Dreams of A Diplomat: Aprendiendo Español

by Juan Thomas
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 “You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.” – Geoffrey Willans

For the past 6 weeks, I’ve basically been swamped with Spanish Basic for S-2/R-2 Skills, which is one of the basic language courses offered by the Foreign Service Institute. It’s a 16-week course and the objective for me is to speak, read, and listen at a limited working proficiency. As it concerns FSI, that means I need to both speak and read at a Level 2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with the ability to satisfy routine social and limited office needs while being able to read intermediate or simple colloquial texts.

The training is 100% virtual as FSI is still closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic so I have the extra distraction of learning a new language from the confines of home. For the most part, we’re working from an interactive textbook called Hacia Adelante and it’s definitely a Department of State creation. Through this early phase in the training, we’re following a generalist and a specialist as they navigate how to speak the language through their diplomatic duties and journeys. Apart from that, we have class reading sessions where we translate and summarize short texts and long texts. We also work on vocabulary words, conjugations, pronunciation, and sentence structure. I had a number of Spanish speakers of native or bilingual proficiency—S-5/R-5 on the FSI scale—in my Orientation mission group. They all say it’s not terribly difficult but I’m not seeing that yet. This stuff is tough. The combination of (1) understanding what’s being said to you, (2) determining in your head the right conjugations, tenses, and gender, and (3) saying what you thought in your head is nothing close to a piece of cake. In fact, after the 1st 2 weeks, I felt so overwhelmed that I talked to my language supervisor and language consultant about pushing me back into one of the slower-paced classes. Part of that was having classmates who had more recent experience and the other part of it was the learning material not being of any use to me. I’m a Facility Manager…what use is explaining what the political or consular sides of the embassy do to me. Anyway, the move to a new class has proven to be a boon for me and these last 4 weeks have been a tremendous improvement.

The best part of learning Spanish at FSI is the resources they provide you. In addition to my language supervisor who checks in with me every other week to practice and see how I’m feeling, I have a language consultant I can talk to about the minutiae of the language. The stuff I don’t understand in class, I usually ask her about and she’s been really good about breaking it down. There is also the virtual lab technologist, who helps me through the use of a lot of different exercises and techniques. And if there is a virtual lab technologist, then there certainly is a virtual lab. It has a treasure trove of stuff to help me such as beginner-level podcasts and videos, readings, and exercises to help me with the basics.

This past Thursday was my Phase 1 evaluation. The target for me was to achieve an S-1+/R-1+. It was a 2-hour evaluation and I did OK on the speaking portion. I messed up on some of the conjugations and the remnants of my Deep South accent definitely play a role in how words are heard by other listeners…for instance, “me” sounds like “mi” coming off my lips. The reading portion came very easily. I was able to successfully translate the texts even though I didn’t know all of the words. My evaluation score ended up as S-1/R-1+. Part of me was disappointed in falling a little short on the speaking portion but then I remembered that 6 weeks ago, I didn’t speak or read any Spanish at all. I was literally an S-0/R-0 and here I am able to halfway hold down a conversation. I’ll move forward and get better and when I have my next evaluation, I should be an S-1+/R-2. I still have until the end of June to get to S-2/R-2 so I’m in good shape right now.

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