Our job, as Foreign Service Officers, is to carry out the work of the U.S. Government abroad. The world…as we all know…is a big place full of all kinds of different people who speak all kinds of different languages.
So if we are supposed to go out and work with all these people we need to learn how to talk to them. That’s where Foreign Service Language training comes in. Some of my friends from orientation are being sent off to countries where the primary language is English. They’ll be arriving in their new digs pretty soon (many have actually already gotten there). But many of us need to learn (or in my case improve) a second language. The Foreign Service Institute teaches dozens and dozens of different languages to diplomats. Obviously Spanish is a big one, and K and I both spent a couple of months getting tuned up. I have friends who are studying just about every language you can think of: French, Italian, Chinese, Burmese, Indonesian, Arabic, Hindi, Bengali, Bulgarian, Russian, Norwegian, and on and on. You never know what language you will overhear people practicing as you walk through the hallways at FSI. Every day I hear something that I have trouble identifying. Our training center feels an awful lot like an international airport.
Language class itself is pretty fun. You spend about five hours a day with a teacher and a small group of students (usually three to five) learning grammar and vocabulary, and doing your best to converse intelligently in whatever language you are dealing with. I was given a short course of study because I already had a fair amount of Spanish, so I was put into a class with a group of students who already had a pretty good handle on the language. We spent a lot of time talking about the news and having mock debates. We also delved into lots of the more complex oddities of the language that are tough to get one’s head around (subjunctive tense, anyone?). I was in class with a pretty fun, interesting, and supportive group of people, so it was enjoyable.
The less enjoyable part of the process is The Test. Each post requires its officers to achieve a certain level in the given language before they can head out. So language classes…despite the fun…are intended to get us ready to take the test to hopefully get the score we need. There’s a scary set of rooms on the top floor of the building where they do the tests. It involves about an hour of talking, and another hour of reading and describing (in English) what you’ve just read. I took the test during my first week of orientation so that they could get a baseline score for me, and it was less than fun. It is designed to test the limits of your proficiency in the language, and the examiners take their responsibility seriously. They ask you all kinds of challenging questions about all sorts of nuanced topics, and grade your ability to keep up. Fortunately I achieved the score that I needed after only eight weeks of class, so I’m able to go off to post on time. Other people struggle to pass the test, especially if they have started learning the language from scratch. It’s fairly common to have to delay moving abroad because you haven’t pulled the score that you need on the test. I’m glad that I didn’t have much of a fight…though I was very nervous on the day of the test.
Most officers can expect to learn several languages in the course of their career. I’m sure that at some point we will be back here in Arlington studying Bengali, Burmese, Bulgarian, or something else exciting!