James Archibald


Laval, McGill form national test centre

DIANA GRIER AYTON | James Archibald discovered something surprising about Canada while he was in Cuba. On a visit to the University of Havana he learned that the institution was a national centre for testing proficiency in French. National centres have been established in 110 countries throughout the world by the French government. To Archibald's astonishment, no centre existed in Canada.

"I said to myself, well, if they can do this in Cuba, why can't we do it in Quebec?"

What the test centres do is provide students with an internationally recognized diploma from the French government which attests to their competency in the language. That in turn allows them to meet one of the requirements to enter a French university or to seek work in the European Community.

Archibald, who is director of the Department of Languages and Translation in McGill's Centre for Continuing Education, contacted the French consul on his return from Cuba to discuss gaining the approval of his government to set up a test centre. Coincidentally, a representative from Laval had done the same thing.

"The three of us got together and a synergy developed almost immediately. Sometimes it's very difficult to work with another university, but we had a high level of cooperation and this worked very smoothly."

Another fortunate aspect of the timing, says Archibald, was that the discussions began just as François Tavenas was leaving McGill to become rector of Laval. "I told him about it at the time and he encouraged me very much to pursue it. He said it was the type of program he would like to see our two universities working very closely on."

Institutions applying to administer a national test centre must prove the high quality of the French language instruction they offer. They must then prepare and submit for approval a set of proposed examinations.

"As with all things French, the process is highly centralized," says Archibald. "The examinations developed by the national jury in each country are submitted to the ministry of education in Paris. The ministry has to be satisfied that they maintain an international standard. The national centre then gives the same exam on the same day at the same time in each of its subcentres."

Because of the rigorous oversight by the French government, Archibald says students have to meet the same standard "whether they take the test in Djibouti or Montreal. Although the exam may have some local variants, the issues of competency are the same."

Following more than a year of work and planning, Canada's national test centre was established jointly at Laval and McGill. The first exams were administered at the two sites earlier this month and an official ceremony was held in Quebec City on Monday in recognition of Canada's entry into the testing program.

Archibald says an advantage of the program is that it can be expanded. "A country like Germany has one national centre, but the exams are given in 18 different subcentres. There's nothing to stop us from following the same model here. We've sent out a notice to the Council of Second Language Programs in Canada to let our colleagues know that we would be interested in establishing sub-centres in their different universities.

"Right now, this will really assist the mobility of students between McGill and France, but our focus is to open the market up for people who want to work and study in French-speaking countries. Basically, this is a passport to the world of French academe and to the international community."

Archibald says he also has plans that are a little more local. "We intend to conduct discussions with the Office de la langue française to see if they will recognize some sort of equivalency with the examinations they give to people who want to practise a profession in Quebec. Our standards are very high. The only thing to fear is excellence."

Anyone interested in finding out more about testing for the Diplome d'études en langue française (DELF) and the Diplome approfondi de langue française (DALF), can call the Department of Languages and Translation, 398-6160, or e-mail lang@conted.lan.mcgill.ca.