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To “have “a language

The foreign service has been a cross-cultural experience for me in many ways. I am interacting with people from many different backgrounds: military, government, and private sector. I had expected that, and I enjoy working and interacting with my new colleagues. But one culture that I had expected to be familiar has instead turned out to be another cross-cultural experience: the language departments.

In the academic area that I come from, we talk about language acquisition and language proficiency. A theoretical term for classroom foreign-language learning is “instructed language acquisition.” At the Foreign Service Institute, it is quite different. We have many language departments, teaching many world languages. And overall, they do a really good job. The terminology, though, is quite different. So are the opinions and assumptions of the students in the language programs.

The most commonly used verb to describe language proficiency is “have.” In the foreign service, one does not “speak” the language, one “has” a language. We also use the word “train” instead of “learn”. We are in “language training,” or we don’t have to go to language training, because we already “have” the language.

One of the aspects of the foreign service that attracted me to the job was the fact that diplomats are expected, even required, to have foreign language proficiency, to be able to do complex tasks in foreign languages. We are expected to conduct interviews with the intention of not only extracting information, but also detecting fraud. We are expected to participate in meetings, and not only convey information, but also to grasp underlying or hidden meanings from our interlocutors. These tasks require high levels of language proficiency.

The standards are high, and the service invests a lot in language training. It is not uncommon for a diplomat to spend 10 months in intensive language training, during which several hours a day are spent in the classroom, the language lab, and in doing homework after class. Several of my classmates are in this language training right now. The length of the training depends on the difficulty of the language. But generally speaking, when learning a new language, we can expect to spend between six and 12 months just to get to working proficiency level.

Compared to the academic world, of course, this is incredibly fast. It’s not uncommon for someone to leave the university with a four year degree in a language, and still not have professional working capacity in that language. However, the situations are really quite different. University students spend one hour a day in the language classroom, in addition to all of the other academic classes that they take. In our case, learning a language is our full-time job. It’s all we are expected to do, and we do a lot of work to get there in a short period of time.

But that leads to the next cultural difference with regards to language. In my academic career, I rarely thought about language attrition. The understanding was that if you had language proficiency, you would have it forever. Of course, there are cases, such as immigrants who become immersed in a new language and lose aspects of their first language. But it is almost heresy in academia to state that someone who had language proficiency would somehow lose it. This was implicit in academic policies such as language proficiency tests that did not expire.

In the foreign service, the assumption is that if you have not used the language for a period of time, that you will need a “top off” course to brush up your language skills. If you take a language test to prove proficiency, your score has a five year time limit. The assumption here is that language ability, like any other skill, has to be used actively, or it will decay.

One area of commonality is how language departments communicate to students the difficulty of learning a language. Language learning strategies is also an area that can use improvement. I don’t know very much about the professional training background of the instructors, but it seems that the students have not been instructed in strategies to help them learn the language, other than “work hard”. To be honest, academia needs to improve in this area as well. We know a lot about language acquisition, especially second-language acquisition, but we have not done a very good job in communicating strategies or suggestions to language learners on how they can best make use of classroom time, interaction, and leverage their first language ability to learn a second.

I haven’t been in the foreign service long enough to make any judgment as to which position on language proficiency, language attrition, and language acquisition that I think is more accurate. But it has been interesting observing the cultural differences.

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