Before I joined the Foreign Service, I avidly followed the blogs of newly minted FSOs as they progressed through A-100 (orientation) and Flag Day, but then without fail the blogger would enter language training, and the posts would abruptly stop. Sadly, Of Elephants and Castles has succumbed to the same arresting effects of French training. This is mostly because learning a language a) quickly takes over one’s life and b) is less than exciting blog material in comparison to say, staying with nomads in Kenya, or even missing trains in Europe. Yet, I am reminded each day that full-time language study is a unique process worthy of at least a few comments, and so here you are:
- The Emotions – What surprised me the most about intensive language study is how unsettling emotional the whole process can be. Most of you who know me can guess that I have been a very good student my whole life – I always did my readings beforehand and was prepared for very active engagement in the classroom. Now in French class sometimes I can’t even understand the teacher’s question, and almost always I have difficulty expressing the simplest of thoughts no matter how much prep I’ve done. It’s easy to understand why toddlers have temper-tantrums since not being able to communicate can be incredibly aggravating.
- The Schedule – Each day we have about 5 hours of class – with one of those hours just for conversation. Gone are the days of fading into a classroom of 15 other students while critically thinking about a theoretical topic. With only three of us in the classroom, there’s no time to relax or let your mind drift. One third of the time, it’s my turn to talk. Outside of class we’re supposed to complete 3 hours of homework. In reality I probably spend about 4-5 hours on French outside of the classroom each day, but some of that is just listening to the radio or surfing news. Also, I’m actually trying to focus and limit my study time closer to around 3 hours since several experienced folks have warned me about burn-out.
- The Support – The good thing about facing this incredibly overwhelming task is that we get a lot of support from FSI (the Foreign Service Institute). I have a Learning Consultant whom I meet with once a week who assesses my progress and answers my study questions. Then we have other sessions on topics like conversational strategies and making the most of study time. I even had 3 different sessions with a consultant who assessed my Myers-Briggs type and MLAT score (Modern Language Aptitude Test) and then suggested which types of study strategies will work best for me. The Department is investing a lot into us, so they want to do as much as possible to help us pass.
I’ve come a long way since the first few weeks when I felt utterly panicked and told everyone within earshot that learning French will be the ‘hardest thing I’ve ever done.’ Now I’ve got my study rhythm in place and feel lost in class less and less. It definitely isn’t easy, but I’m enjoying the process. And it’s going to be pretty stinking cool when in 3.5 more months I’ll be able to confidently say, ‘Oui! Je parle français.’