I just finished the fourth week of Spanish language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) in Arlington, where the State Department sends its diplomats and staff for training ahead of overseas assignments, sometimes for months at a time. In my case, late next spring I will become Deputy American Citizen Services (ACS) Chief at our consulate in Cuidad Juárez, México, so I get six months (24 weeks) of Spanish. FSI teaches dozens of languages and tradecraft courses, so you’ll find employees from across the U.S. government studying there, too.
For me, the change of pace from a busy political section at our embassy in Australia – where the bilateral relationship is huge – to sitting in a small classroom for several hours per day has been nice, but challenging in its own way. It’s also crazy to think I am one-sixth done with Spanish already! My first progress evaluation is on Monday, so this is a good place to pause and reflect.
This is my third time studying at FSI. I was there full-time for nearly a year from the time I joined the Department in mid-2014. I did A-100 (the introductory course for all new diplomats as they come in), then six months of Russian, followed by area studies, ConGen, and various other courses before departing for my first tour in Tashkent in May 2015. I also came back in mid-2017 before my second tour in Canberra to take political and economic tradecraft training. Last month I hit 14 total years of federal service, and I have to say that never in my career have I had as much excellent training as the State Department provides. It is truly an incredible opportunity to be paid to assemble the skills you need to be better at your job.
The first week of Spanish started on Tuesday, September 3, after the Labor Day holiday. (The first day was really an orientation day, so although the calendar says we have finished the fourth week, our lesson weeks technically go from Wednesday to Wednesday.)
My Spanish program will last for 24 weeks and is supposed to get me to a level 3 in speaking and a level 3 in reading, known as a 3/3. (The scale goes up to a 5/5, the measurement of fluency a highly-educated native speaker would demonstrate. Most Americans speak English in their daily lives at a level 3 or 4.)
The 3/3 designation is not arbitrary; my new job is coded at this level. So my instructor, supervisor, and learning consultant in FSI’s Spanish department will measure my progress throughout the course, which culminates with an End of Training (EOT) speaking and reading test that I must pass to go to Post on time.
This Spanish course focuses on developing our skills in four areas. First, meaningful input, which is to build our comprehension. Second, meaningful output, like our ability to produce written Spanish. Third, extensive reading, for which it is not important to understand every word but rather to be able to correctly report the gist and give supporting details. And fourth, fluency development, which is why we speak extemporaneously about things over and over again and focus on pronunciation and vocabulary/phrases that will be useful in our future jobs.
The course is less focused on teaching us grammar, but between our online lesson platforms which include videos, grammar support, exercises, and the supplementary books I purchased to augment my studies, I have almost more resources than my brain can productively use and synthesize, at least now. A study plan and structure are essential! Besides the library at FSI, we also have a lab to work on pronunciation and listening exercises outside of class.
So far, the topics we have focused on in our lessons include biographical data about ourselves, our academic and professional backgrounds, our commutes and daily routines, things we like or don’t like to do, and the responsibilities and activities of our previous, current, and future assignments.
We also have been learning how to formulate questions to elicit information from others on the same topics, and watching exercises with familiar characters on the online platform who talk extensively on these topics with increasing degrees of difficulty as we go forward. We also read and summarize short news articles and do a variety of in-class worksheets and activities. Since the second week, we have had mock receptions and interviews with other Spanish classes; although our class has three students, the Spanish department overall is large and has a couple dozen classes with whom we can mix and practice. On average, there are 3-4 students in each class.
It is a very different experience than I had studying Spanish in high school and college in which we focused initially on things like the alphabet, grammar, days of the week, colors, numbers, etc. In this course, we have been speaking in sentences essentially from the get-go, but in the present and preterite (simple past) tenses only.
In my opinion, people who have studied Spanish in the past have an advantage in this program. I could be wrong, but the program does seem to assume a level of familiarity with basic vocabulary and syntax that not everyone has been exposed to. (Or maybe they’re just throwing it out there and hoping it sticks.)
But thankfully, in this way, I can assemble what I remember, pick familiar things out, and usually create sentences correctly without really being able to explain why. Had I studied French or German in high school, I would probably struggle more and especially if I compared myself to other students.
However, whatever advantage I had or imagined I had is disappearing as we pick up speed; I am not the best student in my class of three, and if I don’t put in at least two hours of self-study daily (including weekends) it quickly shows. I want to learn from a clean slate, and avoid incorporating “pattern mistakes” held over from prior study or exposure to slang or non-native speech. Retaining 50 vocabulary words and phrases per day is harder than I thought! It used to be my strong suit.
I think the strategy is more just about what FSI can do with the short time they have to get us where we need to be. It’s not a lot of time, and so we use it as tightly as we can. I study things like grammar, verb conjugations, numbers, colors, animals, months, etc. by myself because although I’m not going to be tested on all of it per se, I don’t want gaps there. I also NEED to understand grammar rules and why things are the way they are so that I can correctly build on them and apply them to more complicated structures in the future. Just memorizing and repeating things does not work for me!
It amazes me that I have already read seven or eight beginners’ books in Spanish. In Russian, because the grammar is so complicated and the cases are revealed one at a time over a period of months, it would have been difficult for me to read even little kid books this early on.
However, the library at FSI has sections dedicated to “extensive reading” at all levels of Spanish, and we started reading during week two for 15 minutes each day (now we’re up to a half hour). The limit is six books checked out at a time, and I am usually maxed out! I really enjoy the reading and pick up lots of new words. If I get a book that is too hard for me, or not interesting, I turn it back in with no guilt.
Since the last time I studied at FSI, about half the language courses have been relocated to a new satellite branch in Rosslyn and because of this, campus feels a lot roomier. FSI has done away with the A and B shifts (starting at 07:40 and 10:40 respectively, if memory serves) to maximize classroom space. In Russian I was on the B shift and although I actually loved the hours (swing shift would be my ideal work hours, but I know that’s not for everyone), trying to park on arrival was a nightmare.
Now all the language classes run from 08:30-11:20, and pick up again from 13:30-15:20. Even though we all arrive for an 08:30 start, there is all the parking you could ever want.
And it’s still considered an eight-hour work day because we have an hour of independent work factored in both before and after class, as well as an hour during the long lunch break. We also have short days on Tuesdays and every other Wednesday attributed to administrative time and self-study. One day a week I come in early for a 07:40 session with my learning consultant, and I have attended every optional Tuesday special program which keeps me there an extra couple of hours. I also usually study on campus until around 17:00 regardless of the day because studying outside the apartment is most productive for me.
The biggest challenge for me right now is being able to take the enormous amount of information that is being thrown at me for several hours a day, and incorporate it in a way that generates correct, controlled speech. Watching videos and writing my little monologues is great, but if it doesn’t lead to me being able to *speak* and pass the reading test, it’s not helpful for the purposes of passing the course.
I also struggle sometimes with confidence. I say a sentence like a question because I assume I’m wrong when actually – I often turn out to be right! I need to stop doing that. Even when I am wrong, who cares? There is no need to feel ashamed because we’re all in a learning environment.
One thing that I do right consistently is take every possible opportunity to speak in Spanish with native speakers. I greet FSI instructors in Spanish. I talk to waiters in Latin American restaurants. I talked to my recent Uber drivers from Guatemala, Ecuador, and Bolivia. I talked to the Salvadoran lady at my salon for a half an hour. I feel dumb when I make mistakes or don’t understand, but I know how to ask for clarification or to ask someone to explain something in different words, so I just keep going.
If I had to summarize the last four weeks with a theme, it would be “accepting everything and not saying no.” By that, I mean taking it all in and letting it wash over me. Not insisting on making mechanical translations from English but accepting the syntax and colloquialisms of Spanish for what they are. Pulling out the extra energy for extroverted or surprise activities when I want desperately to hide or fake a sudden illness. I have missed less than one hour of class this whole month!!
I have found that every time I dread some activity, it usually turns out much better than I expected. I try to volunteer to go first, to be cheerful, to be agreeable. After all, this is my full-time job, and even though I don’t love being put on the spot, I try to cooperate and take it seriously while still having fun with it. I deploy humor in as many situations as possible and get a lot of laughs from my instructors and two classmates. I do think the instructors know what we need, and so I put my trust in them. When they ask me to do/change something, I accept it without resistance.
On Monday after my first progress evaluation, I will know more about how I am doing and where I need to improve before the 12 week (midway) progress evaluation.