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Celebration of Service

Self-sufficiency spoken here

IBM teammates in France help newcomers develop language skills

Could you “parlez vous Francais” if your life, maybe literally, depended on it?

Here’s the scenario: you’ve moved to France seeking a better life: you have extremely limited resources (you may be a refugee); you need to get a job to feed your family, yet you have no idea what the words are for “job” and “work” in your new country because you do not speak the language—you do not speak or understand French; you may not even be able to read, no matter what language is used.

Caroline Fabre, an IBM services leader in France, recognized that she and her colleague Olivier Chamberaud, an IBM IT architect, had the skills, experience and passion to help immigrants to France acquire the language skills they would need to thrive in their new country.

As Caroline says, “Education and language allow people to lead their own lives. Teach someone the skills and they are more capable and self-reliant…they can act for themselves and follow their own destiny.”

A flower blossoms

Caroline had prior experience creating a charity organization called Program for Advancing Girls’ education, or PAGeduc, which is focused on giving access to training facilities to people who cannot afford paying a fee. In 2007, she and Olivier conceived an additional program for PAGeduc that would use technology to provide language training.

In France, a person seeking naturalization must demonstrate proficiency in the French language typical for everyday life, earning a Diploma of Introduction to French. Caroline and Olivier wanted to provide a service specifically for people who arrive in France not knowing how to speak French and who could never afford the cost of lessons. For immigrants, the effort, called “l’alphabétisation,” can help them develop literacy and self-sufficiency in their adopted country.

To create the interactive language experience, the two colleagues succeeded in raising enough money to engage experts in foreign language training, distance learning software, and a multimedia production and performance. The team focused on about 500 French words and built stories, scenarios and dialogue around those words, conveying their meaning using only images and sounds (helpful if someone cannot read). The videos are available on the web.

Olivier provided the technical expertise, essentially serving as the IT executive for the project, which he kicked off with an assessment to determine their processing needs and growth plan.

Caroline chose the acronym for Alpha Non Communicant (ANC), a reference to both the audience they wanted to serve and to alphabetization, and decided to name their new program ANColie, However, she noticed those were the first three letters of the columbine flower which blossoms in a variety of colors. She says, “It is evocative that someone could flourish like a flower through language.”

Today ANColie has about 120 hours of interactive instruction spread across dozens of videos, exercises to test progress, and audio pronunciation guides accessible on a website hosted by servers donated by IBM.

Industry recognition

Since most people in need of the instruction provided by ANColie do not have computers, Caroline has spread the word to other organizations in France who have a commitment to help newcomers learn the language. Organizations such as AGIRabcd, France Terre d'Asile, and Croix Rouge are aware of ANColie, and give computer access to members of their community while also providing tutors and volunteers who can help language learners.

In addition to the donated IBM servers running the website, Caroline helped Les Restos du Coeurs receive a grant of almost 100 computers from IBM to be used in the organization’s learning spaces—enabling this community to nourish their minds and improve their job potential with access to ANColie.

In May of 2010, PAGeduc and ANColie received an award at the first IT Night event in France. More than 1,200 people participated in the event celebrating new technology and its role shaping society. A jury awarded trophies in six categories, with ANColie being recognized for accomplishments in the category of “Employment and training.”

As a result of the publicity from the award, ANColie has received increased visibility including references on several networks that reach immigrants and the associations that support them, as well as other recognition such as being named “Software of the Month” in November, 2010 in the Coeurs a lire newsletter.

Rosy technology, but watering required

For Olivier the experience continues to be rewarding. He is able to measure student usage of the site and is pleased with a two-fold growth in participants since 2009 with no system hiccups. “The whole thing is in the cloud so it’s easy to manage,” he says.

During the day Olivier supports the banking industry, but says “I act as the IT director for the PAGeduc and ANColie, and while the challenges we face are small in comparison, I do get a personal view of the challenges our clients face.”

While the technology is performing well, and students and organizations are very pleased with the lessons, Caroline keeps a close watch on expenses. The annual license fee for the e-learning software is about 50,000€, plus hefty taxes. “I want to attract more corporate donations, especially from those who can hire this labor force,” she says. “My objective now is to connect prospective employers with the motivated prospective employees who are learning on our system.”

Caroline adds, “Olivier and I, and the partners working with us, are playing a part to eliminate illiteracy, which is an important step on the way to people living better lives. I know there are others who want to help; we need their support.”

IBM is marking its centennial year with a worldwide celebration of volunteer service. Throughout 2011, IBM invites everyone to join our global community of employees, retirees, families and friends as we support the communities where we work, live and learn together.