some unsolicited language learning advice

It’s almost old news at this point, but… we both passed our Spanish tests! I passed mine on time which is no small feat in these days of dismal passing rates, but just to make sure that didn’t go to my head, Andy went on to pass his too… except he did it six weeks early.

Andy passing early is totally annoying. Why? Because he spent his entire 18 weeks of Spanish training telling me how awful he was doing and stressing about having to extend and really screw things up for our timing in the future. And then he passes early? What?

But mostly it’s totally excellent because it means a) we won’t have to separate our family as I travel to post ahead of him, b) I won’t have to take the kids and dog to post without Andy’s help, and, c) now Andy’s got time to focus on all that tedious administrative stuff that comes along with traveling to post… stuff I thought would be on my plate while he focused on studying.

All this is excellent for me, at least. As Andy’s “to do” list grows, I think he’s starting to wish he hadn’t passed…

Anyhow, that’s not the point of this blog post. The point of this blog post is this: after having completed training in two different languages in the past four years at the Foreign Service Institute (remember, we studied French too), we’ve realized a few things we’d like to pass along to anyone out there on the Interwebs who finds themselves embarking on this endeavor:

1) You need to work hard from the beginning. You’re in class for five hours but being paid for eight. Use those extra three hours, and use them wisely. Sure, there are some brilliant linguists out there who can hunker down in the last few weeks or months of training (or never at all) and still pass, but for most of us, getting serious halfway through is just too late.

2) Be strategic with your vocabulary. You don’t need to know four different ways to say the same thing. If you’ve got one phrase or one word down, move on to the next. You don’t need to learn words for things unlikely to come up frequently, like bungee jumping, or passion fruit, or boat shoes. It can be tempting to learn to say crazy things in foreign languages, but remember that the goal isn’t to pick up party tricks, it’s to pass this test. You only have so much brain space and so much time to get to the level you need, so triage. Save the fluff for later.

3) Get your connector phrases down early on. In real life most people don’t punctuate every sentence with “therefore,” or “in that regard,” or “as a result,” but the examiners love this sort of thing. Plus, connectors gives a logical structure to your ideas, while also working as placeholders to allow you a bit more time to think about what you’re going to say next. It may sound awkward, and you may stop using most of these after passing your test, but trust us, memorize 10 or 15 good connectors early on, and you won’t be sorry.

4) Slow and steady is better than speedy and sloppy. It’s very hard to undo bad habits, so don’t let yourself develop them. It will be frustrating in the beginning to not feel like you can say much, especially as some of your classmates already seem to be speaking in paragraphs, but saying little and saying it correctly is almost always better in this context than saying a lot but with many mistakes.

5) Advocate for yourself. No one is more invested in your success than you are. If a particular teacher or class grouping isn’t working for you, say something.

6) Remember that your goal is not just to learn the language, but also to pass your exam. This is the lesson that probably took us the longest time to learn. Commit yourself early on to understanding what the test is all about, and work toward succeeding at it. Yes, this will leave some gaps in your language abilities. (You will have the vocabulary necessary to debate about global warming. You won’t have the vocabulary necessary to get Internet set up at your home.) But you can fill in those gaps later.

7) After you pass the test, keep learning. A lot of people leave FSI with an inflated sense of confidence about their language abilities. The reality is that no matter what the IRL says, as an FSI trained 3/3 you still have a long way to go to communicate in a way that doesn’t embarrass yourself or your country. So celebrate passing that exam, take a bit of time off, and then get back at it.


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