By Kirsten Keppel
“J’ai tout lieu de croire que c’est une grosse légume qui a une langue bien pendue et qui tient le haut du pavé en s’en mettant plein la lampe.”
A literal English translation of the above reads as follows:
“I have all place to believe that here is a big vegetable who has a well-hung tongue and who holds the high of the pavement in filling full his lamp.”
But it really means this:
“Everything leads me to believe he’s a chatterbox of a V.I.P. who lords it over everyone else while he stuffs his own face.”
_Example taken from Jean-Loup Chiflet’s Cul de Sac (Bum of Bag) Guide du français courant (Guide to the running French), first published as Sky! My husband! (Ciel! Mon mari) Paris: Editions Herm‚, 1985.
Few dispute that when it comes to language study, the stress is not in the syllables. It is in understanding precisely what they mean. To do this, it is vital to understand cultural codes. As Carol Bar, Language Training Coordinator for Corporate Language Services (CLS), puts it, “it is learning the culture’s whole mentality‚ and all that goes along with it.“
Underneath our daily lexicon, a tacit cultural code, or “mentalité,” resurges each time we make a phone call, order a product, analyze P&L statements, or issue a memo. Usually, we don’t think about our native codes until we are confronted with those of another culture. And misreading codes can reduce even the most articulate executive to an agitated, chattering, hand wringing wreck, or, in other words, une grosse légume à la langue bien pendue.
Thanks to people like Bar, who switches into flawless French as easily as she does English, Americans going to French-speaking countries can also become expert cultural decoders. CLS is a cross-cultural training company whose bilingual and bicultural instructors train future expatriate executives from Fortune 500 companies, law firms, and government agencies in the “mentalité” of their target country. The intercultural training industry is growing as more companies and individuals realize that mastering “all that goes along with it” can mean the difference between successful or failed business deals and exhilarating or traumatic adjustments to life abroad. An unsuccessful transplant can cost the company thousands of dollars in relocation expenses and lost potential, not to mention the less quantifiable yet real cost in personal disappointment to employees and their families.
“The clients we service call and say “we’re relocating: we’re moving to France and we need to learn French,” says Bar. “Relocation is a big issue here. They need language training, cultural awareness, and a lot of intercultural training. We focus on do’s and don’ts, survival skills for spouses, and customized classes to fit specific industry needs.”
CLS offers a range of customized training courses, the smallest being a private tutorial tailored to an individual’s needs, and the largest being a class of 10 students. The Integrated Training for International Executives (ITIE) immersion program, available in all major languages, includes 35 hours of instruction per week, off-site visits to local multinational corporations, targeted seminars and other types of intercultural training. A typical class might involve role playing, analysis of an SNCF train-ticket or timetable, an application for a French driver’s license or school enrollment, and other down-to-earth practicalities. Families reside near the company’s Kansas City training facilities for stays of several weeks for up to six months. Local companies comprise a substantial part of CLS’s client base and send repeat business.
“The clients really want to do this, and our instructors know how to make it pleasant and fun,” says Bar. “The key is fun. If they’re not enjoying it they won’t come back. We use the target language as much as possible and try to avoid long grammatical explanations. We use the communicative approach.”
Although requests for ESL and Spanish training are received most frequently, the demand for French and German comes in a close second. “Our French-speaking clients generally go to France or Canada,” says Bar. “We have instructors from those countries, and we do always ask the clients to specify their destination country.” Although a longer lead time allows CLS’s instructors to do more in-depth-cross-cultural training, Bar notes that “in some way it is better if they come to CLS right before they leave. Mentally they are ready to get on the plane and go. They arrive and they are almost automatically used to it; it seems so familiar!”
In Kansas City the Tours of the United States, where the “purest” English can be found? “Is it Tours? Pretty close,” admits Bar.
“A lot of international headquarters are in the Midwest. Students coming here from other cities are quickly immersed in American culture. A French client, for example, does not have to worry about running into another French person! It is also cost-effective for the company paying for the training. We have companies sending us executives relocating to and from around the world. In today’s global economy, with every company expanding abroad, it is so necessary to send well-trained executives overseas and increase the language and the culture.”
Another kind of client whose needs are often overlooked in the relocation process is the executive’s spouse. “We really cater to spouses,” Bar notes, speaking of an often-neglected yet key group of relocators. “We do a lot of relocation training for them, even more than for the executives. They are the ones who seem to be helping the rest of the family to adapt. That’s just my personal impression, but they’re dealing with the everyday lives of their family members. The executives use the language but much of their business is conducted in English. For the spouse, it is a whole new way of life. The spouse is the one dealing with getting the house up for sale when the family leaves the United States. The spouse has to worry about selling the house, holding a garage sale, and taking care of the children. Sometimes spouses cannot finish our program because there is so much to do. One overseas, they spend every moment of their day learning how to go shopping, get the kids adjusted to new schools, respond to dinner invitations, etc.”
Bar says that among foreign clients at CLS, she has found that “the French who come to study English are among the most sophisticated people we service. They are widely traveled, knowledgeable about the cultural adjustment they will have to make, and so willing to integrate themselves in American society. They want to learn how Americans shop, go to school, etc. They move through the program quickly, adjust easily, and love to do it.”
Bar moved to her position as Language Training Coordinator from the University of Kansas’s French/Italian department, where she was a professor of French and Italian while freelancing for CLS. Her background is typical of that of CLS instructors: she learned French when she was nine years old in New York City’s public school system. After receiving her M.A. and B.A. in French from the University of Kansas at Lawrence, she received a Rotary scholarship to study in Rouen. She met her husband in Rouen and their two children are perfectly bilingual and bicultural.
CLS has just begun to get involved with elementary education and offer children’s programs. “We see that in children’s classes, they do not analyze, they just accept,” Bar says. “An executive sometimes takes longer to learn something than a child does. He or she has to understand how it is structured, and why it is structured as it is.” Could this be warning bell to corporate human resources offices? “It is so much easier for a child to learn a language. Thy absorb like little sponges. By the time they are corporate executives, think now effective they will be!” That is food for thought for future expatriates anxious to avoid being labeled “une grosse légume!”
Corporate Language Services
A Division of ALS International
8014 State Line Road
Leawood, KS 66208-3712
Tel: (913) 341-3167
Fax: (913) 341-3168
Corporate Language Services, Inc.
15 Maiden Lane, Suite 300
New York, NY 10038
Tel: (212) 766-4111
Fax: (212) 349-0964