Opening up a world of opportunities

Learning and speaking English, French on the job has its benefits
By Diego Salmon
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 06/15/2015

In 1969, Canada recognized both English and French as its official languages. Former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau declared it “a testament to Canada’s rich diversity of temperament, viewpoint and culture” and said it enabled the “full use of the skills and energy of all its citizens. Canada will be more interesting, more stimulating and, in many ways, richer than it has ever been and much better-equipped to play a useful role in the world of today and tomorrow.”


A few months later, the federal government also launched the Official Languages in Education Program, providing funding for second language and minority language instruction in both official languages. Since then, new programs have been implemented to encourage individuals to learn both official languages.  


Regulations now require mid-level managers in the federal government to achieve higher levels of language proficiency. Native English speakers must reach level CBC (C for advanced in reading, B for intermediate in writing and C for advanced in oral interaction) in French, while native French speakers must have a CBC in English.


Before, they only had to match the highest level of language skills of their employees. Managers are retested every five years to ensure they retain their level of proficiency.


To help with their careers, many professionals — both in the private and public sectors — make a point to learn and use both languages on the job.


Improving competencies

Reagan-Mae Roberts understands the importance of proficiency in both languages. As chief of strategic planning resource management at Transport Canada, she spent three-and-a-half months — all day, every day — at Berlitz improving her competency in French. 


She worked with two instructors daily, from such places as Africa, the Middle East and Canada, learning their own life stories, culture and native accents. 


“I became more confident and more effective. It made my job easier. I could hold meetings with my staff in both languages. I could communicate,” she says. “I don’t hesitate to speak in French at meetings or even in the street if I bump into someone who speaks French.”


Sometimes, Roberts purposely holds staff meetings only in French, giving everyone the chance to practise their skills.

“Learning a second language is hard, but it is an opportunity for growth,” she says.


Linda White, team leader at Transport Canada in Ottawa, studied French so she could move forward with her public service career and communicate with colleagues in both official languages.


 “Having two official languages is an important characteristic for Canada. I’m happy to see the government is giving it priority in the workplace,” she says. 


She immersed herself in the language full-time, every day, while also reading books, watching French TV and looking at public service websites in French.


“It’s definitely a commitment,” she says. “It’s definitely worthwhile.” 


White says she now has more freedom to communicate with her francophone colleagues, and is more efficient at work. Before, she focused on English files; now, she leads a team and reviews files in both French and English.  


She also says she has more freedom in her everyday life. 


“Before I was restricted to only English TV programs. Now, I have a much wider choice of French and English programs.”


Private sector benefits

Corporate employees also say it’s important to learn both languages. Previously, Marybeth Jordan, managing director in wealth management at CIBC in Toronto, relied on her bilingual team in Montreal to communicate with colleagues and French-speaking clients. 


“It was really awkward for our customers who would try to talk with me in English,” she said. “They would switch to French in the middle of the conversation.


“One day it hit me — I absolutely have to speak French.” 


One year later, after taking language learning, Jordan communicates more effectively with clients and feels comfortable giving speeches in French. 


“I want to speak directly, not through someone else. I want what I am saying to be what people are hearing,” she says. “Now, I’m closer to my team and closer to the customer.”


People appreciate if you make the effort to speak in their language — it shows respect, says Jordan. 

“Things are not the same in English and French. Colleagues and clients come from a different place. It is exciting to have a view into another culture.”


Jordan supplements language learning by watching French TV programs and listening to French music on the train. She says she is constantly thinking, “How would I say that in French?” 


Bob Masterson, vice-president of responsible care for the Chemistry Association of Canada, started learning French last year when he realized his role was less technical and more about relationships with members, many of whom are francophones. 


Being able to communicate in French “opens doors and improves relationships,” he says. “There’s a sense of fair play and people appreciate it.”


Masterson, who lives in Quebec, says he can manage without a knowledge of French, but now his life is enhanced both personally and professionally and he is considering a trip to Paris.


Diego Salmon is regional director, North and Central America, at Berlitz Learning Services in Princeton, N.J. He can be reached at (609) 759-5408 or diego.salmon@berlitz.us.

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