“Are you bilingual?”
I was asked that question often when I first arrived in Ottawa in the late 1990s.
“Of course I am. Couldn’t you tell by my Chinese accent?”
That was my standard reply until I joined the federal public service nearly a decade ago. It was apparent to me that while I could speak English and another language, I had yet to prove that I could speak French. I was not officially bilingual, a prerequisite to succeed in the public service.
My quest toward official bilingualism started off on a promising note. I scored high on the aptitude test that assessed one’s capability of learning a second language; it was administered in English, my second language.
Over the following years, I took language classes part-time. Written exams on reading and grammar went smoothly, but I couldn’t say the same for tests on oral interaction. Each time, I received the same feedback: I needed to speak in more complex sentences, improve my ability to talk about abstract topics, develop more fluency.
Ottawa is blessed with an abundance of language schools and I had been a client of a few. All the schools I attended focused on preparing students for the federal language test. Yet, in spite of these self-financed courses, the language of Molière was not coming to me. My confidence started to sag: Would I ever be able to speak another language (after mastering the languages of Confucius and Shakespeare)?
At the encouragement of my husband, who had endured my bouts of self-doubt, I took an unpaid leave and enrolled in a four-week immersion in a language school in France known for its oral interaction. Located on the picturesque Côte d’Azur, the school welcomes learners from around the globe: politicians, diplomats, civil servants, lawyers, corporate types, entrepreneurs, retirees and university students.
The views from the classrooms were magnificent, but the learning routine was strict. From breakfast at 8:30 to the last class at 5 p.m., only French was allowed to be spoken on school premises. Even at lunchtime, a teacher was assigned to each table. The school director “threatened” a €1 fine for each non-French sentence spoken or heard. By the end of the course, I was speaking French couramment. I regained my confidence in my ability to learn another language.
The immersion, however, was no match for the public service language competency test. Over the three years since then, on test after test, I was greeted by the same evaluation. A friend gently reminded me that the test was designed to assess my ability to speak “bureaucracy” – organizational mandate, job description, project management and other similar topics that put me to sleep even in English. Grudgingly, I invested in another four-week full-time private course, this time in Ottawa.
In my first class, my teacher, an immigrant from the Côte d’Azur, was impressed by my command of the language and was puzzled by my trouble with the test. After a few conversations, she concluded that it was probably because of the way I spoke: My Asian accent and Asian intonation could become pronounced under the duress of the test. Besides, she reasoned that most evaluators would have a harder time understanding an Asian accent than a European one.
To overcome this barrier, she prescribed weekly simulations, or, as one of her colleagues quipped, la petite torture. My teachers went over all kinds of work-related questions to prepare me for the mini-presentation. What a change, not only of scenery, but of course content. My assigned classroom boasted a view of the brick building next door. Instead of the three-course meals I ate while at school in France, I reheated leftovers from home.
My teacher went over hiring processes, telecommuting, the tasks at work I liked the most or least, organizing meetings, budgeting, mentoring and so on. She noticed that I had a habit of contemplating the right answer rather than letting the conversation flow. “Even if you don’t have the perfect answer, just spit it out,” she said. “The evaluator judges your aisance, not the content of your answer.”
I forced myself to throw caution out the window, speaking whatever came to my mind. Weekends were tough. Instead of taking the bus to Monaco, Cannes or medieval villages, I stayed home and listened to French songs, watched French-language television and avoided all things English. By the fourth week, my teacher said: “We’ve exhausted all topics and grammatical points. If you don’t get it this time, I don’t know what to do.”
My test was scheduled in the afternoon of the last day of my course. The receptionist handed me the mandatory forms: “You know the drill.” She recognized me from my annual pilgrimages over the past few years.
Finally, the wait was over. An evaluator brought me to her office. During the next 45 minutes, I answered questions while the magnificent view of the Côte d’Azur and the nondescript classroom in Ottawa flashed before my eyes.
On the morning of the fifth day after my test, my BlackBerry chirped. The results of my test had arrived. I read the first two lines and screamed: After six years and $30,000, I am finally bilingual, officially.
Jean Kunz lives in Ottawa.