In Part 1 of the Oral Exam (the introduction / mise en train i.e. warm-up), there are lots of little questions that they can ask you about, and they boil down to two types.
TYPE 1 – DIRECT QUESTIONS
The first type includes simple questions like how is the weather, where do you work, etc., and these require one sentence answers, basically confirming you understood the question. For my work at the training centre, it includes simple introductions, directions, the workplace and routines. The first group is around simple introductions that ask things like:
- What is your name (comment t’appelles-tu? comment vous vous appellez?);
- What is your educational background? (quelles études avez-vous faites?) — j’ai étudie en matiere d’administration publique [et à la faculté de droit]. (x avoir pris, use “avoir suivi des cours de…”; avoir un diplome en; x compléter, use effectuer)
- Where do you work (Où travaillez-vous?) — je travaille au ministère d’Emploi et Développement social Canada;
- Are you originally from Ottawa? (etes-vous originaire d’Ottawa?) — Non, je ne suis pas originaire d’Ottawa, je suis de Peterborough. [other options: Je suis né à….Ma ville natale est…];
- How are you? (comment allez-vous?) — je vais bien, ca va bien.
TYPE 2 – DESCRIPTION
The second type asks for a description of four or five sentences, just enough detail to show you can answer without going down into the weeds too far. With a lot of exams, they’ll ask you one or two (or even none) and jump immediately to Part II.
You still have to be ready for them, and in my case, they are not no-brainers. I’ve mentioned in previous posts that I *SUCK* at transactional french, where I get asked a simple five word question and I have to respond direct and simply. It is so artificial and superficial that my brain locks up. It’s acceptable to respond to the question of how is the weather with “it’s nice” (il fait beau). That’s it, that’s all, keep it moving. It’s ridiculous. But it is to get you talking, feel more at ease and then get you past any nervousness and on to the real questions. In the past, there are lots of people who did the tests and felt afterwards that the opening actually determined their level — if they did well in the opening, they think the person got enough info to say, “Okay, probably a B, let’s test that a bit”, or “Oh, good quality, includes an opinion, definitely close to C, let’s that a bit too”. More of an upfront indicator that was confirmed or denied through the subsequent test. It isn’t supposed to work that way, but it would be the odd examiner who wouldn’t get SOME indication from your opening phrases as to where you might fall on the spectrum.
I’m actually more at ease with the description ones, although even then, some of them seem RIDICULOUS. Who in their right mind would ever ask me to describe in detail my morning commute, complete with where I turned, and if I turned left or right. Sure, it’s good to be able to do that, but if I was an examiner and had to listen to that for every client, I’d want to shoot myself. Unless the client was secretly Batman, that might be interesting, but the rest of us? Not so much.
And in that vein, practicing isn’t about memorizing a routine or module, it’s about thinking about possible questions in advance so you know “what” you might say. In other words, if you get asked it in the exam, you don’t want your answer hinging on the content as you think of what to include, making it look like you can’t speak. No different from a job interview, you don’t want the first time you think of how you have dealt with a difficult co-worker to be during the actual interview.
A. My commute
My answer will likely revolve around five elements:
- Je dépose mon fils, Jacob, à l’école, près de rue Greenbank.
- Après cela, je suit le chemin Greenbank jusqu’à l’avenue Carling et tournez à droite.
- Je continue tout droit sur l’avenue Carling jusqu’à la sortie de l’autoroute de la rivière des Outaouais.
- L’autoroute se termine au pont de Champlain, et je suive le pont au grand complexe de Portage à Gatineau.
- Il ya une entrée au garage de stationnement sous le complexe, et un ascenseur de là à mon bureau.
B. Describing my office
- Je travaille au ministère d’Emploi et Développement social Canada et mon bureau est situé au deuxième étage de la phase 3 du complexe Portage à Gatineau. Dans un espace à aires ouverte, j’ai un cubicule, qui inclue le minimum de mobilier nécessaire pour travailler. J’ai un bureau, une chaise, un ordinateur, un classeur et une petite bibliothèque dans laquelle je conserve quelques rapports relatifs aux activités du ministère.
Oral Exam, Part 3 and 4 – The formal part
Just to recap, the oral test is divided into four parts. The first two are more or less transactional French, with voice mails and meetings to listen to and then respond to a few questions. They are designed to test your ability for Level A (Beginner) and B (Intermediate), but you really don’t get into the real C level questions until Part 3.
The first part of Part 3 is an opportunity to do a short exposition on a subject of your own choosing, amongst a predefined list. You are given three possible topics, always related to work, and you are supposed to choose one. If you don’t like any of the three, you can go for a fourth, but then there is no choice — you have to take the fourth one, an obvious risk.
Once you have chosen a topic, you have 90 seconds to make notes for yourself. And then it’s GO time — you talk about the subject for 2-3 minutes. Two minutes is too short, and they’ll cut you off at 3, so you want to land somewhere in between.
Now that you know how the process works, let’s talk about the topics. There are two general forms:
- Recounting a story of a specific event; or,
- Describing something that is either more general or happens more frequently.
What does that mean? Well, for the recounting option, you will likely have to describe:
- some event you experienced (training, crisis, first day, social activity, or the competition for your current job);
- some work you did that you liked or hated (project, acting for your boss, or a business trip);
- a challenge you faced (small or large, specific or general, controversial file, or an HR problem);
- interactions with a colleague (difficult colleague, a mentor, or someone you helped); or,
- something that has changed (work environment, or physical changes to the office).
For those who did their B test, the structure is basically “What was the project, what did you do, what was the result”. For the C, it is similar, but you also have to add “why”, and nuance to what extent it went well or what impact it had on you or your division in general. Basically adding some colour commentary to your story. While in almost all cases it is in the past, it can be a hypothetical or in the future (such as a project you would like to do and, again for the C, why you want to do it).
The second type is a bit more difficult for the Level B, but more suited to Level C commentary. These ones, describing something that is more general or a frequent event, include questions such as:
- types of social activities for your division;
- the qualities of a leader (compared, for example, with a manager);
- type of preferred tasks, and why;
- whether meetings are important to your ministry;
- what’s an appropriate relationship between supervisor and subordinates;
- the elements required to create teamwork;
- how you go about meeting deadlines; or,
- the (general) steps in doing a performance evaluation.
In all of these (except maybe the last one), you are still identifying several factors and providing the commentary about each, but they are less about “steps” and more about key variables.
My preparations for this section have identified four main ways to respond, and I’ll use the first type (specific events) to show the possible structure:
- Level B or C (bad): Introduction; Details — Yep, lots of people start this way. They just talk. But you’re supposed to respond DIRECTLY to the questions asked, and having no structure is a good way to just seem like you’re wandering around with no understanding of what the actual question was or how to respond.
- Level B (good): Introduction; Step 1 + small detail; Step 2 + small detail; Step 3 + small detail; Conclusion — This is the normal structure everyone learns, practices, etc, as it allows the person to use passé composé and imparfait in the same story, series of relatively short and medium-length sentences, and then wrap it up.
- Level C (option 1): Introduction; Aspect 1, colour commentary; Link to Aspect 2, colour commentary; Segue to Aspect 3, colour commentary; Conclusion — This is the one that all the learning schools seem to generally recommend, with opinions and general facts added to the various colour commentaries, using complex (but not complicated) phrases that are a bit longer, use subordinate clauses, etc, or “les mots liens” that aren’t “and”.
I mentioned there are four options, but I only gave 3, because that is what the schools generally teach (well, #2 and #3 I guess, they don’t teach #1, although in a way they do as early in your language training they get you to talk and talk to improve your comfort with the language, before trying to get you to focus in later parts of your training).
For me, I struggle with #3 above. Why? Because I talk too much. (Not just in French, as my wife would chime in!). So when I go to do the colour commentary, there is a REALLY good chance that I will “tourne autour du pot” which is a french idiom that means “beat around the bush”, or more pointedly, to say things in general terms rather than being specific. I lose my train of thought, I get lost in the sentence, and it REALLY sucks as an answer. Sure, I give the description and the colour commentary, but then I sound like I’m just repeating myself, which I am. When I did my last exam, it was under the old format, and I managed to hold myself to three sentences for every “higher-level” question exactly to avoid that problem.
That’s not a strategy that will work for this new format, so I came up with a slightly different structure that works for me:
- Introduction — repeat the question back to them to basically show you understood and to make sure you’re responding directly too;
- Discussion, introduced by “there are several factors” (* unspecified number, you’ll see why in a second)
- Aspect 1 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 2 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 3 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 4 + (small colour commentary);
- Mot lien
- Aspect 5 + (small colour commentary);
- Aspect 1 + (small colour commentary);
- Conclusion — repeating the key part of the original question and adding summary of my position of the situation
What’s the difference? More items to say in the same period of time, which means that I *can’t* go into detail on any of them or I risk getting lost in my own head. I stay on track, plus in the 90 seconds, I can think of four or five things to say, but I don’t have time to think about what to say.
Because my problem isn’t exactly HOW to say stuff, it’s WHAT to say. If I’m deciding on what to say, and then I go to add my colour commentary, I fill my time trying to figure out what to add (content), and I start elaborating on the few I’ve already said, embellishing, adding details for NO REAL REASON other than I’m filling time and space in my answer. Instead, if I skip that trap that may only affect me, and stick to the higher level description with enough detail to sustain a colour commentary, I’ll stay on track to the end of the summary without risking floundering for something to say or losing my train of thought. And I say something about “several factors”, because if I am running long, I can drop the last one or two; if I have said “there are five”, then it will look ridiculous if I stop at 3 for time management.
Of course, the colour commentary has to have some of the key “opinion” phrases:
- à mon avis, …
- selon moi, …
- je trouve que…
- il me semble que…
I try to avoid “je pense que” as it slips in even when I don’t want it to, so I already use that. I would love to use “d’apres moi”, “quant à moi”, or “je crois que” but those never come to me. They just don’t seem as “natural” to me. Similarly for “pour ma part”. I would try to use “en ce qui me concerne”, but I bet I would forget the “me” and just use “en ce qui concerne” which is a totally different sense.
For the links between sections, and even for the more complex of the little colour commentary, I can segue with the most common “mots liens” that I am capable of using at least some of the time:
- parce que / c’est pour quoi / c’est pour cette raison que (because)
- à cause de / grace à (thanks to)
- puisque (since – time)
- etant donné que (given)
- alors que / lors de (while)
- quand (when)
- En meme temps que (at the same time)
- depuis que (since – time)
- tant que (as long as)
- apres que / avant que (subjunctive)
- d’abord / au debut (at the start)
- ensuite, puis (then)
- finalement / en fin (finally)
- en générale (in general)
- en effet (in effect, indeed)
- alors / donc / en consequence, par consequent, apres tout
- For / goal
- afin de … (in order to)
- afin que / pour que (subjunctive)
- mais (but)
- cependant / pourtant (though, yet, however)
- par contre (by contrast)
- tandis que (whereas)
- au lieu de
- plutot que
- autrement (otherwise)
- sinon (middle of phrase)
- Except for
- sauf pour
- à moins que
- malgré / malgré que / bien que
- de plus / d’ailleurs
- Nevertheless / anyway
- neanmoins / quand meme
- mois que (less than)
- loin de (far from)
- plus que (more than)
- tel que (such that)
- Simple link
- aussi / comme / et / ainsi que
- meme si
While Part 4 seems at first to be quite different in the opening, it basically requires a summary of what happens in a long conversation, and while I accept there are quite significant differences, you can pull some of the same elements.
First and foremost, you don’t want to fall into the trap of listing everything that is said; it’s a summary, not a transcript. Second, there are still some good “mots liens” to use to show how it develops.
And in both Part 3 and 4, you have follow-up questions.
Extra – Gender, written prep, and talent management
So I spent some time today on the french written exam, still came back as a B. With Andrea’s explanations, that went up to a C, which I hope will help me ensure I stay at least in the B range. Sure, I’d love a C, but that is extremely unlikely. I also reviewed a bunch of notes of the last week or so, just to help keep track of progress.
GENERAL FRENCH REVIEW
|A. Rules around masculine and feminine||
|E. Useful vocabulary||
|F. Specialized vocabulary||
|K. Written Exam, Part 1||
|T. Other – AffairesRH||
The website www.affairesrh.com is a pretty decent one for people needing to practice their “listening skills” in French. It translates as “HR Issues” basically, and has a small subsection which includes video interviews with experts talking about various HR issues. Even though I don’t work in HR, I find the topics generally solid with lots of great vocabulary suitable for a large organization. One of the first videos I’ve reviewed is on Talent Management:
Although it is fifteen minutes long, there are actually four questions she’s trying to answer / respond to, and so it helps keep things organized. Some of the phrases were useful as triggers for better discussions with my tutors:
She also used two phrases that would be not ones I would likely use, but good to know nevertheless. Dirigeants for the “management” cadre, i.e. those who “direger” i.e. “direct” the business, but I think I would use gestionnaires or directeurs for example. The other was one of those words that exist in french, deploiment, but it doesn’t mean a deployment like public servants experience between jobs or departments (that’s mutation). It is more about the distribution, dispersal of something, like deploiment of resources. She did use it for a person, but more just in a generic sense that someone was “sent” to do something, not the process.
Great online resources
One thing that is VASTLY different from any of my previous training has been the widespread diffusion of really good learning resources on the ‘net. Some are shockingly good, particularly for people trying for Canadian federal government levels.
The official sites fall into three groups:
- The Public Service Commission website — it explains the format of the test, how it works, etc., and even gives you some practice tests. Generally, most people using the site find that the practice tests are harder than the actual test, although that may simply be observational bias due to having finished a few practice tests, the actual test becomes easier because of their review work;
- The Canada School of Public Service site — this has options for existing employees to log in, and once in, to do a bunch of online tests as well as download a bunch of others (for reading comprehension and the written test). If you do the written test online, when you are finished, you can print your results and it also explains, for each one you got wrong, what the correct answer was and why the other options didn’t fit. If you log in to the site, and then click this link, it should take you directly to the test materials.; and,
- Old PSC materials — a bunch of these are unofficially posted online, some are even interactive, but I honestly don’t like the old ones. They were exponentially harder than the actual test, and a few people even with exemptions for writing were struggling to understand the best / correct answers.
For the “unofficial” or general sites, I think there are three groups:
- Translation tools — Everyone knows about sites like Google Translate, and while it and similar sites have improved over the years, many people know of stories where even Google Translate produced an amusingly bad translation. Many spam emails come in with poorly constructed english, often the result of a bad translation site. They’re good to translate a word or two or to look up the meaning of a word or phrase, but often without much variance. Enter wordreference.com which is flat out amazing. My professors introduced me to it, and when we’re struggling to understand a certain phrase that is used, how it is used, and some alternatives, or even just the translation, it is AWESOME. Kind of like a dictionary, a thesaurus, and a language translator all in one. It also links to Linguee.com for the translations at times, and it even has links to things like language forums where others might be struggling with the same phrase. While the government has the Termium Plus resource that has all the official government terms, WordReference is often just as good. Not perfect though. For example, WordReference would like certain words around “performance”, including the word “performance” itself. However, in the Canadian government, the official word and the only one acceptable in the exam is likely rendement. Still, an awesome resource.
- Learning tools — As I mentioned, lots of “tools” have cropped up with quizzes, overviews of rules, etc. One that is used around my department by several people is https://quizlet.com/13543303/vocabulaire-de-ladministration-publique-canada-flash-cards/. Another is http://www.lepointdufle.net/. However, if you want targeted french explanations out the wazoo, check out http://www.francaisfacile.com. Some of the sub-pages, like a whole host related to pronouns and how they work are flat-out awesome with tests/quizzes and explanations. Last but not least, there is also Amélioration du français; and,
- Oral language tools — After your friends give you the first advice all language learners hear (get a french girlfriend/boyfriend), people start offering tips on things to listen to more often. Like CBC Radio or TV5Monde. Or watching the Simpsons (which apparently has good dubbing for French). Or a host of other shows. A friend told me of a show called “Les pays d’en haut“. The list is long and distinguished, and while all of them are good just to “hear french” and to train your ear, I prefer ones that are directly related to work topics or at least phrases that I hear in a more professional setting. I also worry with the others that there are too many anglicisms that would be acceptable on the sites that I might pick up and use without realizing they aren’t the french I should use for my exams. Good for speaking with colleagues, not so great for the exam (the word “performance” is a perfect example of that). Instead, my professors referred me to another site online called Affaires des ressources humaines which has some interviews recorded and available for watching. They’re great interviews, with good structures related to persuasion, etc, and because they are about human resources in a large organization, they have lots of good vocabulary for offices. Yes, they still suffer a bit from anglicisms, but they are often easy to spot too. I was also referred to a good french podcast called Francais Authentique, and while the site is geared towards a whole course in learning french, the tool here is the link to the free podcasts. They’re not very long, pretty easy-going on various topics, and are often just simple short recordings. While the individual topic might not help individually, listening to them is good practice. Another good one for listening practice is Coffee Break french.
I would be extremely remiss I suppose if I didn’t mention the materials from my own language school where I’m studying. KnowledgeCircle uses https://mylearningmyway.com/ which has packages directly geared to the PSC exams — reading, writing, and oral. Sample tests that have been created to directly practice the same topics that the PSC will test. There’s even a free trial, and the pricing is pretty reasonable — $115 per test, or $245 for the full bundle. If you were gearing for a test, and just needed to practice the various tests, this is the way I would go. They’re that good.
Vocabulary, DuoLingo, and tips for oral
A lot of stuff over the last week pulled together…
|GENERAL FRENCH REVIEW|
|C. Verb tenses||
|E. Useful vocabulary||
|F. Specialized vocabulary||
|G. Linking words (mots liens)||
|M. Oral Exam, Part 1||
|P. Oral Exam, Part 4||
|Q. Other – Duolingo||
I completed seven exercises around food, mostly useful for remembering three things:
In the Idioms lesson, it had:
|X. Other – Reading||