New perspectives on official languages – an interview with Tolga Yalkin

May 27, 2021

You’re going about your day, doing your work, and then someone notifies you that your language levels expire soon and it’s time to schedule some tests. Cue the panic!

At least, there’s a sense of stress for some. Unless we’re proficient enough to be granted an exemption, we all need to be tested in our second official language every five years. Often, we’ve done little to maintain our second language, so we sign up for lessons, ask our colleagues to speak to us in our second language, and try a few practice tests.  

Why aren’t we more proactive in maintaining our language levels? Time? Opportunity? Accessibility? There can be all kinds of reasons but one that I think many of us can relate to has to do with courage—putting ourselves out there and being okay with making mistakes. A very relevant challenge when it comes to establishing and maintaining inclusive workplaces.

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Tolga Yalkin

We invited Tolga Yalkin to talk to us about his experiences in learning and maintaining a second language. Tolga is an Assistant Deputy Minister at the Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat, overseeing Workplace Policies and Programs.

We’ve heard that you speak multiple languages. Could you tell us which ones?

Tolga: I actually grew up unilingual. My father is Turkish but he was not supportive of speaking Turkish. By the time I was 14, I decided to learn Turkish on my own, so my mother secretly took me to Turkish lessons. I reached about a conversational level in Turkish and plateaued there, but it sparked an interest in learning more languages, like Spanish and German.

And French?

Tolga: French was never really a focus for me until I moved to Ottawa and started working for the federal government. I was hired in a non-imperative position, so when it came time for testing, I spent about six weeks in Jonquière, living with a Francophone family and took training at the Collège Linguistique de Jonquière. That was my first significant exposure to learning French. And I found it really difficult to be immersed in French and not able to express myself eloquently. It was quite isolating. But looking back, it was the most rapid foundation I could have built.

Did that turn you off learning French at all?

Tolga: When I was at Jonquière, I put a lot of pressure on myself, but then at some point something inside me just changed. I didn’t really have a choice but to soften my objective. I was saying to myself, “You know what, I’ve worked hard at this and I’m never going to be perfect, so relax.” If I paralyze myself by putting pressure on myself to be perfect all the time, that meta-analysis will hinder me to communicate at all. And I think that’s the key part right there: overthinking it. It is cracked logic to think that the way that I’m going to achieve a degree of competency in something is by thinking so much about it. It’s like tennis. If you want to get good at it, you can’t only read up on it. It has to be a full body experience. And I think learning a language is the same.

So things really started to change after that realization?

Tolga: Well, for me, speaking a language is less about communicating or just writing something or being understood. It’s more like an artistic endeavour. When you speak, the feeling or tone is about how you project or portray the person you are: this is an experience that motivates me. In some senses, I actually prefer to speak French than English because it allows me a way to speak differently or even think differently and gives an apercu of how people engage in things in a different way. That said, there are obviously many moments where I feel more comfortable in English given the level of precision that I need to achieve in what it is that I have to say. And, I think that’s okay; it’s normal.

That’s really interesting, I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone express it in that way—that it’s not just about communicating, but finding a new way to express something, or oneself.

Tolga: Exactly. And I feel like we are working at crossed purposes by focusing too much on the very things (read: details) that prevent people from expressing themselves verbally effectively. I can see in people’s eyes: the thoughts they’re having and the analysis they’re doing as they struggle to find just the right words in just the right tense. And, when it comes to the oral testing, a bit part of the focus is on the technical. The fact that we test for that outcome but not people’s openness and ability to speak the language with some degree of abandon is, at least, something worthy of discussion and examination.

I’ve been in government for almost 20 years and I think you’re the first senior manager I’ve ever seen who is completely bilingual in meetings, flipping back and forth between both languages equally, as opposed to just throwing in one or two sentences in French. How do you manage to do that so easily?

Tolga: Practice, obviously. But I also do this mental thing where, instead of being Tolga, I’m Tolga [pronounced with a French accent]. And I speak French on a daily basis, socially and at work where we are regularly cutting in and out of it. How we spend our time and deploy our efforts will have an impact on who and where we are in the future. Again, tennis is a good example, I don’t play often, so when I do, I’m rusty and it takes a while to get into it. If I were to play intermittently in the week, I would be a lot better at it. Same thing with French.

I suppose the part that is often difficult is knowing where to start or who to ask for help to improve how we maintain our second language. What would you tell someone who is asking for tips or tricks on where to start?

Tolga: I would say to them to really make the effort of learning a second language worthwhile. If you are ONLY focused on passing the exam, you may succeed, but you’re probably not going to get a lot more out of the experience. And, I suspect that the time and effort you put into it will be more frustrating, more stressful that if you soften your focus and ask yourself what intrinsic value there is for you to learn a second language, why it’s important to you, and how you learn, and then imbue the process with that sense of value and purpose. I’d also point out that the opportunities for growth that appear as a part of that process can be really profound. And that’s not just an opportunity for personal growth, but also for the public service to grow. We are not the public service we were 50 years ago when we first started trying to turn a predominantly Anglophone organization into one that is truly bilingual. We’ve matured since then. I think what’s next is fulfilling the promise of bilingualism in Canada. We have an opportunity to ask how we are going to achieve greater expectations and that promise.


We left our discussion with Tolga feeling quite inspired. As we listened to Tolga, thoughts of our own experiences with maintaining a second official language filled our minds. If it’s having the same effect on you right now, your lived experiences are not taken for granted—they are at the heart of our work on diversity and inclusion in the public service.

If you are looking for ideas on how to maintain your second official language, the Canada School of Public Service (CSPS) has a section dedicated to the topic:

You can also check in with your manager, or Human Resources advisor to see what kind of official languages support is available in your organization. And feel free to share what works for you in the comments below. 

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Comments

Submitted by Robert Gariépy on May 28, 2021 - 3:16 PM

Je trouve le billet de Tolga intéressant, encourageant et inspirant. En tant que francophone, j'apprécie énormément quand une personne fait l'effort de parler français, la correctitude de l'expression n'est pas très importante. C'est le message qui compte, et avec lui il y a un message d'inclusion fondamental à l'endroit de tous les francophones. Ce message d'inclusion est précieux.