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.