My destination is far away, and in an unclear fog. An apt allegory for my current life.
Just for fun, I put the essay that I wrote for Vietnamese class into Google’s translation engine. Here’s the English version of my masterpiece:
She Yoko with you more. He is not your South Yoko. He thinks Yoko cleans her, and she wanted GEP. He asked her South Yoko She’s the brown water. She answered her Yoko is Japanese.
British Male GEP you want more. He asked Yoko, England Tom was. She Yoko answered, he is Tom. She Yoko nhgi, British Men who do not know Tom. She Yoko help British Male understand what Tom is prolific. Anh Nam nice to meet Tom, UK South have you much.
Obviously, Google’s translation engine is broken.
They take language teaching at FSI very seriously. We spent much of our first day of class in orientation and pre-training. The director of FSI, reminded us that the taxpayers are spending a LOT of money to give us language, and that we have a big responsibility not to waste that. She also reminded us that we will have to work hard if we want to get higher than a basic level of proficiency. Language skills are another tool that diplomats use, and the better that we can speak our target languages, the better diplomats we will be.
We also took several diagnostic tests. One was the (in)famous Modern Language Aptitude Test, affectionately referred to as the MLAT. We also took a learning style diagnosis. As someone with a background in education and applied linguistics, I participated in these tests with good-faith seriousness, but with a grain of salt. The bottom line is that the students with a positive attitude and who work hard will succeed, and those who put in a half-hearted effort will not do well, regardless of our respective aptitudes. Nevertheless, it was a good start to this long-term learning effort.
After two weeks of training, we have a good grasp of the sound system, a working vocabulary of about 200 words, and some basic grammar. The textbook is organized by function. Every chapter centers on communicative functions, like greetings, introductions, and asking for information.
At the rate we’re going, we are getting the equivalent of a college semester every three weeks or so. I am scheduled to be in language for 39 weeks. The amount of instruction that I will get works out to be more than I would get in a four-year degree program.
It’s a lot of work. My wife and I put in at least three hours of homework every night, sometimes four hours a day. That’s after five hours of class instructional time. Our brains are worn out.
Lucky for us, we don’t have the distractions of a family life. We don’t have to get kids off to school, help them with their homework, attend PTA meetings, and deal with drama at home. I take my hat off to working parents who are going through this. One of my friends is especially amazing: a single parent with two young kids, learning another difficult Asian language. she is amazingly smart, and I know that she will do great. But it can’t be easy. I salute you: A!
It’s nice to be a student again. But this is an intense experience.
Shortly after finishing my PhD, my wife and I did a home-improvement project that involved replacing the toilet in our house. I had a greater feeling of accomplishment from that project than I felt upon completing my PhD. Why? Because a toilet is something that one can use every day.
Vietnamese class started this week. For the next 39 weeks, my full-time job will be to learn the Vietnamese language. Why 39 weeks? You ask. Good question, I answer. My wife is in class, too, as an “EFM.” “EFM” stands for “eligible family member.” Eligible for what, you ask? Good question, I answer.
Language training here at the Foreign Service Institute is intense. We are in class for five hours per day. There are about 20 students in the Vietnamese section. We will all work in the consulate in Ho Chi Minh City. This week we had some classes all together, learning the basics of the sound system. Then we broke out into our small groups of three or four for in-depth work. In addition to class time, there is homework and time in the language lab. This is a full-time job.
I was a bit anxious about starting language. I haven’t learned a new language in over 20 years. I’ve spent most of my adult life working on my Chinese proficiency. So the idea of jumping head-first into learning a new language was unnerving. But more importantly, I don’t want my Chinese to suffer. My wife and I still talk in Chinese together, as we always have, so at least my everyday language will probably not erode. But I’m still worried about my reading ability.
But even with the negatives, this phase of my life is an interesting intellectual challenge. I did my PhD in linguistics, focusing on second language acquisition. I’ve been interested in adult language acquisition for a long time. Mostly, I have focused on the teaching side. I haven’t experienced the student side for a long time.
For an adult, language learning is a cognitively challenging task. An adult’s experience of learning a language is probably fundamentally different from a child’s learning a first language. There are some serious challenges to adults who try to learn a second language. While all children learn their native language perfectly, most adults who try to learn a second language fail to achieve more than basic functional ability. This is probably because our brains work differently at this stage in life. Although diplomats are intelligent and highly motivated, most of us will be disappointed with our progress in language learning.
I have some advantages over my classmates, I think. This first week we focused on the sound system. Vietnamese has some different consonants from English, and the vowel system is different from English in many ways. That’s where my advantage is. Because of my background in theoretical linguistics, I can grasp the differences a bit easier than my classmates, at least conceptually. Also, Vietnamese is a tonal language. Chinese is as well, of course, and so even though Vietnamese tones are different from Chinese tones, at least I know how to listen for tones. A few people have never learned any foreign language, let alone a tonal language. They wear worried expressions on their faces a lot.
There are several Chinese speakers in our class, including a few native speakers. When they make mistakes pronouncing tones, I usually can tell the reason for their mistakes. First language has an influence on the second language. That’s why adult non-native speakers have foreign accents. I probably make a lot of the same mistakes, but when the teacher points them out, I can correct for the mistake easier. At least at the initial stages of learning, I predict that I will have less pain and frustration.
So far, language learning has been an interesting intellectual experience. Like all “good” language learners, I am testing hypotheses about the language as I develop my “interlanguage.” I like to think that my interlanguage is more linguistically informed. I like the experience of applying the theoretical knowledge that I have about language, to the task of language learning. Time will tell how useful my linguistic background will be. In the words of the famous philosopher Han Solo, “Great, kid. Don’t get cocky.”
I am currently in long-term training at the Foreign Service Institute near DC. That’s also the location where they do language testing for the State Department. Yesterday, I took a Chinese language test.
I worked very hard on my Chinese language skills during my two-year tour in China. I took advantage of the post language program, taking private lessons with a language teacher. I tried very hard to improve my reading, especially the simplified characters and different prosaic style that they use in Mainland China. I read a LOT of newspapers, magazines, and books. I think that my language skills improved quite a bit.
Next week I will start learning a new language. I know something about language acquisition and bilingualism. At my age, language learning is a cognitively challenging process. I decided that it would be better for me to take another Chinese proficiency test first, before the new language starts to squeeze out the old. Also, the language test scores are only valid for five years in my job. My original Chinese score was due to expire before I have to bid for my next job. If I want to leverage my Chinese skills to get my next job assignment, I need to have a valid score on file.
Due to non-disclosure requirements, I’m not allowed to divulge details about the test itself. But I can share that my score was disappointing.
Language ability is on a spectrum. It isn’t meaningful to say whether or not you can speak a language. Rather, the question is what you are able to do in the language. The Foreign Service doesn’t use the word “fluent.” Instead, like most government departments, it uses something called the Interagency Language Roundtable proficiency scale to refer to how well a person knows a language. It’s similar to the ACTFL scale that is used in education, but the ILR sale goes higher.
Compared to my performance on the test three years ago, I thought that I did very well this time. The reading wasn’t challenging at all. I stumbled a bit on the speaking, because the examiners threw in a lot of idioms that I am not familiar with. Still, I was satisfied with my performance. I thought that I had killed it.
That’s why I was disappointed with my score: 3+/3+. That is, 3+ on the speaking/listening, and 3+ on the reading. My last score was 3/3, so I improved over the last time I tested. But I was hoping for a 4/4 this time.
There’s a Chinese idiom to describe how I’m feeling: 心灰意冷: heart of ashes, cold of spirit. The fact that I know that idiom tells me that I should have been scored higher. This was discouraging.
This isn’t the end of the world, though. In the grand scheme of things, testing lower than you had hoped isn’t a big problem. The score is plenty high enough to get any job that I want. If I can rein in my oversized ego, I’ll be able to get past this disappointment and move on.