerous influx
  2. an epidemic disease causing a high rate of mortality: PESTILENCE
  3. a) a cause of irritation: NUISANCE b) a sudden unwelcome outbreak

My life has been hit by plague!… A few days ago, I lost a credit card and you can easily imagine the ensuing burden, but! I took it with philosophy since no one had purchased a luxury car with it. Then, yesterday, my automatic garage door literally collapsed! Since my vehicle was not trapped inside, once again I took it lightly… such annoying problems can be fixed, one way or the other. Although I have no control on those, I still have the power to fix them… which is reassuring. Actually I know this epidemic series of small catastrophes are triggered by my current state of mind: I have no more patience left, I am in a bad mood and, as a result, I am careless regarding everyday stuff… I know I was a little too rough on the garage door remote control and I also know I did not make sure my credit card had been put back where it should have been. Consequently I am guilty on all counts!!!

Real plague, on the other hand, is to be trapped into the gears of an incredibly bureaucratic machine that jam at the least sneeze or burp, and being unable to do anything about it! I am not pointing my finger at anyone in particular, though behind any mistakes there is inevitably someone… anyways knowing who is responsible for this mess is not that important because I truly believe errors occur because of a complicated deficient system.

You certainly remember Jenn and Dave from previous posts… Jenn wrote her SLE test June 16 and, as of today, she still did not get her results. Normally she should have received them by last Friday, at the latest… what did happen? We do not know because no one is returning her calls… and, from experience, I doubt anyone ever will! There is not much we can do at this point in time, except WAIT

Dave went for his final round yesterday afternoon : he wrote his Reading test and I felt pretty confident because he is really good in this area. Actually, I was convinced he would get a C rather than the required B. But! my confidence collapsed when he called me and told me they had screwed up made an “error” (once again)!

Six months! We waited six long months before getting a date for his evaluation due to our accommodation request! One would think, after such an endless process, that everything would be perfect

Wrong! It was a mess! Upon his arrival, he has been given the test which was formatted following my instructions but, contained 65 questions… since he did not have the official document with him, he did not argue and wrote the test: he had 2.5 hours to do so… obviously, not enough time and he could not finish! We had requested the short version of 50 questions instead of 65… This morning, we searched his computer and we found the document he had received from the Personnel Psychology Centre at the Public Service Commission: indeed, he was supposed to answer 50 questions in 2.5 hours. I was smoking!!!

He left a message with the person who had taken care of his request at the Personnel Psychology Centre, he wrote an email (with the attached document as proof) to the person in charge of the second language tests in his Department requesting they mark only the first 50 answers of the test he wrote because he refuses to write it again! He has been told they would get back to him some time Thursday… THURSDAY?!?!?!?!

This is PLAGUE: Calamity, Pestilence and Nuisance!!!… So… losing a credit card, having a broken garage door, soaking in the never ending rain and dealing with daily frustration is a joke compared to that!… Try it some day and you will see everything from another angle, I guarantee you!


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


Change is Good Donkey!…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Indeed change should be good… unfortunately it is not always the case! For the past months, I have seen many modifications to the second language evaluation tests in the Public Service: around September 2007, the reading comprehension test’s content was modified (still 65 questions, but longer and more technical texts), in October, the written expression test went from 55 questions up to 80 (of which 30 were texts to read), then at the beginning of June, the latter was cut by 15 questions (too many complaints on the lack of time). Finally the last one of those newbies is the new oral test version that became effective June 16. Apparently we are in the middle of a “school” reform here, but not necessarily in the students’ best interest!

According to the Public Service Commission, people who were assessed with the new oral test during the pilot said it was top notch (well, they did not use those terms but the report was so enthusiastic!)… Strangely enough, I met a couple of people who had been selected to be in the pilot and they said the new test was more rigid than ever… and of course, they failed! Since I am anything but gullible, I tend to believe the people I met rather than the official report! I wonder why!!!…

The former oral test, although rigid, left the door open on “some” creativity and original thinking. At the beginning of the interview, there was a warm-up period so the evaluated person had the opportunity to relax while speaking about hobbies or personal interests. Then there was the series of typical questions related to work (where do you work, what is your position, what are your responsibilities, etc.?) followed by questions on hypothetical situations and personal opinions. At the end, there was a role play (usually a common situation between colleagues or an employee and a manager). In other words, it was easy to anticipate what would be the questions. Generally the test lasted 45 minutes and it looked, more or less, like a conversation… what I am saying is: it was “possible” to turn it into a conversation; something outgoing people used in their favor!

The new test is quite different. It lasts 20 to 40 minutes and is divided in 4 specific activities:

  1. Answer questions
  2. Listen to conversations or voice mail messages
  3. Answer questions on their content
  4. Speak (2-3 minutes) on one of the topics proposed by the evaluator (or the computer?)

There is no room at all for any conversation format. The most innovative part of this new test is that all the questions are selected randomly by a computer (don’t worry, there is still a human being there to ask them! for now anyways…)! Prior to the test, people are asked to fill in a form (something they are used to!), which form is scanned so the computer can select the first series of questions… Do I have to mention that ALL questions are work related? I did not think so either… Same with the questions on the tapes, the computer selects them. The recordings are played twice (with no interruption) prior to the questions… I guess it is also intended to test people’s retention. I know I could not pass such a test: I cannot remember the details of a conversation, especially if this conversation is of no interest to me… same thing with a long voice mail message: I will retain the general content but will easily forget about the specifics! EITHER IN MY MOTHER TONGUE OR MY SECOND LANGUAGE!

When I have trainees to prepare for the tests, 4 or 6 weeks prior to the torture, I have no choice but teach them to the tests (something I truly hate!). With the former oral test version, it was quite easy to come up with questions and role plays similar to those that would come up during the interview. Now? Blank!… those tapes could be about anything… the proposed topics could range from work perfomance evaluation to hiring policies (I know for a fact they love asking questions related to human resources… or should I rather say: they loved?).

This whole reform’s purpose is to better standardize the tests. I am asking you: do you think a language can be “quantitatively” measured? Personally I do not believe so… only “qualitatively”. And, as long as the experts will persist in their utopian idea that it can be done, we will sink deeper and deeper into chaos… unless we already reached the bottom with this last reform…

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

Why do I sometimes Feel like a Second Class Citizen?

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

My students and I often play a game we call Find the mistakes in actual documents written or translated in French. I do believe it is a good exercise because it allows me to talk about some rules I would probably not cover in class and… I can teach them about anglicisms and “faux-amis” (words that are almost the same in both English and French, but have different meanings).

Most of the time, we browse through the Public Service of Canada website and we discuss the texts. This week, we decided to compare posts for job positions within the Government. We picked one that was looking for people to work in Ottawa and another one that was looking for people to work in Shawinigan, Québec.

I could not believe what I read!

Obviously, the document for the position in Québec was written in French and, then, translated in English. Far from being perfect, it was quite acceptable… at least we could clearly understand what they wanted and the choice of words was accurate. I saw a few anglicisms but, in the whole, I thought it was satisfying.

On the other hand, the document for the position in Ottawa was anything, but clear! In French, we talk about compétences linguistiques but in the translated version they were referring to compétence dans les langues officielles (???)… useless to mention “official languages” since we all know they are talking about French and English (unless we now have a third official language I am not aware of!). Anyways I won’t dissect the 6 page document because it would never end! All I can say is that, after having read it a couple of times, I still had no clue what they were looking for… it is when any bilingual Francophone makes the decision to click on English!

My point is: I am a Canadian citizen now living outside Québec and, for some reason, I do feel like a second class citizen in my own country. I think I do know why… I feel this way everytime I come across translated documents. Do translators in the Public Service botch the job??? It looks like it… and the message I get is that I am not worth the effort of trying to communicate in my mother tongue in a way I can understand… it is like telling me (and all Francophones living outside Québec): “Stop complaining, I am addressing you in French although I know I’m doing a poor job at it!”. It looks like it is only about Politics!!! My Government is accommodating me and I should not say a word… because it could be worse… well, there is nothing worse than being insulted! Anyone murdering my language is attacking me personally… it is like telling me I am a second class citizen and I should not be here.

My Government seems to have double standards regarding French… when they are addressing the Québécois, they pay more attention because they know it would not play in favor of federalism in this province already too much distinct! Living in Ontario, I deserve the same respect I deserved when I was living in Montréal… If a Christmas tree is offending to some people, politicians will do anything to please them and they will quickly call it a Holiday tree… What if offending me (and millions of Francophones) with bad French?… Don’t we deserve that this issue be addressed and solutions be brought?…

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…

Don’t we have a Law on Access to Information (ATI) in Canada?

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I usually do not write that often… mainly because I have so little time to myself, spending hours on the road going from one client to another. But, today, I have a break (sort of!) since Jenn and Dave are writing their SLE test. I am kind of hyper, waiting for them to update me on how they did… so I decided to keep my mind busy and focus on something else. Hopefully, this way, time will fly and I will worry less!

What will happen if they fail? Well… they will not have any other choice than going back to be re-tested in one month! In the meanwhile their training contract will be extended (something that rejoices the Language Schools!)… I have seen people spending almost two years away from their jobs in full time training: enough to discourage even the bravest warrior!

Here is how the system works… three or seven days after civil servants have been tested (writing and reading), they receive an official letter with their marks (e.g. 49/65) and the level they obtained (B). If the latter is not the one required for their job position, they are invited to apply for another testing date (it may take more than a month, depending on the monthly date tests are updated: they cannot re-write the same tests). At no time, they can refer to the tests they wrote and there is no document of any kind to give them feedback. Consequently they are in the dark, as well as the individuals in charge of their training. For some inexplicable reasons, those tests are unavailable (even under the Law on ATI) as if they were classified TOP SECRET although they do not content any threat to national security!

On the other hand, there is no such fuss regarding access to tapes. When they are assessed on their oral skills, the whole interview is recorded on tape. When they get their results, if they ever failed, they receive a document pointing out their weaknesses so they know exactly what to focus and work on to make sure they will pass next time. If they wish, they can book an appointment with their trainer/teacher and, together, they can listen to the tape and “see” where the interview went wrong. They are not allowed to take notes but, at least, they know what they have to improve in order to achieve their level.

I do not see why something similar could not be arranged for those who wish to learn from their mistakes in previous writing/reading exams. Of course, I am not suggesting that they get their copies back! This would degenerate into the biggest smuggling in the History of Canada! I just can imagine government employees distributing (or even selling) copies of those tests to the ones scheduled to write within the same month! Although I am not convinced it would help since no one can memorize 65 questions and long texts… yet it would give a pretty good idea on the type of questions asked!

Actually, access to their tests could follow the same procedure as access to their tapes… People could request an appointment with their trainer/teacher and sit in a room with plenty of time to go through the whole tests. It would definitely ease the training process and… the pain! But it seems nobody cares! The Government certainly does not… the civil servants adopted the attitude of defeatism and… the schools? They are not interested in accelerating the process because they are in this business for the $$$… More often their students fail, longer the contracts are… they have no interest in blowing the whistle and seeing their profits decrease! I do think differently… I do not run a school, I do not make my living based upon volume… I built my professional reputation on quality and results… and anything that could help me to target specific needs for a specific goal would be more than appreciated!

I think I do know why access to their tests is denied… first because I suspect no one ever really asked for such access. Unless hundreds (or perhaps even thousands) of civil servants push the issue, I do not believe anyone else has interest to make those tests available. Those who design the tests would not want people starting to file grievances or ask for a review of their tests because they found mistakes : imagine someone like Jenn (and many others) who missed her level by 2 answers having access to her test… based upon the previous tests content, we assume there are potentially enough mistakes (I included some in my post A Breath-taking Plunge into Hades) for her to be able to have her results modified! Such access could provoke unwanted reactions among civil servants, but also among the Public… nothing like this stays secret for very long and, then, the Press would make sure every single Canadian who pays income tax is fully aware… after all, who is paying for this massive training?… No Governement (previous, present or future) would want such a far-reaching possible scandal… Let’s be realistic here: not all Canadians agree on the Official Languages Law and Policies… something like that would only give them ammunition…

But… whatever the reason is, under the Law on the Access to Information, every single civil servant who fails SLE tests has the right to ask! The question is: who will be brave enough to ask first???…

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

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…