If the theme for the first four weeks of Spanish class was accepting whatever came my way without saying no and letting it all wash over me, the theme for the past week has been playing along. I don’t mean that in the sense of “humoring” the program or instructors in any way. What I mean is that I’m trying to do what they ask me to do, in the way they are asking me to do it, in order to learn quickly and demonstrate that I can build fluency.
I play along – I learn the vocabulary and text building blocks they give us the best I can, and I try to deploy them when I produce speech. When I mispronounce something, I try again. When I don’t understand something, I ask for clarification. In summary, I try to work with I have without trying to be perfect or make the curriculum anything other than what it is. So far, this strategy is working pretty well.
My first Spanish progress evaluation
By the end of our 24 week program, we are expected to achieve a level 3 in both speaking and reading (otherwise known as a 3/3). Although the first official assessment occurs midway through the program at week 12, during week five we have to undergo an informal progress evaluation, too.
The progress evaluation scores you get for speaking and reading are not official. Your Spanish department supervisor, instructor, and learning consultant use it as a tool to measure your progress and needs, and to periodically reshuffle the classes and instructors. This is supposed to balance your support with your challenges, and set you up for success in learning ahead of your week 12 assessment and your End of Training test (EOT).
A week ago my learning consultant administered my progress evaluation, and to my surprise, I performed better than I had expected. In this evaluation, we were expected to be at a 1+/1+. However, in speaking I received a 2 and in reading I received between a 1+ and a 2; the range indicates that I demonstrated at minimum a 1+ and some (but not all) characteristics of a 2. This means I am progressing normally or even a little ahead of normal – or at least, that that’s what I demonstrated in the controlled circumstances of my evaluation.
During the speaking portion, according to my learning consultant, I was able to control my grammar and verb conjugations, pronounce things correctly and clearly most of the time, manage the discourse and exchanges actively, politely, and professionally, and, when pushed to my ceiling, pivot away from material I can’t yet express and find another way to answer questions using what I know.
I was also able to conduct an interview, ask for clarification, ask for something to be explained to me in other words, ask questions and report back what I heard in English, and read a series of articles and then report the gist and details of their contents. Afterwards, I received immediate feedback from my learning consultant and a couple of days afterwards, I met with my supervisor who provided more in-depth feedback and notified me of my score. We talked about the specific “2” criteria I am meeting, and what I will need to improve to get to a 3.
In my opinion, in these types of evaluations, if you don’t know the answer to a question, expressing an answer or opinion is still important. It’s not about the truth – it’s about working with the material. In some ways it can feel inauthentic, which bugs me, especially when I’m asked about a topic that annoys me or that I don’t really care about. But I try to keep in mind that they aren’t really asking me because they want to know. (Or they would ask me in English in the hallway!) They want to see what I can do with the Spanish.
OK, let’s see then.
I did spend time preparing blocks of text on the topics I knew would come up in the progress evaluation. This includes my academic and professional background, my previous and future work responsibilities, interesting trips I’ve taken, my typical schedule and commute, the education system in the U.S., and familiar topics like that which we’ve been covering in class.
This was a strategy I used when I studied Russian, and in the FSI context, I find it helpful in feeling prepared to address topics I’m expected to discuss. (I usually also have a couple of related topics up my sleeve, too, to bring some authenticity to those types of conversations. For example, I discussed my Peace Corps Volunteer experience and a film I recently watched.)
I consider it less “memorizing” since I don’t have to trot out my phrases in any particular order. For me it’s like learning a set of talking points and being ready to give background and answer questions. I write or type out texts over time, building in more and more pieces as I learn, aggregate them all by topic, and then discuss or make little speeches about each topic over and over (without reading my notes!) until it’s just stuff I know and can (hopefully) bring up at the right time without sounding particularly “rehearsed.”
Not all of the students think their progress evaluation was fair or correct. Not everyone is satisfied with the pace or dynamics of their class, the teaching style of their instructor, or the way the program and curriculum generally are administered. Fortunately for me, I am not having any of these problems right now, but I understand them.
For some reason – and maybe because I am raging against the machine in so many other areas of my life right now – I am content to just keep plugging along the best I can. I’m not competing with anyone, comparing myself to anyone, or allowing success to be a zero sum game. I’m playing along and incorporating everything I’m learning at my own pace.
More car drama
In non-Spanish related news, after paying nearly $6,800 in September to completely diagnose and repair my car Hilde from her misfortune (and, frankly, mistreatment) while she sat in overseas government storage from May 2017 to August 2019, I was thrilled to get her back. I hit the road with cautious optimism.
Then, within three days… wait for it… the engine light came on. (Nightmare flashbacks to my experience in Australia with our lemon of a steel-gray Nissan, whom we named Oscar – as in, the grouch.)
It turned out the fuel tank needed to be replaced, a problem which had escaped the initial diagnostics. At that time, the car hadn’t yet been driven long enough for the fuel inside to heat sufficiently and reveal its state of corrosion (despite passing smog and a safety inspection). That is just one more preventable problem that would not have occurred had the long term vehicle storage program correctly managed my vehicle.
A new fuel tank was going to cost me another $2,600, but the Volkswagen service center took pity on me and knocked a few hundred bucks off the price. I got Hilde back and for the last week (knock on wood) she has been running like a dream.
I am hoping that the majority of the expenses related to mechanical and body damage – less my deductible – will be covered by my international insurance policy, which thank God I put into place for the entirety of my car’s overseas presence, including specific periods for storage and transit.
My car was just worth too much to not pay for that, and I’ve heard too many horror stories about Foreign Service Officers’ cars damaged by misadventures or outright negligence.
At this point, I am working on putting together my claim; I’ve already notified my insurance, gathered all the pertinent documentation, and the only thing left to do after that will be to get estimates to repair the body damage. I’ve also notified the Department which acts as a secondary insurer (or primary, if the FSO didn’t take out their own policy) and if need be, I will go through that long and tedious process for whatever Clements can’t or won’t cover.
Our sixth wedding anniversary
V and I will actually celebrate our 13th anniversary later this year. However, we recently marked our sixth wedding anniversary with a trip to the National Cathedral in Washington, DC for a concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (1678-1741). I am so glad we went. The performance was so beautiful and even more impressive than I could have imagined.
Afterwards we went to dinner in one of our favorite DC neighborhoods where we lived back in 2006-2009: Dupont Circle. Besides the delicious food and wine and the romantic atmosphere, being back in one of our old haunts made me so happy. Slowly, we are mixing it up by returning to our old favorites while also trying out places that appeared in our absence.
It feels very good to be back home on the east coast.
Time is marching forward and I’m trying to keep up with everything, and make time for rest, fun, and the never-ending list of administrative to-dos.
Two of my current priorities are to finally submit my PCS voucher and renew our diplomatic passports, which expire in January, so I can then apply for our Mexican visas. Onward…