I have not been writing very much here lately. It’s not because I haven’t been doing anything. It’s because I’ve been doing too much of something. That something is: studying Vietnamese.
I am in language class full-time, Monday through Friday. We typically have class for five hours a day. After that, we have a lot of homework to do. I regularly spend 3 to 4 hours per day outside of class working in various homework projects and language practice activity. Last weekend, we basically studied all day on Saturday and Sunday.
One of our classmates requested time to practice making sentences and work on the mechanics of the language. He thought we needed the opportunity to play around with the language, make sure that we could use what we were learning. The program director was very responsive and added 3 hours per week for that, on an optional basis. Being a bit masochistic, I take advantage of that opportunity, too. So, on many days, I am in language class for 6 hours a day.
Language study at the Foreign Service Institute is much more intense than other classroom learning. For one thing, we are in a small class of four students (which is actually large by FSI standards).
Also, we have three different teachers who rotate in and out throughout the day. Sometimes it feels like they are tag-teaming us. One teacher exhausts us, then she tags out and another teacher, fresh and rested, jumps into the classroom to work us over again. Sometimes I imagine them conspiring among each other. “Yes, I really confused the hell out of them with that grammar point. Their self-confidence is shaky now. They’re vulnerable. You can make them cry for sure if you make them practice it again.” Then the next teacher leaps into the classroom and makes us cry.
Several months ago, before I started language study, someone who has gone through the process already said that language study is like the movie “Groundhog Day.” Every day, he went to the same classroom with the same teachers and did the same thing. I had that feeling for the first time this past Tuesday. I woke up, looked at the class schedule for the day, and realized that I was going to be in the same classroom, with the same students and teachers, working on the same language, all day.
But this week was different. On Thursday and Friday this week, we had our first formal progress evaluation. We have been studying for eight weeks already. The expectation is that we have proficiency at level one on the ILR scale in speaking, listening and reading. That’s about the level that a college student would be expected to reach after two years of study.
If you compare the number of hours that we were in class with the number of hours that a college student would be in language class, I have already studied Vietnamese for more hours then a college student would study in an entire academic year. Crammed into eight weeks.
I’ll repeat myself: language study at the Foreign Service Institute is intense.
I stressed a bit about the test. After all, this is my job, and I want to perform well. Also, I have to admit that I am, like some of my coworkers, competitive and proud. A sizeable part of my self-worth is based on how smart I think I am. I’m not proud of that, I’m just being honest with myself.
My wife stressed more than I did. The stakes are a bit higher for her. If I don’t do well on the test, they will double down and work with me more. But her situation is different. She isn’t an officer. She is what is known as a “eligible family member.” The government will only allow her to continue to study if there is space in the class, and if she shows that she is making a good effort to learn. Since she wants to get a job at consulate in Vietnam, she knows that language skills are important, so she really wants to stay in the class.
The progress test was spaced out over two days. We did the reading part one day, and the speaking/listening part the second day. I have said before that I’m very impressed with the quality of language instruction here, and the testing program is equally impressive. They really know what they’re doing here.
We did well. The teachers gave us feedback on the spot, pointed out what we did well, and identified goals for us to work toward. Next week we will continue classes, and it will be another series of Groundhog Days until the next progress evaluation.
The words of Dale Cooper apply: “I have no idea where this will lead us, but I have a definite feeling it will be a place both wonderful and strange.”