I had been back at Asticou about five weeks when I realized that the passive receiver of language learning was not working for me, and I spent a weekend thinking about some of the challenges I had gone through in the previous year. I kept coming back to the tutor’s analysis — I wasn’t letting go. Except I had, at least to the extent I could i.e. the extent that was within my personality and my learning style, and it hadn’t worked. I needed a different option. Since letting go wasn’t working, what if I took full control?
Lots of people might read that sentence and think, “Oh, of course, the student has to drive their own learning, be responsible, be engaged, etc.”. That’s not what I’m talking about. I’m talking about something much more dramatic.
I went into my first interview on the Monday morning and it was with a teacher I knew well. He started by saying, “Today we’re going to …” and I stopped him there. I said, “No, we’re not. Here’s what we’re going to work on…we’re going to talk about the work I do at CIDA, my three main tasks, and an experience from the past. And the only thing you’re going to note for feedback is if I get gender wrong.” Nothing about pronunciation, nothing about structure, nothing about vocabulary. Just gender. He tried to argue, and I said no, this was the new game plan, I kept making gender errors and I needed to fix it. 45 minutes, only gender feedback. He relented.
The second interview, the third interview that day, and two more the next day. I gave them their topics, and only on gender for feedback. They felt they were able to give me more, but I hemmed them in and said gender only. The second night, I took their data and analysed the crap out of it. I was convinced that there were some patterns or rules I could discern that would help. I swear, I had asked multiple teachers for the rules and had been told repeatedly that I just had to memorize it for the various words. I knew it was crap, but I couldn’t prove it. (Future teachers later told me of course it was crap and gave me the rules, but Asticou apparently didn’t believe in them.) Anyway.
On day 3, I went in and did the same thing — just gender feedback. But this time, I had my rules ready. In 45 minute interviews, I went from making 30-40 gender mistakes on words to making 1 or 2, and sometimes none. Gender problem fixed.
On day 4 & 5, I focused on some structures and eliminated another batch of errors. Over the next three weeks, I worked through four or five “problems” that I had been having for almost a year of training, major stumbling blocks. I used to get a page of feedback in interviews; I dropped to a handful of mistakes. Finally, a feeling of progress.
I found out that I could get more “training” by asking for a supplemental tutor, which I did when I was six weeks from my hours expiring. In the morning, I had Asticou interviews; in the afternoon, I had the tutor. With the tutor, we quickly dumped the work conversations and focused on weird and wide-ranging topics, some of them intensely personal, so that I would deliberately struggle with my structures. She also agreed to record some words for me that I mispronounced during our sessions. She would say it once normally, once or twice slowly, then normal, with space in between for me to repeat it too. Classic “learning by tape” technique. But whereas lots of those things were generic words, I combed through three months of feedback on pronunciation errors to find common words that I would need for work — multilateral, organization, policy, process, bilateral, meetings, etc. Most of them I was fine on, but often when speaking quickly, I’d drop a syllable or anglicize the pronunciation. I learned to slow down for those words, to control my pronunciation before moving on. Words I used regularly, a frequency distribution if you will, not some random “office” words that I might use.
Teachers in my interviews were asking, “Why are you still here? Go, get tested, get early parole!”. Repeatedly, I told them, “I’m here until I run out of hours.” I was down to about a month left, and they were giving me interviews with those teachers who taught more advanced students, partly just because it was summer and they were covering off. One day, I ended up with Gemma again.
This is the time where you might think the story takes that classic fictional spin where the student impresses the teacher, and violins play in the background. But this is real life, and that woman was a witch. She was the third interview of the day, and I’d already aced the previous two. Both of them had said, “Go, do the test, stop wasting time.” Gemma, by contrast, asked me, “So, how many hours do you have left before your test?”. I told her, expecting a compliment. Nope, she asked if I could get more. I said, slowly, “Nooooo”, and she said, “Oh well, miracles happen.” Fucking cow. I said, “Okay, we’re done here.” She tried to give me my feedback sheet and I crumpled it up, and left it on her desk. I told her she was a worthless piece of skin, and no wonder nobody at the school liked her and she needed the union to help her keep her job. I left her sputtering, and went to see the director. I informed him if I was ever assigned to her again, for any purpose in the last month, I’d file a harassment complaint the next day. I still think I should have done it anyway.
I knew I was as ready as I ever would be, regardless of what the cows thought.
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.
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.
It’s not that often that you see the Public Services Commission doing something innovative, but a new pilot project that starts today may qualify. And with all things HR-related, the impact may turn out to be either good or bad for employees on a referral list, depending on how the theory translates into practice.
So here’s the quick background you need to know first. When someone is declared surplus for whatever reason (relocation, program was cut, etc.), they can be put on a priority list for future jobs. Then, when any jobs come up in their region that match their skill sets, they’ll get referred to the hiring manager as a highly-possible hire. Unlike a regular applicant though where a hiring manager decides if a candidate meets the essential experience requirements and then invites them into a selection process (i.e. “screens” them in), a priority referral really IS a priority — if they meet the requirements, then the hiring manager MUST hire them. Good for the employee, they get a new job; good for the hiring manager, finding someone qualified really fast. Of course, there are lots of little tricks and tips on how a hiring manager may deem that the person does NOT meet the requirements if they want to screen them out, but in theory, if a priority candidate meets the requirements, screening them “in” basically means offering them the job.
How did this work? In the past, the PSC would look at a job description, run a search on their database, and forward several resumes and cover letters to the hiring manager to consider. Alternatively, if a candidate saw a posting, they could tell the PSC they wished to be referred — sometimes they were, sometimes they weren’t (if the PSC didn’t think it was close enough, they might not forward, but usually they did). After referral, though, those generic resumes and letters pre-saved on file often didn’t cover all the possible experiences the hiring manager asked for, so the hiring manager would screen out the priority person and continue with their normal selection process. In the last two years though, the PSC has put pressure on the departments to ensure that the hiring managers at least spoke to the candidate to see if possibly they DO have the experience, it just wasn’t in the resume or letter. Part of this was in response to priority referrals feeling like they were out of the loop, and weren’t engaged enough. More bluntly, it just means that priority referrals were getting screened out too often and too easily.
The new six-month pilot project (Jan-July 2012) puts a bit more power in the hands of the person on the priority list. Instead of simply having their generic letter and resume being forwarded, there will be three steps in the initial communication process:
The PSC will refer the name of the priority candidate to the hiring manager (before it was name and resume);
The PSC will notify the priority candidate of the referral and send them the job description, Statement of Merit Criteria (SOMC), etc. (no major change, just more automated); and,
The candidate will have 5 days to send the hiring manager a detailed cover letter and resume tied to the SoMC (the major change).
This means that the priority candidate will essentially be treated like every other candidate in the process — it will be incumbent upon the candidate to PROVE they meet the requirements of the position, not up to the hiring manager to play forensic detective on their resumes and guess. This is in line with the rest of the processes for regular candidates that has hardened over recent years to ensure that people have to prove merit in their application before being screened in, and if the evidence isn’t in the cover letter, they get screened out. Now, just to be nice, the PSC has said too that if the priority candidate can’t apply within five days, they can RESPOND within five days and state a date by which they can apply properly. On the other hand, the PSC is not all fun and games — they also say if the candidates do not qualify, they can send a letter saying which elements they don’t meet.
What will this mean for hiring managers? Their job just got both easier and harder — easier in the sense that the application will be tailored to THEIR job so easier to see if they fit as well as the fact that some people won’t apply in the five days for jobs that aren’t very close so smaller pool to worry about, but harder in the sense that some candidates who might not have everything will still apply and stretch their experience to try to get chosen, and so the hiring manager will have to spend more time verifying if they really DO have the experience they say they do (bearing in mind that in a typical selection process, if the hiring manager screens in a “soft” candidate on experience, the candidate still has to prove they can pass the written exam and interview questions; in this process, there is no exam or detailed interview to test the priorities!).
What will this mean for employees? Before they were often referred to more jobs than perhaps they were qualified for, anything somewhat close; now they’ll get the referral but have to do more work to actually apply for each and every job with a tailored resume, not just a generic. So more work. Plus, the hiring manager will be able to look at your detailed application and probably make the decision without talking to you — after all, if it isn’t in your application, they can screen you out more easily. Fewer interviews than in the last two years, more back to paper screening. And guess what? HR may do the screening for the hiring manager, not the hiring manager themself. Meaning possible fewer managers actually seeing your application.
Bottom-line — if you’re on a priority list and you’re good, then writing a tailored cover letter and resume to apply for jobs can only help you get selected better. If you’re on a priority list, and you’re not the greatest employee or you have really narrow skill sets, the application process will make it harder for you to get pulled or even looked at by hiring managers. It depends on how it ends up working in practice.
But I have to give some credit to the PSC — it’s definitely an innovation in managing priority referrals.