Even though all of us said that we weren’t ready (My experiences learning French – Part 1), the school sent us for the oral test.
And all of us except one failed. The one who passed? The weakest one among us. Partly as her “stories” for telling what she did for a living were pretty simple in comparisons — she was a clerk who did very basic admin work. No one asked her how she answered the phone or sorted the mail. No follow-up questions, ever.
One of the other people in the group was a policy analyst, like me, and during their test, they were asked to explain “How do you go about analysing a policy?”. Umm, what? That question makes no sense. It’s like asking a car mechanic what steps they do to “mechanize” a car. Asking how to do research or do data analysis might be real questions, but an analyst couldn’t answer it well in english, let alone french.
Whatever, we tried, we failed. So back to the grindstone.
Except now that we had our reading and writing done, we could concentrate 100% on oral. This meant interviews every day, two or three per day depending on the day’s rotation. You would go to the teacher’s office, they would ask you questions, you would answer, and they would give you a list of all the errors you made that day. I was following their methodology, but it wasn’t really helping me. I didn’t feel like I was progressing at all.
And I had a time clock clicking away my countdown. For work, I was set to go to New York for three months. I had to go in early September, so whether or not I was done or not, I was leaving the school at that time. So, I pushed and pushed for the eighth month, and I tried the test again just before I went to New York. I failed, again. Although, technically, you don’t fail. You get a level, “A”, which is basic, but I needed “B” intermediate to graduate.
I went off to New York for three months, a hotbed of linguistic diversity, and I did listen some days to the french translation of some of the speeches, but my comprehension wasn’t high enough to do it when it counted. I couldn’t speak it well enough with other delegates, it would seem too unprofessional to speak french so badly in representing my country, but it was never an issue fortunately. When I came back to work in Ottawa, I thought I would go back right away to the school but they had no space for me at the time, and I had to wait until the new fiscal year. I convinced my boss to give me a tutor for a few hours a week to keep my hand in, and it was the best experience I could have had.
My first tutor
I don’t mean that he was the best teacher and I suddenly “got” it. Quite the contrary. Every session was a demoralizing battle of wills. We struggled and fought daily. But after about three weeks, he thought he would “show” me that I wasn’t as good as I thought. So he brought in a recording he made of a news item off the radio, talking about corruption and business practices. Then when it was done, he asked me what it was about. So I told him. And I got it all right.
He was shocked, incredulous even, that I understood it. I said it was easy, it was a topic that was familiar to me, so I grasped it easily. Plus it was radio french, with a clear crisp speaker. It broke the ice between us and we started talking about “how to learn”, not the learning. He told me, with some trepidation, that he thought I was the worst student he had ever had — not in a bad way, that I couldn’t learn, but that I was so quick to figure out his method and jump ahead, I would throw up roadblocks to how it worked long before I tried it. I wasn’t “letting go” to just learn the language from him.
It was the start of a break-through for me. I realized, perhaps for the first time, that the passive reception method they were using, counting on, was not going to work for me. I don’t work that way in anything. A slightly different nuance than “control freak”, but that’s close enough for this purpose. And I was ruminating on that when I went back to Asticou in April.
Since I was now facing two strikes on my language test, with a rumour that you could only do three or you were “out” (and for me possibly out of a job), my work coordinator basically said “Stay at the school until you run out of hours”. Which was about 3.5 months. Nothing like a guillotine hanging over your head to motivate you, I suppose. (Note that I didn’t know then what I know now, which is that the 3x rumour wasn’t exactly true — nor was losing my job necessarily true. It just meant that I would have used up all my formal training allowance, and I would have to do the rest on my own dime, and I would still have another six months to actually pass. Even then, I would have likely been moved to an English Essential position leaving me free to keep working on it while still working. In other words, I likely had some options, although not guaranteed by a long shot.)
I settled back in the routine at Asticou, just interviews, and doing my own work on the side. And while I was actively trying to “let go” and see what happened, I was back at my plateau from the previous fall, before I went to New York. I could speak french well enough to handle the questions, but my pronunciation and grammatical structures were too error-ridden to pass. I was holding steady on my plateau, but I wasn’t progressing.