This past week of Spanish has been the most arduous for me yet. We have less than a month to go in our 24-week program, by which time we must earn a 3/3 on the End of Training test (EOT) – with the numbers indicating levels of speaking and reading, respectively – in order to go to our foreign assignments. Our instructors and learning consultants are hitting us with so many assignments and activities at once it has made my head spin. The workload and intensity have jumped dramatically in the fourth and final phase. But the instructors aren’t torturing us to be mean. They want us all to make that steep climb to success in the short time remaining. And for that, we have to be constantly reading, talking extemporaneously, and stuffing ourselves full of as much español as humanly possible.
As I mentioned in my previous post, a couple of weeks ago all the Spanish students from my cohort underwent a formal pre-EOT to assess whether we were on track. We were all shooting for a 2+/2+. Fortunately, that’s what I got. And as far as I can tell, in the lead-up to the EOT, the Spanish students now fall into three loose categories.
Students who finished early. Yes, some of the students already earned their 3/3 (the score they need to go to Post) during their pre-EOT. Lucky them! They don’t have to test again, but they don’t get to stay home either. They will spend the next few weeks in an alumni class to maintain their language skills, since they’re still on the clock with other trainings or departure a few weeks out.
Students who are on track. Those of us who earned a 2+/2+ are working hard to boost up to a 3/3 with only a few weeks to go. We are doing this with various levels of calm and confidence, because we know we could very well miss the 3/3 mark and end up slapped with a 4-6 week extension in Spanish training.
In my case, that would be slightly awful from both an administrative and a reputational standpoint; I have back-to-back tradecraft trainings through April when we leave for México. They start – you guessed it – one business day after Spanish ends. And I really don’t want to delay my arrival at Post! My new colleagues and my predecessor are counting on me, and already putting things on my calendar. However, if this happens, it won’t be the end of the world. I just want to finish on time and keep things orderly.
Students who got put on notice. Whether they just had a rough pre-EOT performance, or whether they really are behind, students who earned less than a 2+/2+ are now either busting their bums to be ready, or resigning themselves to the extra training and not stressing too much. To me, the worst part is that their future bosses received an email notification that the student was behind and “at risk” of not passing the EOT. I understand that the purpose of these notifications is to keep posts from being blindsided by delayed arrivals and the staffing gaps they can cause. But still, what a brutal first introduction of your professionalism before you even get there!
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the ability to learn a language is not a measure of intelligence. While I like and respect the Spanish Department administration and the whole learning team, there are challenges with this curriculum. Different learning styles, lack of prior exposure to Spanish, the lack of curriculum grammar focus, and the uneven experiences amongst students with regards to learning consultant support are all challenges. And some students are additionally disadvantaged by missing too much class due to illness or family emergency, or returning from high-threat posts with PTSD and struggling with concentration and retention.
I have no doubt the FSI Spanish curriculum has evolved over time in order to get students to what is essentially a professional level of fluency in less than six months. If we started with days of the week and colors, we would never get to where we are in such a short period. But that doesn’t mean that everyone will get there in 24 weeks, and I don’t think there is anything to be ashamed of about that.
I’ll leave you now with my sample day-in-the-life from this week:
04:30 – Alarm goes off, check to see where Australian fires have burned overnight, stagger to hit button on coffeemaker and sit down at desk in tiny apartment trying to be quiet. Read assigned articles – one about challenges mothers face in the labor market, another about the Holocaust, and a third about the death penalty. Define unknown words, jot down key points in case I am called on to present.
05:30 – Make a recording of myself talking about inequality, or labor unions, or trade agreements. Email it to instructor and learning consultant. Work through one rotation of my connector flashcards. Check the English news, social media, and work email and roll my eyes several times. Glance at the news in Spanish before dashing to the shower.
06:30 – Get ready for work, eat breakfast, pack a lunch. Forget my overdue FSI library books, again.
07:50 – Leave for FSI in my car even though there’s a free shuttle because I get carsick on the shuttle.
08:10 – Get to class, intending to warm up but instead shoot the breeze with my three classmates and talk in English about how tired we are.
08:30 – First hour of class, talk about news and discuss articles. There’s nowhere to hide; we sit around the table as if we were in a meeting and talk, talk, talk.
09:30 – Second hour of class, make impromptu presentations with 5 minutes prep time, do debates, grammar in context. Listening comprehension.
10:30 – Third hour of class, reading articles and summarizing gist and supporting details.
11:30 – Lunch break, thank you Lord. Avoid the cafeteria, eat my own food, try to knock out some personal admin or at least get some exercise with a winter walk around campus.
12:30 – Independent study – sometimes I use it to get a jumpstart on my homework, work in the language lab, check work email, or have a 1:1 meeting with my instructor or language consultant.
13:30 – Fourth hour of class, more presentations, more discussion and debate, maybe we get surprised and have to conduct an interview with a native speaker on a topic we weren’t expecting.
14:30 – Fifth hour of class, could be any number of exercises – but even something as simple as watching video clips, playing a game, or doing a vocabulary brainstorm is usually brutal because our brains are fried by then.
15:20 – Class dismissed, head home.
15:45 – Get home, have less than two hours home alone to get work done in silence, but am starving and brain is feeling muddled. Struggle to get the jump on it anyway.
The hours after this are usually filled with some combination of going to the gym, watching a movie, eating dinner, and going to bed. Less often my husband and I might go out, or I might meet friends or have a personal appointment. But this week, I went to bed by 17:00 twice. And then I wake up and try to do it all again! Although I have always been a night owl and would traditionally rather stay up late to finish something rather than get up early to finish something, lately I have been so tired that I reach a point where it isn’t productive to try and study more, leading to super-early wake-up times just to have enough time to finish all the assignments.