Я говорю по-Русски…

Yesterday, six weeks out from the end of my Russian language studies, I had a progress evaluation to measure how close I am to demonstrating the 2/2 level of speaking and reading in Russian that my new job in Uzbekistan will require. The results were unofficial, and the evaluation was conducted at the language department level rather than at the institute level. However, it’s important for instructors and learning consultants to see how their students are progressing.

Many Foreign Service language students are headed to language-designated jobs. Many of the positions require a 3/3, especially for world languages like Spanish or French. However, some jobs that require difficult languages like Russian, Mandarin and Arabic, just to name a few, require less reading or speaking ability (and sometimes none at all). The embassy has determined that the position I’ll encumber as a consular officer in Tashkent needs a 2/2 in Russian (not Uzbek) and that’s why my Flag Day came with 28 weeks of Russian language training.

So what does needing a 2/2 mean in objective and practical terms? The Foreign Service Institute uses the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale for determining language proficiency. Here’s what the ILR says about a 2, or “limited working proficiency”:

Limited working proficiency is the second level of five in the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale of language proficiency, formerly called the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) scale. This level is sometimes referred to as S-2 or level 2. A person at this level is described as follows:

* Able to satisfy routine social demands and limited work requirements;
* Can handle with confidence, but not with facility, most social situations including introductions and casual conversations about current events, as well as work, family, and autobiographical information;
* Can handle limited work requirements, needing help in handling any complications or difficulties; can get the gist of most conversations on non-technical subjects (i.e. topics which require no specialized knowledge), and has a speaking vocabulary sufficient to respond simply with some circumlocutions;
* Has an accent which, though often quite faulty, is intelligible;
* Can usually handle elementary constructions quite accurately but does not have thorough or confident control of the grammar.

I must reach a 2/2 and demonstrate it during my formal language assessment (otherwise known as the end-of-training test) on Friday, March 20. The department allowed me to schedule my EOT for the very last day of class, so I’m going to go out on a limb here and say they believe in me. I start consular training, otherwise known as ConGen, on Monday, March 23, so there clearly isn’t much room for a language training extension.

So yesterday, I went to this progress evaluation and talked with two native Russian speakers about things like U.S.-Uzbek relations, current news, healthcare reform, and work-life balance. I blew myself away by achieving a 2 in speaking. Me. A level 2. In speaking!! I had prepared extensively, and to my great delight, everything that I had prepared came out of my mouth in the best possible way. I was poised, articulate, and recovered gracefully from two mild brain freezes. This was so satisfying after my first progress evaluation in November in which I basically blue-screened.

What shocked me even more was that I only got a 1+ in reading. Since we started reading, it’s been my strongest skill (besides listening). Because of my fluency in Macedonian and passive knowledge of Serbian, I frequently see verbs and nouns in Russian that I recognize and am able to identify correctly. Though the complexity and length of the articles we’re reading has increased dramatically from the beginning when my Cyrillic advantage was clear, and I struggle with deconstructing sentence grammar, I have usually been able to bumble through my English summaries without too much pain. I don’t think anyone I’ve been working with over the past five months would agree that my speaking is better than my reading.

But yesterday it was! The assessors can only go by what I did yesterday, and they’d never seen or talked to me prior to that. And to be honest, I didn’t deserve a better reading score yesterday – I just flatly didn’t demonstrate my full ability.

Why? I think I was too hasty in choosing an article to read. I felt pressed for time, because our conversation and interview had gone long, and when I’d arrived for the evaluation we’d been kicked out of our reserved room by another meeting and had to walk around campus and find a room on the fly. Awkward! The article I chose contained a lot of medically-specific terminology, only some of which I was familiar with.

In addition, I know that I showed too much insecurity and doubt when doing my English summary of what I’d read. I also have been so worried about my speaking that I put probably 90% of my effort there, and paid very little attention to reading. Oops.

This progress evaluation was not only useful for the Russian Department, it was also useful for me. In one regard, it gave me a much-needed confidence boost. I am more aware than ever that I’m right where I need to be, and doing what I need to be doing. Whatever personal challenges I’ve faced over the last several months that have left me feeling less than confident have clearly not distracted me from my goal: acquiring this new and very difficult language.

More importantly, the experience I had in this progress evaluation has provided valuable insight into how I must prepare for the EOT. Win-win.

Thinking that I’m simultaneously capable and lucky. Feeling a simultaneous mix of pride and humility.

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