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Foreign Service

Learning a language as a job requirement, part 2.

One of the “World’s Dudes” series of cigarette cards from Allen & Ginter, late 1800s: “British Diplomat.” So glad that I don’t have to dress like this.

As I wrote in my last post, foreign service officers are required to achieve professional working proficiency in the language that we’re studying. Officially, the Foreign Service Institute uses the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale to assess language proficiency. In my professional opinion, the testing unit at FSI does a pretty good job of adhering to the standards for proficiency. And in my experience as a language learner, FSI language departments do a pretty good job of preparing us to be assessed by the ILR standards.

But the situation more nuanced than you’d think.

I’ve had this conversation with many of my classmates over the last several months, as we’ve struggled with the task of language learning. We all have the sense that something’s not completely right with the language curriculum. The problem came into focus for me when we went on the language immersion trip in March.

I also saw symptoms of this problem in some colleagues who I served with in China. Being married to a native speaker of Chinese, I have plenty of opportunity to practice daily life language. But my colleagues who only learned Chinese in the classroom had a different experience. They had good work-related language skills, but their skill in talking about daily life, using language that local people used, was weaker. Several people joked that they could negotiate a trade treaty in Chinese, but they couldn’t order a pizza. Language for daily life doesn’t seem to be a high priority for the language programs at FSI. And although it can be frustrating for us once we land in country, it isn’t hard to understand why the language programs do it that way.

Generally speaking, we can think about the goals of language learning in different ways. On the one hand, we needs to be able to navigate daily life: ask for the bathroom, or talk about the weather. Answering the telephone has got to be the hardest everyday task in a foreign language. Every language learner is afraid of a ringing telephone. Don’t take my word for it, ask any language learner how stressful it is to talk on the telephone in a foreign language. This kind of language use is the highest-frequency language use. It’s how people use language on a day-to-day basis. However, this is de-emphasized at FSI. It seems that there is a deliberate choice not to focus on that. Why? Keep reading.

Another kind of language is professional use. This is the language that we use in the office: when we are interacting with our locally-engaged staff (LES), when we interview visa applicants, when we meet with local government officials and businesspeople. The language is pretty predictable and structured, and it’s at a more formal register. More importantly, this kind of language contains words and structures that are very different from daily life language. Although language for daily life and professional use is the same language, the functions are very different. And significantly for a language program, if you have to teach both daily-life language and formal job-related language, then you have to teach two different units. If you could encapsulate the language functions into zones, it might look something like this:

Areas of focus when I’m learning a language.

There’s another area of focus in that chart, which I’ll come back to later.

If you run a language program, and your instructional time is limited (whose time isn’t limited? Mine sure is!), then you have to prioritize.

If you have to prioritize between teaching daily-life language and work-related language, which should you teach?

I look at the question of priorities in two ways. First is the perspective of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

The (in)famous hierarchy of needs

The most basic level is physiological. A person needs to eat.  If you want a person to be able to live in foreign country, that person needs to be able to get around in society. From that perspective, it makes sense to focus on daily life language, right?

But there’s another way to look at the problem. Let’s look at it from the perspective of why we are sending diplomats abroad in the first place. Although it will be a struggle to get around in daily life without great skills in basic language use, the real reason that we’re sent abroad is to conduct foreign affairs. Our personal comfort and convenience should take a back seat to our job performance. From that perspective, we should focus on work-related language. It’s much more important for the U.S. government that we are able to talk about banking regulations or the humane treatment of prisoners, than it is to be able to pick up our dry-cleaning, for example.

But even that isn’t the end of the debate. We can’t ignore another, competing force. The third area of the chart above is the “Language that I need to pass the test.” The only way that our language skill will be formally assessed is during the End of Training (EOT) test. The stakes are very high for that test. There are consequences for testing well or poorly. So as a language student, it makes a lot of sense, even though it’s more than a little mercenary, for me to focus on what I have to do in order to score well on the test.

Of course, in an ideal world, there would be enormous overlap between these three areas. I’d love to draw a chart like this:

An ideal Venn diagram of the three competing priorities.

However, it often seems that the situation should be charted more like this:

Reality sucks

In my language program, the instructors are very cognizant of the competing priorities. I often fear that they feel that they are caught in the middle of this struggle. They want to help us met our goals, but sometimes our mercenary mindset clashes with their ideals of teaching us the language with a well-rounded approach.

In an ideal world, language learners would focus  solely on their work-related needs, so that they can succeed in their job after they arrive at post. They would hope that they could get around with the language in daily life, and ignore the test. A test score is just a number. It’s more important that they actually are able to do their job. Right? Well,…

These are the competing forces that we interact with during language training. Like I wrote above, it’s more nuanced than a simple test score. There is a lot of room for interpretation in a statement of proficiency like: “Can typically discuss particular interests and special fields of competence with reasonable ease.”

Life is messy. Definitions are fuzzy, and clear-cut examples are hard to find. Language learning as a professional task is complex and hard to predict. Like the car commercials used to say: “Your mileage may vary.”

Learning a language as a job requirement, part 1.

It’s an old joke: a person who speaks three languages is trilingual. A person who speaks two languages is bilingual. What do you call a person who only speaks one language? American.

I can’t speak for American society as a whole, but I can say that that saying is definitely not true of foreign service officers. We are polyglots. It’s literally in our job description. When we are posted to a foreign country, we are required to speak the language at a certain professional level before departing for post. We are have to be able to diplomat in the language that is spoken in the country.

That is why the Foreign Service Institute teaches so many different languages. I’s be willing to bet that there are some languages that are taught nowhere else in the US other than at FSI. Icelandic is taught in only three colleges in America, for example. And I don’t think that any college offers a course in Estonian. That is completely understandable, of course. There isn’t a high demand for those languages. However, the US has strong diplomatic relations with Iceland and Estonia, and our diplomats have to speak those languages. So the government has to train our diplomats to speak Estonian and Icelandic, as well as Kazakh, Uzbek, Khmer, Pashto, and a bunch of languages in addition to French, German and Spanish.

We have diplomatic relations with 192 of the 195 countries in the world. That doesn’t mean that we have to teach 192 different languages. Many countries speak the same language. For example, French is the official language for 29 countries, and there are ten “Lusophone” countries (I’ll let you look that word up). I heard a colleague once say that if you speak Spanish, then you would meet the language requirement to work in 25% of our embassies and consulates.

Then there are the “boutique” languages, which are spoken only in one country. Some friends of mine have spent nine months learning Thai, Cambodian, or (in my case) Vietnamese. It’s necessary to learn the language in order to do our jobs, but it’s a tremendous investment in time, energy and money. And after we complete our tours in those countries, we aren’t easily able to use the language skill in another tour.

Chinese is only spoken in one country, of course, but it isn’t really a boutique language.  In addition to our embassy in Beijing, we have five consulates in various parts of China, and they all have to be staffed by hundreds of officers. In addition, there are many Chinese-language designated posts outside of China, in places like Toronto, where we have to process a lot of Chinese visa applicants.

And we aren’t just learning conversational language. We have to reach a “professional” proficiency level before we can go abroad. We have to be able to talk about health epidemics, human rights, nuclear non-proliferation, climate change, and the details of American foreign policy. If we can’t do that, if we fail the language test, then we continue studying until we do pass. I personally know several people who have had to extend their language training because they haven’t achieved the required proficiency.

The government gets a good return on its investment. A colleague of mine likes to say that he made $5 million for the government in two years while working in a consulate in Brazil. He was a consular officer, and he interviewed people who applied for a U.S. visa. Just the visa fee alone brought in a tremendous amount of money (foreigners who want a U.S. visa much pay $160 for an application fee, whether or not they are granted a visa), not counting the amount of money the people would have spent in the U.S. on tourism (I have heard that on average, a foreign tourist spends $5,000 per person when visiting the U.S.). For us to be able to facilitate travel to the U.S. is a great economic benefit to the American economy.

Through the course of a career in the foreign service, an officer may learn up to a half-dozen different languages. I was in language class with a colleague who was learning his fourth language for his fourth tour. It’s a pretty amazing experience, to have language learning be a core part of our job description.

Which also brings up the issue of language probation. Remember that language proficiency is a requirement in the foreign service, and that requirement is enforced. New officers are hired on language probation. We have five years to reach advanced proficiency in at least one language. Or else we get fired. As the famous FAM (Foreign Affairs Manual) puts it: “Candidates who fail to satisfy language probation requirements by the end of their five-year limited appointment will be separated from the Service” (emphasis added).

Yes, it’s great to “get paid to learn a foreign language,” as a lot of people put it. I want emphasize that point. For one’s job to be a student is a rare benefit. I remind myself of that fact every day. But there’s a negative side to this as well. It isn’t always like Christmas morning. The government is paying for my tuition, and paying my salary as I learn, because the government expects a return on its investment. The government is paying for my language study because it expects that I learn the language. If an officer spends months in a FSI language course, and doesn’t achieve language proficiency, then he has some explaining to do.

There is some real pressure on us to learn, and to learn well. The State Department needs its foreign service officers to have solid language skills. The U.S. needs its diplomats to be able to conduct foreign affairs without allowing language differences to get in the way. Foreign service officers need to successfully learn foreign languages. That’s my job right now, and that’s what I am getting paid to do.

Another milestone: I finished language training!

After over 11 months at the Foreign Service Institute, I am finally done with my training, and am ready to go on to post. Cue the Dance Of Joy!

Most of the training was language training: just over 9 months of full-time instruction in Vietnamese. It was a positive experience overall, but the old saying of “too much of a good thing” is really true. Any activity gets tiresome after too long, and I was ready to be done with language training.

I’m done with training! I can go to post now!

The last part of language training is the infamous “EOT” (“end of training”) test. It’s a language proficiency test, a multi-hour ordeal consisting of reading and speaking sections. If you want more details about the test itself, this link has some general information.

I took the Vietnamese language test on Wednesday. This was the third time I took a language test at FSI (the first two were for Chinese). The format is the same for all languages. There is literally no other way to prepare for this test other than conscientiously learning the language. You can not fake your way through this test. They start out pretty gently, with small talk and chit-chat, and very quickly go into very complicated subjects. You can start out by talking about the weather, and within seconds find yourself having to defend the administration’s policy on addressing climate change. Or ask someone how he’s feeling, then in the very next sentence debate the merits of single-payer health insurance. It gets that intense, that fast.

TL;DR: it’s a very intense language proficiency test.

I felt prepared for the test, but I was still very nervous because I had set a very high goal for myself, and I didn’t know if my language skills were good enough. I walked out of the test feeling the same way that I felt after the first time I took the test: exhausted and drained. They say you should feel that way after a language test, because the testers’ job is to push you to your limits. Their task is to see exactly what your highest level is, and they can only do that by pushing you. It’s sort of like when your dentist has to see if you have a cavity, and the only way he can do that is by digging into your tooth with that curly pointy probe thing. Imagine the linguistic equivalent of that curvy pointy probe, poking into your mind.

How’d you like one of these in your brain? Me, neither.

Long story short (too late)…

…I passed with my desired language score. No cavities, no blood, no tears. Just sweet, sweet relief.

In a future post, I will share my thoughts on long-term language training at FSI. When I have the strength. For now, I am basking in the feeling of being done. Even more, I’m looking forward to getting to post and actually using this language.

Pushing cookies, but not perpetuating a myth.

The reality is that this job is a lot more like a day in the DMV  than an evening at Downton Abbey.

There is a stereotype of diplomats as “pin-striped cookie pushers from Harvard.” Here’s a good summary of the ways that phrase has been used over the past 50+ years. Most of the time the phrase has been used, it has been in an attempt to dispel the stereotype. However, there is a lingering (false) impression of what we do as foreign service officers.

Some people have the (very wrong) opinion that diplomats don’t do “real” work. We are seen as people who just go to cocktail parties (for the record, I have never been invited to a cocktail party), or sit around drinking tea and eating cookies (OK, that has happened, but I was standing, not sitting, it was very hard work, and there is a very good reason that I did it).

This weekend my wife and I took an elective class on diplomatting according to protocol. The formal name of the course is “Protocol and US Representation Abroad.” The course was a fascinating exploration of protocol. We covered topics such as to how to shake hands (eye contact, firm but not-too-firm grip, two to three pumps, then release). And the physical mechanism of exchanging business cards (and the very important uses of business cards). And how to address government officials at various levels in the hierarchy.

Here’s a quiz: how should you address a US ambassador? True or false: “Your Excellency” is the appropriate form of address for our ambassador. For the answer, refer to “Title of Nobility” clause in Article I, Section 9, Clause 8 of the United States Constitution. Spoiler alert: the correct answer is: “false.”

I know from experience that the so-called “cookie pushing” events (we call them “representational events”) are incredibly useful and efficient. They are a forum where we can make contacts with foreign government counterparts. In one hour, I can meet a dozen or so different people who work in various local government ministries. Later, when I need information to help US citizens in trouble, or figure out a way to work with the local government to further US interests, I know who to contact. Of course, I’m not important enough to make treaties or prevent a war from breaking out. At my level, my task is more likely to be contacting a local university in order to arrange a visa talk for students.

But regardless of the level that this interaction happens, and the consequences that these relationships have on international relations, the principle is the same. We have to know people in order to be effective diplomats. And meeting someone in a social atmosphere is more conducive to forging a good working relationship.

Here is one example of the importance of a good working relationship with a foreign government at the local level. American citizens who are jailed in foreign countries are entitled, under the Vienna Convention, to regular visits by US Consular officers. It’s not hard to imagine that a prison official in a small city in a developing country would not be aware of his obligation, under the Vienna Convention of 1963, to allow us to visit a US citizen in his jail. When we encounter resistance, we can pick up the phone, call the local government official who we invited to a recent representational event, and ask him to make a phone call to the warden of the jail. This happens very often. Because we have an existing relationship with the local government, we can resolve the situation quickly and without unpleasantness, and we can check up on the well-being of the jailed US citizen.

That’s the value of representational events. We make contacts, network with the community, and lay the groundwork for doing our job of serving the American people more efficiently.

A fun part of the class was learning how to plan and host a formal dinner party. Elements of the task included planning the menu, arranging the seating chart,  setting the table, making toasts. During the table setting task, the instructor played the theme song to “Downton Abbey.” I’m not making that up.

I confess that I have not hosted any formal dinner parties yet in my career. My idea of hosting dinner is making a big pot of chili (with plenty of kidney beans), then inviting anyone within shouting distance to come over and help me eat it. But it’s possible that in the future (if I’m ever important enough for it to matter)  I will have to hold a diner like this. I’m not holding my breath, though. It’s a lot more likely that I will be invited to fill a seat for a last-minute cancellation (by someone much more important than I am) to someone else’s party. When/if that happens, I will know enough not to humiliate myself and embarrass the host.

I did this. And now I know what every utensil and glass is for. Do you?


There are a lot of resources for learning the fine points of diplomatic protocol. In fact, you can read our handbook: “Protocol for the Modern Diplomat,” which is available online.

Finally, I want to emphasize that this course is optional for diplomats. The formal dinner party very, very small element of our job, which is to help and support for US citizens  and to further US interests abroad. Sometimes that means eating cookies at a tea party, but most of the time it’s a lot less glamorous. Most of the time it’s a lot more like working for the DMV. This part of the course was just an opportunity to prepare ourselves for the one or two chances that we get every year to interact in a more formal setting.

The pressure is mounting

My “end of training” language proficiency test will take place three weeks from today. Several people in my cohort have already tested, some as early as two months ago. Their “arrival date at post” determines when they have to stop language class and leave for post. I am very lucky in that my arrival date is later than many people, so I will get the benefit of more instruction before testing.

So far, everyone has passed their test. So, I’m not worried about passing. But since my goal is higher than merely passing, I’m still feeling some pressure. The possibility of language incentive pay is a strong motivator.

Since so many people have left for post, and since everyone else who is still round must achieve a higher score (because of their job classification), the classes are getting more intense. Among the regular classes, I am in a classroom one-on-one with a teacher for two hours every day. It’s very tiring, but incredibly useful. I think I’m improving.

I have to add here that my wife is incredibly supportive. Besides her usual wonderfulness, she’s been picking up a lot of the housework that I usually do (which isn’t much, I have to admit). For example, she hates washing dishes, so I try to jump in and do the dishes whenever I can. Lately, though, she’s been shooing me out of the kitchen and telling me to go study. “Lucky” doesn’t begin to describe how I feel to have such a terrific person at my side.

Back to studying.

Eight weeks left, starting to panic

I’ve been in language training for 30 weeks so far. Eight weeks from now, I will take the “End Of Training” test. That test will give me my official language proficiency score.

Several colleagues who started at the same time as me have already tested. They had to finish language earlier than I do, because their scheduled arrival time at post is different from mine. I get two more months of language training than they got, which is a nice advantage for me. The good news is that they all tested at the required level. And since I have more time in training, I have the chance to attain an even higher level than is required. That would mean some extra money in the form of “language incentive pay.”

The incentive pay is especially attractive to my family, because my as of now, my wife can’t work at the Consulate. The federal hiring freeze affects everyone who wants to work for the federal government, even people who want to work in an embassy or consulate overseas. This development has disrupted our plans. We were counting on my wife being able to work. Not only for the paycheck, but to prevent boredom and stress. We are hoping that the freeze will end soon, but we are also preparing for the worst.

All this means that there’s pressure on me to attain the highest language score possible. I think it’s possible to reach the required score, but I’m not there yet. Luckily, my teachers are great, they know my goals, and are working with me to help me get to my target level. But the onus is on me to put in the time, and do the work. All the linguistic theory, teaching methodology, and language acquisition tricks are useless unless the student puts it to work.

So why am I still writing this blog?! Back to work!

Language Immersion Trip, part 3

We are leaving Vietnam this morning (I’m actually writing this on the airplane).  Yesterday the Consul General hosted a lunch for us in Ho Chi Minh City. Several officers who are will work with us in the Consulate also attended. Despite the torrential storm that swept through in the middle of lunch (or maybe because of it) we had great conversations. I think we will enjoy our tour. 

View from our hotel last night in Ho Chi Minh City. Lots of green in the park.

Although I still am not where I want to be linguistically, this trip has helped a lot. I’m more confident using the language, and I’ve picked up ways of saying things. For example, to get the attention of a waitperson in a restaurant, you say: “em ơi!,” which means something like: “hey, younger sibling!” Little things like that will help us interact with people more naturally. 

There is one sociological factor that will continue to be a challenge to me. Vietnamese people consistently, almost insistently, speak to me in English. I’m sure this is because most foreigners in Vietnam don’t speak Vietnamese.  People here simply don’t expect the Vietnamese language to erupt from a person with a white face. Even when I initiate conversations in Vietnamese, the answers are usually  in English. It’s frustrating to a person who’s trying to practice language. The exceptions seem to be people who have zero English, like many taxi drivers, and very educated people who recognize that I want to interact in their language. 

My wife, who is blessed with an Asian face, has a different problem. She is commonly mistaken for a Vietnamese person, and so people address her in colloquial Vietnamese. That’s great if your Vietnamese language proficiency is where you want it to be. It isn’t so great if you’re still a struggling learner, like we are. We will probably have to deal with this phenomenon throughout our time in Vietnam. But if that’s our biggest problem, we should be fine. 

I still have ten more weeks of language training before I return to Vietnam to begin my tour. I think my language proficiency is where it has to be for my job requirements. I would like it to be higher, though.  I will have to work really hard until June. 

They haven’t accepted this excuse from me yet, but I’ll keep trying.

It’s been an honor. 

Thank you, Mr. President, Mr. Vice-President, Mr. Secretary. It has been an honor to serve under you. 

Beginning my 4th year

madmen_standardAnniversaries are only meaningful to the people that they directly affect. Yesterday wasn’t special to most people. But for me, it marked three years since I began this amazing adventure.

Yesterday was the third anniversary of my entry into public service. It was just another day at the Foreign Service Institute: I sat in Vietnamese class for five hours, had a meeting with the program director to discuss the results of our latest language progress evaluation, commiserated with a colleague who didn’t do as well on his progress evaluation as he would have liked to, and made more plans for my upcoming language immersion trip.

I have never regretted this career choice, and I hope that I never do.

What the hell just happened

I just read a good blog post about finishing. The writer completed the Pacific Crest Trail. The blog post is certainly a good read for people who are planning to walk the trail. That’s how I found the blog, actually. But the essay also shares some wisdom that is relevant to anyone on any journey. And since we are all on the journey of life, the wisdom is relevant to everyone.

The One Thing I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail

The advice is simple, and is probably familiar to anyone who has been on the planet for a few decades: “The finish line, in itself, is not the goal. Enjoy your hike along the way.”

This phrase shouldn’t strike you as a particularly great insight. It isn’t hard to think of several variations of the phrase. Carpe diem. Stop and smell the roses. Every time I fly, the pilot tells me to “sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.” The message is the same: the experience of the journey is more important than the accomplishment of reaching your destination.

The writer uses the experience of finishing the trail to make the point real. He reminds the reader that the end of the trail, is not like finishing a race. There is no crowd waiting for you to cross the finish line.

“It’s just you, standing there in the woods, thousands of miles from where you started, wondering what the hell just happened.”

That particular sentence resonated with me. I remembered the feeling that I had after I finished my tour in China. Being back in America was significant to me, but not to the people who had been here all along. But while I really like the writer’s insight, the sentence bothers me, too. I think that the writer has a good point, and I don’t disagree with him, but I think that there is more to it than that.

After I returned to the U.S., I spent a lot of time thinking about what happened in those two years. I thought about what I had seen and done, and how I reacted to events. I like to think that I was being mindful at the time. I reflected a lot about what I was doing and experiencing. I wrote about some of those encounters and events in my blog. Even so, after it was all done and I left the country, I still needed some time to think about what the hell just happened. By having some distance from post, I could reflect about the time more objectively.

Maybe the journey is more important than the accomplishment of finishing. But there’s another aspect to consider. After it’s all done, and your are back home, you are a different person. This is especially true if you have been focusing on the experience at the time. The experience is transformative, and a truly reflective person should spend some time discovering what is different about himself as a result. Maybe that’s what resonated with me about the essay. Maybe it’s important to wonder what the hell just happened.

Six months after leaving post, I am deep into the next adventure. Language learning is an intensive exercise, but it’s just the preparation for another foreign tour in another new country. Although I have left the first tour behind, I’m still wondering what the hell happened then. And it doesn’t bother me that I’m not entirely sure. Maybe it isn’t necessary to have it all figured out. Maybe it’s good that I know I don’t really know what the hell happened. Maybe being in the state of wondering means that I am still open to new interpretations. And maybe that means that I can still learn, I can still learn, I can continue to transform.

When reflecting on an experience, the fact that you don’t know what the hell happened doesn’t mean that you don’t know that something happened. Maybe realizing that fact is more important than knowing exactly what that “something” was. Realizing that you underwent a tranformative experience can be an enlightenment, and maybe that’s enough.

As far as we know, we only get one go-around in life. This is it. Reaching the finish line of life with a feeling of wonder doesn’t bother me. In fact, it would be preferable. It would be more satisfying to feel: “holy cow, that was incredible!” than to feel: “yup, pretty much what I expected.” Maybe we don’t have to know what the hell happened. Maybe not knowing what the hell happened isn’t a bad state of mind, because it means that we are still growing.