French connection

At first glance, there is nothing atypical about lunchtime at Alstom Grid, an electrical grid solutions companyMary Randall poses with employees of Alstom. in Charleroi, Pa. 

But after the phone calls to take-out eateries and the rustling of brown paper bags, nearly 25 Alstom Grid employees slip into a large conference room three days per week to take French lessons from Dr. Mary Randall, a professor in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures at Cal U.

Etes-vous prêt pour l’examen?” she asks the class members as they arrive.

The “students” laugh nervously at the idea of being ready to take a graded exam.

They seem relieved to learn the “test” will be a collaborative effort.

Alstom Grid is one branch of the Alstom Group, a company headquartered in France that specializes in electrical grids, power generation and transportation infrastructure.

Many of the Alstom Grid employees find it difficult to communicate with co-workers in other offices, especially those in French-speaking regions of Canada.

“Alstom is a French-owned company, and it will be great to be able to communicate with some of the other offices,” said Nanci Twardowski, a project manager with the company. “Learning the French language and culture components will be very beneficial.”

After obtaining a grant to fund a lunchtime French course, Alstom Grid turned to Cal U for help.

“This program runs parallel — and even uses the same textbook, Liaisons — with my introductory French class on campus,” Randallsaid.

“The main challenge with this course is that these people are learning French voluntarily during their lunch hour, so we designed the program to be free of pressure.”

Instead of graded exams, Alstom Grid employees take assessments for their own personal use. There is no evaluation by company management or the professor.

“They are here to learn as much as they possibly can and have fun while doing it,” Randall said.

Employees say that learning introductory French will improve their productivity.

“In my position, learning French is going to help tremendously, because I work with disconnect switches, and our factory in Montreal, Canada, produces them,” said Bradley Thomas, a mechanical designer at Alstom Grid.

“I constantly work back-and-forth with them, and only a few can speak English. We have one person in our office who is French-Canadian, and if he is not available, it is very difficult to communicate what we need.”

After four weeks of lunchtime classes, it turns out that Alstom Grid employees are not the only ones benefiting from the lessons.

Speaking with a few employees who are native to France gives Randall the opportunity to practice the language and keep up to date on current French culture, she said.

“I get to share this passion I have for French. I am always looking for ways to experience the French language and engage in conversation, or I lose the flow of the language.

“This has been my life’s passion, and these people are great to work with. Any opportunity I have to share tidbits of information with them is magnifique.”