I am a not a linguist by anyone’s definition. I’m not very eloquent in speaking English, let alone any other language. I can write pretty well in English, and I edit even better, but other languages were never my strength. I grew up in Peterborough, which was not exactly the hub of linguistic diversity. Or any other kind of diversity, for that matter, at the time, although it’s changed a lot since I was a kid.
We started French in grade 4 or 5 as I recall. I was okay, mostly because I was a good student, not because I had an aptitude for it. One year we did “French Xmas” i.e. we made yule log cakes, basically made lunch for the other teachers and one or two parents. I don’t even remember if we got to have any ourselves, other than the cake. I do remember that we got to go into the teacher’s lounge, and for the era, being shocked to see teachers acting normal instead of like their classroom personas. Some of them laughed. One of them was smoking. But that was the only oven/kitchen in the school, so we used it.
I remember I didn’t particularly like French when I was in Grade 8, although I think mostly I was just bored. I got in trouble a few times for not trying harder, which royally pissed me off mostly because my version of not trying still meant I was ahead of 60% of the class. Which meant I tried even less for awhile. Going into Grade 9, French wasn’t mandatory for me. And I was having trouble fitting it into my schedule. I remember talking to my dad about it, and given that it wasn’t like French was a useful tool in Peterborough, he convinced me it was likely a waste of time and I signed up for an extra hour of tech classes. There’s irony in there, not too deep, given my complete inability with anything mechanical and the fact that I am a Canadian government employee who could, in theory, use french daily. However, I dropped it in Grade 9, and never picked it up.
I had no interest in university, but ended up eventually at Foreign Affairs where it is a requirement for all new full-time employees to be completely fluent — you don’t even start if you’re a Foreign Service Officer until you’ve completed your training. I was much more interested in it now, even took a class at Cité Collegiale to try and bolster my ability, but I wasn’t making much headway until I was hired at CIDA. At the time, their New Development Officer program was still evolving, and they were recruiting new officers with the promise of language training. I was one of the lucky ones at the time who ended up in a position that required it (multilateral), and I was approved for language training.
Formal language training
Before starting training, I was sent to the PSC for a “diagnostic test”. This is a two part test — first they test your ability to learn “any” language at all, and then they test you for whatever language you are going to be studying.
For the ability test, they gave me written language and oral comprehension tests for several different languages (mostly African). They try to do it with languages you are likely to know nothing about, so that you’re not giving memory answers, but analytical answers. The written was easy, and I was off the charts for ability. For the oral listening test, they gave me a language where the word for house, friend, and snake were all very similar — I don’t remember the specifics, but if the word (something like bon in French) ended with the last sound going up in tone, it meant friend, if it went down it meant snake, and if it was flat, it was house. They would say the word, and you had to choose house, snake or friend. Then they would put it in a long sentence of words you never heard before, with the word in the middle somewhere, and then you would choose based on how it sounded in context, which word it was.
I bombed the test big time. The test put me right on the “pass/fail” line for whether I was capable of learning a language, although that’s not exactly accurate. It is actually a test of whether you can learn the language within the timeframe that the government is willing to pay for you to be on language training. Different languages, different timeframes, but it basically said I would need the full allotment of time available, and even then, it was 50/50 if I would be fully ready at the end of the training.
The second part of the test was to see if I remembered anything from having taken french before (a “false” beginner) or if I had retained none of it (a “true” beginner). The logic was that many people said they were starting at zero, but then they started doing it, and realized “Hey, I remember how to introduce myself, talk about the weather, etc.”. My test? Truly zero. I retained none of my elementary school french. But I was still barely within the time limit, so I could start at the beginning, Bloc 1.
Lots of people would be thrilled with being approved for language training, but I started in January of 1998, coming off two of the worst years of my life. Professionally things were going well, but I was a personal mess, partly because my father died in the fall of ’96. Most of the grief process was kept at bay when I was busy, but when things quieted down, and I had time to reflect, I missed him a lot. Other stuff was wreaking havoc with my psyche, some by choice, some by timing, but I really wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be sitting navel gazing for 7 hours a day at a language school. Yet off I went.
Here’s something else you need to understand, if you’ve never experienced learning as an adult something new as complex as a language. It’s not the same as just learning in university. I was always an awesome student, breezed through the last part of high school and my undergrad, struggled at law school, but back on top in my Master’s work. So I was used to being good at learning. Apparently I’m not good at learning when it comes to actually learning from someone else. It became really clear that (a) languages are meant to be learned from someone else, an interactive process where the other person is really important to the learning, and (b) that I’m not that kind of learner, having learned most of my stuff from my academic studies from my own reading, not a download from the professors and teachers. So I struggled.
It was almost the perfect storm for bad learning, in my respects. First, I wasn’t good at learning from others, and I had no idea how to learn to do that as an adult. I was almost learning how to learn again. Second, I wasn’t particularly gifted at languages, and I really didn’t enjoy it. Third, I wasn’t in a very good upbeat head space. Fourth, I was at Asticou, the PSC’s official language school.
There are generally two stories about people who went to Asticou — one, the story of a friend of mine who liked languages, got in with a group of DFAITers talking about the issues of the day, was in a group with others who were good at learning languages or at least a strong aptitude and thus could move quickly through some of the basics. Two, those who went to Asticou, thought it was akin to prison life, dreaded it, survived it, and eventually got the heck out. Guess which story is mine?
Yes, you guessed correctly. The daily grind wore me down, the perfect storm sapping my energy quickly. Forget the fact that I needed the levels to remain employed, i.e. no stress (!), but it’s basically going to do something every day, not being good at it, and being told “Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope. Nope.”. The only thing that kept me going was that I wasn’t the only one struggling. We were all dealing with the same struggle. Some who had some french before, but which erased after about Bloc 3 or 4 (the learning was in Blocs 1-15 to get to B levels). Some of the teachers were awesome, and made it fun. Others were like Nurse Ratchet.
I remember one in particular, Gemma. She was horrible. I was really struggling the one day with one of the exercises. I had been at it for about 5 months at this point, we were listening to a cassette recording of one of the lessons, and the job was basically to listen to the phrases and then “fill in the blank” based on what was said. Relatively easy, if you weren’t really struggling. So we went around the room, and people took their best shot. Some got it, some didn’t. When it came to me, I had no idea what words to put in the blank. The recording was lousy, it was 20 feet away, I was really struggling even to hear it, and so instead, I was following along with the transcript in the back. Trying to train my ear to hear the language and understand it. Even that was taxing me.
So the first time by, I said, “I’m just reading as we go”, and basically to skip me. The second time it came to me, I expected her to skip me, so I gave sort of a shrug. I was embarrassed, I was frustrated, but I couldn’t do the exercise. Her response? She said, “That’s okay, go back to sleep.”
Let me pause here for a moment. Ask yourself if the above description to this point sounds like I would respond well to this. I did not. I basically said, “Excuse me?”. The tone was clear to everyone else in the room that the temperature had dropped 20 degrees, but not to her, she just repeated it. I stopped her there, and said, “No, I don’t think you understand how offensive that was. I am really struggling here, trying my best, not sleeping, and it is beyond frustrating. And your ridiculously unprofessional attitude doesn’t help.”
I left the room and went to speak to the director of the school. I waited to speak to him, shut the door, and said, “Normally I try to struggle through conversations with you in French, but that is not what I’m going to do now. I’m going to be crystal clear with what I have to say.” I told him the story, along with some other examples where she had been incredibly demoralizing for the other students as well. His response was basically that he knew she sucked, but there was absolutely nothing he could do about it because she was active in the union and his hands were tied. I informed him that the day would be my last in her class and he could find another solution, or I would have my department handle the problem — we were paying way too much money for me to be at the school with that level of support.
Meanwhile, the teacher had been a bit shocked at my departure from the class, and the rest of the students had to explain to her that I was justifiably pissed off. Two of the other students spoke to the school director, and there was miraculously a rotation in the assigned teachers. I’d like to take full credit for that, but it was actually time for them to reassess people anyway — putting some of the “faster” learners together and putting the “slower” ones together too. She ended up with the faster ones, I was with a much better teacher with the slower ones. Along with some people who were facing the same challenges as me.
As we entered our seventh ring of hell, errr, seventh month of training, they said, “Good news, time for your tests!”. We were ready for the reading test, and even the written more or less. I aced the reading (an exemption i.e. the level that says you never have to be tested again for that one), and passed the written (a mid-range “B” level which is intermediate level, and the level I needed for work).
But we were all struggling with our oral abilities. We couldn’t figure out why we were being tested, it made no sense. Most of us in the “slower” group were not doing the ideal student routine. We weren’t watching french TV, we weren’t listening to french radio, we hadn’t gotten french boyfriends or girlfriends, we weren’t spending extra time at night studying. We were barely making it through the day, and by the end, we were mentally exhausted. Three of the people in my class had kids, one of them with young ones with health issues. I have no idea how they were even on their feet some days. My psyche was starting to spin a bit out of control for other reasons, but french wasn’t helping. An entire day spent hearing all your errors is not conducive to a strong positive ego.
We weren’t ready.