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Loving Life as a Foreign Service Family – Current Parallel 38° 50' N, Alexandria, Virginia USA

A Day in the Life of a Language Student

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The opportunity to be paid to learn other languages was no small part of my motivation to pursue a career in the Foreign Service. I started my Spanish training course at the National Foreign Affairs Training Center in November. I’m a bit past the halfway point now. So what is a day in the life of a NFATC language student like?

We spend about 5 hours per day in a small group class. So far in the Spanish department we’ve rotated teachers about every 6 weeks. I’ve had as many as 3 other students in my class and as few as 1. Students periodically get rotated as well, to interact with other people, and to try to match up people who have progressed to a similar level. In addition to the 5 hours of group class, I have various 1 on 1 sessions with my regular teachers and with other staff members in the Spanish department, and of course there’s homework. All of my teachers are native speakers of Spanish, from a variety of countries.

I spend about 3 hours per day outside of class actively working on study, and several additional hours per week watching Spanish language shows on Netflix, listening to Spanish language podcasts, or reading books in Spanish. The NFATC has a library of books in many languages curated by difficulty level, so I’ve been working my way up from easy to more challenging books. I’m currently reading Harry Potter y la Piedra Filosofal! Para mis amigos hispanohablantes, le recomiendo muchisimo los libros de Francisco Jiménez, “Cajas de Cartón,” y “Senderos Fronterizos.”

In class we do a variety of activities, focusing on each of 4 “pillars” of language learning: meaning based input (listening, reading, etc), meaning focused output (speaking, writing), language based learning (grammar, vocabulary) and fluency (accent, fluidity of speech, pronunciation). I’ll need to pass a test in both speaking and reading, and for reading we read both short (4-6 pieces fitting on one side of a sheet of paper) and long (1 piece filling one side of a sheet of paper) pieces and then reporting on their content in english.

I’ve had several people ask me how much Spanish I now speak after 3.5 months of intensive study. I speak enough that I can watch tons of shows on Netflix in Spanish, either with or without Spanish language subtitles (which do help, particularly with accents I’m less familiar with), and catch probably 90% of what is said. I am getting to the point at which I can listen to an episode of Radio Ambulante (a Spanish language NPR podcast) with intense focus and occasional rewindings and certainly catch the gist, and most of the details. I can give 5 minute presentations on the causes of the 2008 economic crisis, on immigration, on education, on the purposes of diplomacy, etc. Theoretically I’ve learned at least 3,000 of the most frequently used words in Spanish. We attended a party a few weekends ago and I met several native speakers and was able to keep up small-talk conversations with them without them insisting that we switch to english (which they almost all spoke well). In short, I’ve learned a lot. It’s still clunky though, and I find myself talking myself into traps in which I would need to use a subjunctive conjugation which I have not yet learned. I’m working on organizing my thoughts in ways that fit my vocabulary and my syntax skills. It’s grueling and exciting and awesome and frustrating.

For a concrete example of my apparent current level in reading, here is a piece I read today as part of my homework: “Fronteras” by Rosa Montero. I submitted a 10 minute recording of myself talking about the meaning of this in english (interpreting the meaning, pointing out implicit information, etc, not doing a word-for-word literal translation) to my teacher via email, I felt like I understood it very well, with only a few words that I don’t know. I guess we’ll see tomorrow if I’m right.

A benefit for Foreign Service families is that if there is space available in the language courses, family members are permitted to take them as well for free. This certainly can help with morale, as it’s (obviously) much easier to get by from day to day in a foreign country if you can read the street signs or the ingredients on a package of food, or, you know, interact with people. Dy enrolled in a 8 week “Fast” course, so we’ve been able to have lunch together for the last 2 months and it’s been wonderful spending a little more time with her. While we aren’t in the same small group class, we are at least working from the same curriculum, so she can commiserate with me when I complain about one of the assignments. The image I found for this post is a bit of a joke. Unlike the curriculum typicallly taught in a highschool or college language course, we have not been taught any food names, and only recently (as an extra at our request, not as part of the actual curriculum) have we learned how to talk about the weather. A free trade agreement, or climate change, or a housing bubble, on the other hand? We’ve got that vocabulary. (un tratado de libre comercio, el cambio climatico, una burbuja inmobiliaria, respectively). Hopefully she will find the vocabulary about international relations and the roles of various diplomats in an embassy useful at some point!

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