To read on more issues about the PSC SLE testing…

If what you read on this blog was of any interest to you,  then follow me on La Dame dragon’s Blog… not only will you have the opportunity to read more interesting articles on issues pertaining to corporate language training, but you will also be able to test your skills in French bi-weekly by taking my little quizzes and tests.

Also, if you are a Canadian public servant or someone who applied for a position within the federal government and are looking for the latest information on the French SLE testing (reading comprehension, written expression and oral interaction), you will certainly get some answers to your questions.  You will also get some useful tips on how to prepare adequately for those tests.

It is an invitation to join me and my loyal readers in a fun environment! You already missed out on many posts since last September… lots of stuff happened, which still inspires my stories!



C’est donc un rendez-vous au

La Dame dragon is Spreading her Wings and Leaving the Nest to Fly on her Own!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

When I started this blog some time in June, I had no clue where it would lead me… I had launched my new website at the beginning of May and, at the time, my web designer had set up an account for me on WordPress… just in case! It actually sat there for almost two months… I have to admit I was quite prejudice to blogging before I started doing it myself! Busy and time challenged, I had never read anything else but newspapers (and books of course!): the dragon was kind of a dinosaur indeed! Although open-minded, I had pre-conceived ideas on blogs… I was convinced people were using the net to rant, vent and write about their daily petty lives and, unfortunately, the first times I visited blogs my opinion was only reinforced! Until the day I logged in my WordPress account and came across many interesting ones: I then started to seriously peruse some posts and I have to say I did discover quite a few gems… So… mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa!

Since I had a knack for writing and sound knowledge in my field of expertise, I thought it could be fun to share my views, opinions and experience through a blog…  though I was not expecting anything out of it at the time.

My greatest challenge was to decide how I would present my topics! Stuff related to Corporate Second Language Training and Evaluation is kind of dry when approached from a theoretical stance… and, since my niche was also quite narrow, I had to find a way to attract readers without having them yawning after the first paragraph, dozing off after the second and snoaring after the third! I knew I could not build readership if I sounded too clinical… Thanks to my creative side and great sense of humor, I came up with the neat idea of introducing my topics using stories with recurrent characters.

My everyday work provides me with tons of topics and anything happening in a classroom is a trigger for a new story. Therefore I slowly introduced my characters one by one and, from there, followed them in their learning process… All of my former and present students saw no harm in using them as my main characters: actually they loooooooove it! Even Dave, who at the beginning was a little reluctant, finally agreed that using his devastating experience with the PPC at the Public Service Commission of Canada regarding his needs for accomodation was serving a greater purpose: his story created awareness among civil servants in Second Language training and informed them about their rights (information that is often shadowed by their employer)…

De fil en aiguille, de bouche à oreille, my readership grew… my students, their colleagues, their families, their friends… civil servants seeking information regarding SLE tests… individuals interested in the field… Because of my followers and growing number of readers, I decided it was time to move on… and have my blog connected to my website on my domain name… Et c’est maintenant chose faite! This blog moved to:

Thanks to my web/blog designer marti garaughty, The Blog Artist, who connected both my sites to make them interactive and created a pretty HOT blog with my unique brand… My new Blog will still be about Issues pertaining to Corporate Language Training and Evaluation (and related ideas) and my readers will be able to continue following my characters and their tribulations. We added new features (which were originally on my website) such as Correct your mistakes!, References and Tools, Suggestions and What’s on… pages that I will be now able to update myself as often as I want to keep you well informed…

You are invited to enter La Dame dragon’s Den

and enjoy a journey in my professional life!…

Thank you all!

See you there soon! 😉

The 3 Sacred Rules of the Holy French Grammar!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Rule #1, rule #2, rule #3… Do you know them? Well… ask Seema then! She can recite them on the tip of her fingers! None of the previous rules we covered in class ever sank in so quickly and so deeply… and God knows that rules on the agreement of the past participle are pure non sense! Therefore it is not easy to teach them… all I know for sure is that we need to apply those rules, otherwise we will look (and even sometimes sound!) illiterate. For years I tried to come up with some rational explanations regarding their purpose and, unfortunately, I never found anything that could ease my students’ pain… Of course, I could choose to shadow those weird rules. Perhaps they are not taught in classes where French is viewed as a foreign language (Diane could enlighten me on that!), but here French is either people’s mother tongue or second language… it is not part of the foreign language curriculum: both English and French are the official languages of Canada. Consequently, we cannot avoid rules based upon their non sense and difficulty level… There are no differences in the way we teach either French or English as a native language and a second language. Francos and Anglos are equally in agonies when they learn French grammar… I tend to say it is only fairness!!! And somewhat it creates awareness among recalcitrant Anglos who think that French is a second class language (heureusement, c’est une espèce en voie d’extinction! à tout le moins dans l’Est du Canada…)… once they start learning it, they have more respect (if not admiration) for Francophones…

The three basic rules on the past participle agreement are no exceptions… Teaching them (as well as learning them) is like pulling teeth. Since there is no logic, I summarize and present them in a crude manner:

Rule #1: “Être”

The past participle ALWAYS agrees with the subject of the verb

e.g.: Elle (subject, f. s.) est allée (f. s.) au cinéma hier

Rule #2: “Avoir”

The past participle agrees with the direct object IF and ONLY IF this direct object is placed in front of the verb

e.g.: Elle a écrit (no change) sa lettre (direct object) / Elle l‘ (direct object, f. s.) a écrite (f. s.)

Rule #3: “Les verbes pronominaux”

a) verbes essentiellement pronominaux – Rule #1

e.g.: Elle (subject, f. s.) s’est soudainement souvenue (f. s.) de ce jour-là

b) verbes accidentellement pronominaux – Rule #2

e.g.: Elle s‘ (direct object, f. s.) est lavée (f. s.) / Elle s’est lavé (no change) les mains (direct object) / Elle se les (direct object, f. pl.) est lavées (f. pl.)

I am quite flexible when I give explanations, but when I do teach those three rules I keep everything simple and I do not dig any further: they are complex enough and pushing too far would only confuse my students. All they have to do is: memorize, memorize, memorize and then apply, apply, apply until it becomes a reflex…

Exceptionally last week Seema, James and Dave attended the same class… Since both James and Dave will have to write or re-write their grammar tests soon, I saw an opportunity for them to review those sacred three rules (which are widely used as traps in government exams!). Seema and I had ended our last class just before rule #3, therefore I moved on knowing that both James and Dave could help her understanding this last basic rule on the past participle agreement. She had already learned the two first rules and she was quite at ease applying them… and surprisingly she had not put her complicated analytical thinking at work… her grinder was off! I thought it would go rather smoothly with the last (but not the least!) rule…

I am usually very patient with my students… well… read me: usually!!! When I lose my temper, it is mostly due to my trainees’ tendency to peel every layer of every small rule… for some reasons, it pushes the right button! And… I’m passionate! One of my very French traits!

After a quick review of rule #1 and rule #2, I asked the guys “When do you apply rule #3?” Dave turned to Seema and said “you have two types of verbs and you…” I then stopped him and repeated my question… Same analytical answer from Dave. Then James jumped into his peer’s explanation and went on with another even longer one… Bingo! I had already raised my voice by two or three notes but at that point I just yelled at both of them “Are you listening to my question? When I ask you a simple direct question, just answer it and don’t start with the justification!” I just could not believe it! They both looked at me saying “Yes but we do have two types of verbs…” Okay guys, time off! “When I ask you when you do apply rule #3, the answer should be: when using pronominal verbs! End of the story!” Useless to say that Seema was looking at me with her big eyes… in total dismay! Of course, she knew about my occasional outbursts yet she had never been a witness on the front line! On the other hand, James and Dave did not make a big fuss of it… only because they are kind of used to my ways by now…  They know it is for their own good! 😉

Later that day, on our way back from our evening at the theater Seema said she had a real good understanding of rule #1, rule #2 and rule #3… actually she had never learned something so quickly in her entire life! I guess she will never forget those three golden rules in French!

The next morning she talked to Alice about the three rules on the past participle agreement… then she recited them… when she got to rule #3, Alice said she had no recollection of this specific rule (if she had ever learned it!)… Seema’s answer was “Well… now you know it!” Alice’s last comment was “Maybe I need to be yelled at more often, then I would remember all the rules!”

Yesterday, almost a week later, Seema came to class and we moved on with exercises on rule #3… for the very first time in my entire career, I did not have to refresh a student’s memory: those three very important rules are engraved in Seema’s brain forever… and I know she will not fall into traps when she will write her grammar test. Three little non sense rules that can make a huge difference between a B and a C

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

“Je ne veux pas aller à l’école, car on y apprend des choses que je ne sais pas.”

Marguerite Duras


The Ultimate Test: Less Challenging than Anticipated!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Last Wednesday we had a guest speaker… Exceptionally Seema, James and Dave attended class together that day. I took advantage of this rare opportunity for asking Elmadi to stop by and gave us his impressions regarding his oral test.

Elmadi had just returned from one year full time FSL training after having obtained the required levels (reading, written expression and oral expression) of his position. I was interested in having his testimonial because I had no clue regarding the new oral test implemented June 16, 2008. Of course I had read a document providing an exhaustive description of this new test, but I had never actually spoken with someone who had taken it. After I heard that Elmadi was back to work, I asked Dave to invite him to pay us a visit so we all could learn from his experience.

I was not sure whether he would accept or not… actually it was quite intimidating: I was asking him to do a presentation in French in front of his colleagues and, even worse, in front of their teacher who could judge the quality of his second language. I do not know many civil servants who would be willing to put themselves in such a situation… it is like being tested again! Yet Elmadi (a real gentleman by the way) accepted with grace… Of course I could have had met with him on my own, but I thought it would be very useful for my students (who will soon have to be tested) to hear the scoop from a colleague who had gone through the same painful process: months of training, ups and downs, frustrations, worries, anxiety, etc.

He finally knocked on our door some time around 11 o’clock that morning… I was kind of surprised to see he was totally at ease with me… Obviously, as a rookie, he had not heard about me yet! Without necessarily looking for it, I have the reputation of being a dragon and I doubt there is anyone left in this building who is not a bit scared of me! Rumors as well as reputation travel rather quickly in a workplace… In a way I am glad he was introduced to me before he will be told how “mean” the French teacher is!… Actually I am not mean, I am only tough! But viewed from the outside, my unique personal way of dealing with problems in the classroom may be misinterpreted…

Apparently learning French was difficult for Elmadi… yet is there anyone out there for whom it is not difficult? Even the ones who seem to learn with easiness encounter walls sooner or later! How delightful it was to hear his first words “Ne vous inquiétez pas, l’examen oral est facile… très facile!”… Since I had never heard someone say something like this about the oral test, I must admit I was a bit skeptical! Either the Public Service Commission lowered its evaluation standards or Elmadi was on some really good drugs that day! The test description I had read a couple of months ago had not left me under the impression it was easy and even less “very” easy… But I had no reasons for doubting Elmadi’s word! His statement was undeniably sincere…

I was very surprised when he said in the first part of the exam he was asked only two or three questions (the description said six)… I wanted to know if it were accidental, but he confirmed it was the usual trend. Great! According to him, those questions are more or less a mise-en-train“Où travaillez-vous? Où votre bureau est-il situé? Quelles sont vos principales tâches?”… A real bonus indeed!

In the second part, he had to listen to four recordings… “Mais très simples… de courts messages téléphoniques de 10 à 30 secondes chacun max!” Incroyable mais vrai!!! I asked him to provide us with some samples. The two first recordings sounded like this: “Bonjour, je vous rappelle que la réunion du conseil d’administration aura lieu demain matin à 9h”, “Bonjour, veuillez prendre note que la réunion du 2 septembre a été reportée au 4, à 14h”, “Bonjour, je vous ai envoyé les documents que vous m’avez demandés. Vous devriez les recevoir demain au plus tard.” The two last ones involved two people having a very short phone conversation. Then, the assessor asked him to summarize those messages and conversations… since they were very short, all he had to do was to basically repeat the whole thing. On top of it, he was allowed to take down notes on paper… Gee! L’enfance de l’art quoi!

I expected him to tell me that the third part of the test was much more difficult… On the contrary he said it was quite easy. Of course, this testimonial is based upon Elmadi’s opinion… some other people might think differently. Any oral test will always remains subjective… no one will ever convince me that it is possible to evaluate oral proficiency objectively! The Commission’s panel of experts can spend years and years on modifying the tests yet they will never be purged of personal opinions and subjective assessments. Anyways… je retourne à mes moutons!

So… in this third part of the exam, the assessor proposed him three topics and he had to choose one he would like to talk about. He was given 1.5 minute to prepare his 2 minute monologue : sort out his thoughts, organize them in a coherent manner, etc. He said those two minutes, when he talked, went by very fast…

Finally, there was the fourth part which is usually reserved for people being assessed for a C level. Elmadi had probably done quite well in the previous parts because the assessor made the decision to try and push further. Most of the time, it is the best way to determine if a candidate who displayed good skills is actually a B or may possibly be a C. Obviously Elmadi was a good B and not a C… I was kind of relieved to hear him say this last part was very difficult because, at that point, I was concerned about the Commission’s standards regarding bilinguism!

Once again, he had to listen to a tape… but this time, the recording was much longer and the topic was abstract (well… someone with a C level is expected to speak about abstract notions and concepts!)… afterwards he was asked a series of questions ” Êtes-vous d’accord sur la façon dont le gestionnaire a répondu à son employé?”, ” Si vous aviez été à la place de cet employé, auriez-vous tenté de trouver une autre solution?” … et ainsi de suite… He actually did answer, but he was not able to elaborate on the topic. Consequently, he received a B… and it is what he was tested for. He now meets the requirements of his position in reading, written expression and oral expression… Elmadi will be able to relax until he will be re-tested in five years. My recommendation is that he tries and maintains his French level (by using it!!!) so he will not have to go on training again…

À la lumière de cet exposé, if my trainees show confidence, keep focused on answering questions in a simple manner and avoid analyzing everything… chances are Dave, James, Susan and Jessica will get their B level easily (and Seema later on… she still has a long way to go before her testing). I am a little less confident about Alice’s performance… not because she is not close to a C, only because my gut feeling tells me the oral test standards for the B were considerably lowered and I am afraid the standards for the C were raised… By 2010, most positions that are currently BBB will be turned into CBC… therefore I do think a B will become what an A is now: nothing! No candidates are actually tested for the obtaining of an A… the minimum requirement being a B, someone getting a lower level is considered unilingual. It looks like competencies’ inflation to me!… People might need more and more skills to prove their competence in their second language…

Elmadi’s presention was good… he was at ease and quite confident… yet if he had been tested with the older version of the oral test, he would have failed his B… My assessment is based upon the Commission’s criterias before June 16, 2008… it has nothing to do with Elmadi’s communication competencies in French… His message was conveyed in a way we all understood. And I want to thank him personally for his time and insight… I do believe he managed to reassure those who will pass the oral test very soon. The more we know, the more we will be ready to face the music…

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

“Il n’y a pas de problème; il n’y a que des solutions. L’esprit de l’homme invente ensuite le problème.”

André Gide


An Image is Worth 1,000 Words…

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Yesterday was our evening at the theater! For me it is very important that my students get the essential exposure to French Canadian culture… I refuse to confine them in a classroom doing grammar and practicing for their tests. They need to breathe some fresh air and take the pulse of the real world… Perhaps am I exceeding what I am asked to do… Perhaps am I too demanding of my trainees… Perhaps should I just do my job and go back home after class…

Well… I cannot! The idea of teaching them for the mere purpose of writing tests and passing an oral interview kills me! I want them to learn French for life… I want them to use their second language as much as they can… I want to give them the will to “live” in French beyond the government tests… I want them to have a choice… I want to pick their curiosity enough so they will wish to maintain their knowledge of the language. It is also vital that they understand the French world surrounding them…

Unlike other language providers, I take my trainees out regularly… it is a reward for their hard work. Although having dinner and attending a play in French was pretty difficult for them, especially Seema who is a beginner, they all had the time of their lives… and they are looking forward to repeating the experience.

The Théâtre de l’Île in Gatineau is a wonderful spot… Built in 1886, this former Château d’eau had many vocations throughout the years. Ravaged by a fire in 1974, the Hull City Council and the National Capital Commission joined their efforts, in 1976, to create the very first municipal theater in Québec.

Le Théâtre de l'Île situé dans le Vieux Hull

Le Théâtre de L'Île situé dans le Vieux Hull

Since an image is worth a thousand words, I thought of posting pictures of our evening instead of trying and describing it with simple words… Look at the smiles and be the judge!…

Dîner sur la terrasse du Théâtre de l'île, entourées de magnifiques jardins

Dîner sur la terrasse du Théâtre de l'Île entourée de magnifiques jardins

Tout juste avant le lever du rideau

Tout juste avant le lever du rideau

The teacher seems more exhausted than her students!

The teacher seems more exhausted than her students!

La Dame dragon, James and Seema after the play

La Dame dragon, James and Seema after the play

La Dame dragon, James and Alice... still smiling!

La Dame dragon, James and Alice... still smiling!

The three survivors of a long evening!

The three survivors of a long evening!

I dedicate this post to three brave “soldiers”, Alice, Seema and James, who were not afraid to jump into French… swim for their lives and… win the Gold Medal!!! In my book, this experience was the real test for them (and much more enjoyable!), not a fake test in some artificial setting like the ones they will have to take… Chapeau mes amis!

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

“Les deux pieds sur le sol, on ne peut apprendre grand-chose sur le saut en chute libre.”

Joyce Maynard

Photo Credit – Le Théâtre de l’Île:


La Rentrée!… Open House, Free Assessments, Freebies, Contests and More!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

GOTCHA!… Of course I will not be doing any of the above! First, I do not run a school… Second, serious thorough level and need assessments take time and there is a price tag attached to it… Third, in my field, I do not see the relevance of giving away pens or keychains with my name on it… And finally, and not the least, when I hold contests people have to work in order to win! The prizes? Fun and Pride!!! At the end, each participant is a winner!…

There is fierce competition here in Ottawa among language schools… actually, there are too many of them… they grow like mushrooms! Speaking of mushrooms… I will have to take my students to the movies again soon (we will first attend dinner and play this week! Let’s not be too greedy here…)… The last time we were at Starcité in Gatineau, we saw the trailer of a new Québec movie: “Truffe” with Céline Bonnier and Roy Dupuis. I do not really know what the whole story is about, but it appears a group of people starts growing truffles in Montréal’s underground… truffles suddenly being the modern “or noir” (black gold)! And from what I saw, the plot seems to be quite spooky! A must see!

Where was I? Oh yeah… language schools growing like mushrooms in Ottawa! Most of them have been established for quite a good number of years and they are unique… by that, I mean they do not belong to a school chain… the bulk of their students are civil servants. In other words, they mostly contract with the Public Service Commission of Canada… in order to be on the standing offer list of language providers, they have to answer tenders… just doing that is time consuming and, most of the time, they have people dedicated to that sole task! Since the training program is provided by the Commission for groups, the competition is more or less based upon their location, the physical environment and their facilities (for instance, how many fridges? how many phones? how many classrooms? how many parking spaces? how many Tim Horton’s or Starbucks in the surroundings? how many windows? and… I am not kidding!)… On top of group training, they also provide one-on-one training… usually, the “client” (a civil servant in a management position) picks three schools from the list, pays them a short visit and makes a choice based upon feelings more than upon anything else… Sometimes, future trainees are strongly suggested to pick one school over another: if not from their employers, from their peers who are there or went there! Yet their final decision is rarely made on the program content itself (since there is no real structured program, all depends on who their teachers are!).

Then there are those international language schools that have roots all over the world: their prime vocation is to welcome foreign students for several months so they can learn English in the Canadian National Capital… some of them also teach several foreign languages (Spanish, Italian, Chinese, German, Polish, Greek, etc.)… It did not take them long to figure out there were also great opportunities for French training in Ottawa! The government is kind of the city’s milk cow regarding language training and, of course, those schools want their share of the cake! I doubt they are on the providers’ list for group training… it would exceed their physical accomodation capacities, unless they would rent more space in different buildings across the city. Therefore they are not really threatening for the other schools… yet they have a plus with tenders requiring training in many Canadian locations at the same time (Ottawa, Toronto, Vancouver, Montréal, Calgary, Winnipeg, etc.).

Since those schools “à caractère international” are focusing on one-on-one training, they bank on stuff that will be appealing to civil servants… physical environment, classrooms’ comfort, their “nice” approach and their perfect understanding of the necessity to balance personal and “academic” lives (and a bit of condescension to top everything!)… Unlike the other schools, they use full pages in local newspapers to advertize and explain their programs.

Joseph, a long time student of mine (who, by the way, is not a civil servant… he is a self-employed communication consultant), is one of my best informants : curious and witty, he loves to poke up my fire!!! Last week, he gave me an ad/article he had read in some newspaper. It was about one of those international language schools trying to attract manna!

I do not really know where it comes from but all those schools like to call themselves “Academy”… it sounds kind of obsolete to me. The one I am talking about here is not different with regard to this designation… The article was to invite people (read civil servants) to attend their Open House sessions held over a five day period… an opportunity to meet with the faculty, have a free level and need assessment, receive gifts and get a chance of winning tickets for some popular show in town.

The “faculty”? I beg your pardon but, here in this country, only universities have faculties… and they refer to their faculty staff (made of professors!), a faculty not being people! “Meet with our staff” would have been much more appropriate! I bet this school originates from Europe (like most of the other international language schools established in the NCR)… And trust me, none of their teachers deserves the title of a faculty member… even those with PHDs do not since their expertise is not in Linguistics, Andragogy or plain Adult Education (if so, they would be teaching in university, not in a a private language school where they are more than underpaid!)…

Then there is a long article promoting their services… with of course a diatribe against their competitors accusing them (indirectly) of wasting their students’ valuable time by giving them ineffective lessons and using poorly thought-out learning strategies (I admit I kind of agree with that although I do believe there are some language schools that are good and get results… the trick is to find them! and for some reason, I do not think this particular school attacking the others belongs to the cream!…). On the other hand, I did not read anything substantial about their very own program… words and only words with no real meaning… They emphasize on support, practical and motivational advice, adults’ need accommodation (some explanation here would have been a great idea!) and flexibility… nothing on how they teach and achieve goals…

When I meet with a potential client, I do talk about my method, my approach and my program in plain English… I show my books, I explain both my method and out-of-the-box approach, I show them past tangible results and I do not talk about anything else than corporate FSL training! And I never leave a meeting by giving them promotional articles with La Dame dragon written on them! But hey! if they ever really want something from me, other than my expertise, they can go on my web site and download my artistic La Dame dragon wallpaper for their computer screens… this way they will have me right in their faces all day long!…

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

“Il faut s’attendre à tout en politique, où tout est permis, sauf de se laisser surprendre.”

Charles Maurras, homme politique français


Trivia Games… Definitely not Flattering for the Ego!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

Thursdays are pizza days at the cafeteria of the building where most of my students are working… Usually I have lunch with either Dave or James and… when they are not available, I ask Seema to join me… Wednesday James told me he could not make it this week because he was part of a team for Trivia from 12:00 to 1:00 P.M. When I asked Seema, she said she was also part of a team with Alice… Then I was invited to go and sit (quietly of course!) behind Alice, so I could observe. Hey!… why not? I thought it could be fun!

When I got there, Seema had already grabbed a chair for me and I ended up between her and Frédéric… of course I was not supposed to participate since each team was made of 4 players… BUT! how is it possible to keep your mouth shut? Actually, it is impossible! Even more impossible when you have a big mouth like mine!!! Although I was not of a big help to the team… shame on me!!!

The first 10 questions were about Canada… Pfff! a piece of cake, n’est-ce pas?… False! The team was made of three non-native Canadians: Seema (Indian), Alice (South-African with Scottish background) and Rod (Hong Kong Chinese)… the fourth participant was a young Québécois pure laine, Frédéric. Since I was kind of part of the team by default, we were actually two native Canadians from Québec. Finally we were quite an interesting brochette and we were hopeful to do well…

We were disenchanted right at the beginning… Our glaring inaptitude sent us down the dumps and none of the following questions ever raised our spirits… Five intelligent and well educated people who could not answer basic questions on geography or History… Both Alice and Seema studied in British Columbia and they were able to name the highest mountain… But when we were asked about the largest lake, we all agreed on Superior Lake (one of the Great Lakes) based upon its name… Duh!… the right answer was Huron Lake… To the question “what day was celebrated the 400th Anniversary of Quebec City?”, we all knew it was at the beginning of July and we voted for the 4th although Alice was convinced it was the 3rd… well… she was right! Useless to say both Frederic and myself wanted to cringe under the table! Two Québécois de souche, beaten by a South-African woman!!! Shame on us!!! Then we were asked to give the name of the longest bridge in our country. We all have been on that bridge at some point in our lives… we could tell the location, but we arbitrarily wrote “Centennial”… the answer was “Confederation” and, how generous of the scrutineers… they gave us half of a point! I am convinced James got the answer right since he is originally from Nova Scotia, and his team got one full point!…

Alice, Seema and Rod had an excuse for not knowing certain things related to Canadian History and geography… but what excuse did Frédéric and I have? Since we are no morons, I will say it is due to the Québec Nationalism… in school, we were taught about every little detail related to Québec and then about the world: I hardly remember anything that was said about the rest of Canada… Okay, my excuse sucks! But I will hold on to it so I will not feel too stupid… We did not do well on those 10 questions because of the Québécois’ natural penchant for contemplating their own belly buttons… Right Frédéric?

In the ensuing rounds, I (and probably the other players too!) banked on Frédéric’s age to come up with the correct anwers to questions on movies, TV shows, actors, etc… Well… I realized age had nothing to do with Trivia: it had to do with personal interests and taste… Frédéric shared with me that he did not watch television, therefore… he was not more knowledgeable than the rest of us… As for myself, I only managed to come up with one good answer in the Movie category: Ghandi! I thought Seema would know right away… NOPE! It appears we know more about other countries than our own… except for the Americans, of course!

Our answers on The Olympics were probably our best… Rod and Alice seemed quite well informed on that topic… I would have wished Diane (the French teacher from Michigan) had been part of our team, or at least, I had had access to her blog during the game… a couple of weeks ago, she had written a post answering the very same questions that were asked yesterday… I had read it and I thought I had learned something… indeed, I had… but apparently it never sank in… once again, I realized that information retention was linked to interest… and since I never was an Olympics’ fan, I am not surprised I sucked in this round also! Finally… we did not do great, although we were not the worse players. Alice said something that stayed on my mind all day… she had the correct answer to a question and Rod asked her if she was sure “Yes I’m sure! For once, I can show I have an education!”

Of course, being a thinker, I did not stop pondering on what happened yesterday… I do not really know what the other players’ interests are, but I know mine well: any questions related to arts, literature, cinéma d’auteur, fashion, philology, ethymology, languages or traveling would have been easy for me to answer… as for Alice, I am convinced she would have been terrific in a round on cycling!

Knowledge, in fact, is based upon individual interests… we all may have heard of the same stuff (in school or elsewhere), but we did not necessarily “learned” it… I hated physics, maths, statistics, biology and chemistry… and I do not remember anything of what was ever said in class… on the other hand, I have vivid recollection of latin and greek… although I do think I forgot most of it, I know I could do either a latin version or thème quite easily. Same thing with all those old languages I learned in university some 25 years ago (picard, anglo-normand, occitan, francien), I know for sure I can sit down and read texts written in any of these languages and understand them naturally…

Learning occurs when learners are interested in the subject… learning is about knowledge retention… I can hear the same information day after day and it will never stay with me, only because I could not care less!

This is the reason why it is so important for me to get my students interested: not in French itself, but rather in the way it is presented to them… Teaching them only with work related stuff is not a good idea: they need to read, write, hear and talk about stuff that arouses their curiosity and appeals to their personal interests… otherwise, the second language will never stick with them for very long. Perhaps for the few minutes their oral evaluation test will last… but never beyond…

“Je suis un écrivain célèbre dans un pays qui ne lit pas. Souvent, quand les gens me reconnaissent, ils me disent qu’ils aiment beaucoup mes films.”

John Grisham, écrivain américain

I do not Need to Do Anything! Do you? Yet… I Have to!

by Lyne des Roberts alias La Dame dragon

I am kind of time challenged this week… believe it or not, we are already at the end of August! Summer Holidays are over and school will start next week… I am under the impression summer went by without having seen it! It is probably due to the non stop shitty weather we had… actually I am still waiting for summer to arrive! Well… not really… I finally gave up hope this morning: 7 degrees Celsius was the wake up call I needed to resign myself to the consequences of Global Warming…

Dave returned from PEI, rested and rusted as well! It was not a big surprise… two weeks away, in a place where French is almost non existing, what can one expect? Not much… I am used to it, therefore he will need a good refresher and I can handle it without getting too frustrated! The Holidays’ aftermath comes with the job!

Before the “warm” season is over, I decided to organize one last “pedagogical” activity : dinner and theater “en français”… The young crowd took a raincheck so, once again, only the crooners will attend… James hates when I refer to us as “crooners”, he prefers the use of “more mature”… whatever James! If it makes you feel better… but it will not make you feel younger! This time, he was the one in charge of booking the tickets (I always delegate this part to a student: I do believe it is good practice!)… Il s’en est tiré avec brio! Of course, making reservations through the net is much easier than over the phone… but still… he had to deal with an unilingual web site where all instructions were in French! Clicking on the right icon was kind of imperative… otherwise we could have ended up having dinner on Wednesday and attending the play on Thursday (which would have been quite inconvenient for everybody!)… BUT! we are all set for next Wednesday.

Okay… I have digressed enough! I now need to focus on the topic of this post… Yeah… I need to… or do I have to?… Là est toute la question et… entre les deux, mon coeur balance! When I first arrived in Ottawa, I thought people here were quite needy: “I need to do this… I need to finish that… I need to go there… I need to be out of here by… I need to talk to you… I need to call this guy…” Actually I never really paid attention when Anglophones were using the expression need to… I started to notice it when I kept hearing Francophones using avoir besoin de the same way Anglos use it: “J’ai besoin de faire ceci… j’ai besoin de finir cela… j’ai besoin d’aller là… j’ai besoin d’être sorti d’ici avant… j’ai besoin de te parler… j’ai besoin d’appeler ce type…” YIKES!!! Of course, all this was part of the “franglais” repertoire so specific to this area… I knew I could not do much in order to fix the misuse of avoir besoin… I do hate bad French, but I do not have the soul of a missionary either! On the other hand, I could never let it go in class… I thought Anglophones “needed” to know the proper usage of this expression in French.

Monday, the problem arose once again… Last week, Seema had learned new idiomatic expressions such as avoir hâte, avoir envie, avoir le temps, avoir l’air, avoir la chance, avoir peur and, of course, avoir besoin… I had given her homework asking her to come up with a series of sentences using those expressions followed with de and a verb. She did well until she reached the famous avoir besoin de… then her sentences sounded “English”… Once more, I had to explain the usage of that idiomatic expression in a French context: unless it is a matter of life or death, we do not use avoir besoin de, we rather use devoir (must/have to)… For instance a sentence like this one in English “I need to see you after work” is translated with “Je dois te voir après le travail” or “Il faut que je te voie après le travail” in French… Of course, Francophones also have needs, but not this type of needs… Saying “J’ai besoin d’air… (I need some air…)” is correct…

People who study French are proud of their new knowledge and, at the beginning of their training, they like to spread it around and share their discoveries with their colleagues (especially the Francophones)! It sounds perfectly natural to me, but apparently I am an exception! In 2000-2004, I had a full time contract with the PSAC to train many of their employees… over the four years I spent there, I gained the reputation of being the Dragon Lady or worse, the Slave Driver… among my students, those nicknames were endearing… yet not so endearing among the Francophones who believed I was a snob from Montréal… using the 24 hour system, petit déjeuner for breakfast, déjeuner for lunch and dîner for dinner! In other words I was their worse nightmare come true and I was considered as a pest… did I care? NOPE!!! My job was to teach these Anglos how to communicate efficiently in a business oriented context… Street French cannot be used in the workplace! It only conveys a bad image and I never understood why Francophones around here would be so recalcitrant to polish their business image…

One day, after class, Catherine (one of my students in a beginners’ class at the time) had attended a meeting led in French… I had just taught the proper usage of avoir besoin… During the meeting, she had heard Francophones using that very same expression numerous times in the wrong context (i.e. with the English meaning). Later that day, during a coffee break, she asked some colleagues who had been attending the same meeting why they had not used the verb devoir instead… before they could answer, she proudly went on with the explanation I had given in class earlier. She was in the middle of a sentence when she suddenly felt a dozen of dirty looks on her and her boss asking PAAAAARDON????” She then started stammering and said she probably was wrong… having confused the rules… and she ended up apologizing… For what for God’s sake? For having tried to educate them on the proper use of avoir besoin in French? Catherine is probably the most diplomatic person I ever met and I doubt she did it with arrogance… she indeed was only proud to share her new knowledge with French-speaking colleagues. The next day, she told us about the tribulations of the day before… that day, all the employees enrolled in French made a pact: anything that would be said in class would stay in class forever… and for four years, they hold on to their promise!

I saw this happen more than once in different places afterwards… and it saddens me… These people are only enthusiastic about their French classes, their new knowledge and their learning progress… It does not take long before they realize they should keep their mouth shut outside the classroom… It seems they do not get any encouragement from the native French-speakers… If I were asked why, I would be tempted to say it is only because they are envious of them… but I could be wrong… it might be because, for years, Francophones were the only ones with bilingual positions and perhaps they feel threatened by this new hord of bilingual Anglos…

“Pour certains, les contrariétés sont un prétexte au découragement. Pour d’autres, c’est une incitation à se surpasser.”

François Garagnon

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


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

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