The Lowdown on Language Training

I haven’t seen a ton of info on language training out in the blogosphere, so I thought I’d give my take. Funny side note – months ago, I had originally titled this post “Why Language Training Rocks.” I then abandoned writing it, because I was too busy, and I laughed upon picking it back up and realizing that there was no way I would title this post that anymore. My view of language training has changed a bit from “it rocks!” to…well…”it has its benefits?”

First off, if you’re an EFM and have the opportunity to take language training, I would generally recommend it. Generally. It can open up job opportunities, and depending on where you’re going, it can just really help with your quality of life. In my case, we were scheduled to be in DC for about 9 months, which was a pretty awkward amount of time for me to not only find a job, but to find one that would then in a few months time be willing to let me either telework, or transfer to an office in Bangkok (that they would magically have, of course!). So, the option of learning a language (for free!) that I was going to be surrounded by for 2 years, seemed like a decent one.

Once enrollment is confirmed (the officer/direct hire in your family can request for you to be enrolled once they’ve been confirmed), all EFMs are now automatically registered for training for just 8 weeks. This was at least the case for Thai and a few other programs, so I think it’s a new-ish policy across FSI, but of course, things always change, so don’t quote me on that one.

Anyway, 8 weeks is the normal length of time for what’s know as a “FAST class,” which is an abbreviated version of a full language training course, and is supposed to be aimed at EFMs. In general, the class is supposed to focus more on day-to-day language. I’m not sure how accurate this is, since the first 8 weeks in Thai training were not like this at all. Maybe other languages are different, but most of our first weeks were spent learning the “alphabet,” and learning how to say pretty rudimentary stuff. Either way, after the first 8 weeks are up, you’re evaluated on your progress, and the program decides whether or not you can continue for another 8 weeks – based both on your progress and available resources. Only myself and one other EFM decided to continue Thai. Start questioning our sanity now.

So how was it? Honestly, it was really helpful for about the first 16 or so weeks. Reading-wise, learning how to read Thai script from someone who knows what they’re doing was so necessary. I can’t imagine trying to learn it on my own. However, once we got here, we discovered that the “fancy” font that our teachers mentioned is used in some newspapers and advertisements, is actually used everywhere. As in, on almost every billboard, and on almost every product in the stores. So I’m not sure how much my reading skills are really helping me now, as it’s really difficult to read this other style of font. It’s gotten to the point where I can decipher most of the characters, but it still takes much longer, and then it’s a toss-up as to whether I’ll even know what the word means.

songkran-billboard - 2bangkok.com
Photo Credit: 2bangkok.com

Regular font (above) vs. “Fancy” font (below)

Heineken billboard - 2bangkok.com
Photo Credit: 2bangkok.com

The speaking portion was really good in the beginning, and even though you can get by with english here, I’m really happy to have a solid foundation. We talked about shopping, food, weather, how to tell time – all useful everyday-life things. The one problem was, all of that was done in the beginning of training, and it wasn’t really reviewed later on (the full training time for Thai to a 2/2 ILR level is anywhere from 28-44 weeks). So, we moved on, and we started talking about the economy, politics, the environment, and so on. It was at the point when my teacher told us we were going to have a debate on the Keystone Pipeline, that I decided this was ridiculous, and that I wanted out. And out now. The husband can tell you a funny story about the day that revelation happened.

Incidentally, FSI has seemingly always received feedback from students that they were able to talk about things like nuclear non-proliferation, but couldn’t order food in a restaurant, so they finally re-vamped the training to include more practical language. We were amongst the first cadre of students to go through it. Unfortunately, I’m not sure enough has changed. I can’t remember how to tell time (admittedly, it’s ridiculously complicated in Thai), and every day I find myself needing common words that I simply was just not taught. It’s frustrating. Not completely unexpected, because you’ll never go in knowing everything, but still frustrating, and something to keep in mind, expectations-wise.

I was also mixed into classes with both FSOs and EFMs. In the beginning, they split the EFMs up into two classes (in Thai, they tried to keep class size around 3-4 people), but after pretty much every EFM dropped out, they combined us two lone souls with the FSOs. I understand why they did this, but we all had very different goals and reasons for our language training (even amongst the officers), so it was hard to find every class applicable, which then made it harder to stay motivated. I don’t blame the teachers, because there just aren’t enough resources and it’s impossible to cater to everyone, but I’m not sure the officers I was in class with thought it was helpful to talk about the pipeline either. (Who even wants to debate that in english?!)

So that sums up my experience. Here’s also a few general points/answers to common questions about the training as a whole and how it all works:

What’s the schedule like? There are two training groups – morning and afternoon. (Assignment to either group was done arbitrarily, and if you wanted to switch to the other group, you had to request it. Sometimes it was approved, sometimes it wasn’t.) If you are in a class in the morning group, training starts at 7:40am and ends at 2:30pm with a 2 hour break in the middle for lunch and self-study.  The afternoon group starts at 10:40am, and ends at 5:30pm. Same deal – 2 hour break for lunch and self-study.  For Thai specifically, we had 3 hours of speaking class, and 2 hours of reading class, but I’m not sure how other sections split it up.

Any time off? Sort of, but not really. Every other week you’ll have one Admin Day, so you’ll have only 3 hours of actual class time that day instead of 5. Every week you’ll have one day of independent study, where the same thing happens – 3 hours of class time and then the rest of the time off to self-study or take care of personal or admin stuff as needed. Vacation is discouraged. And honestly, missing even a day was tough. The classes move quickly, and the key to learning is just a lot of practice. A lot. However, I did make sure that if I had something I needed to do – like attend an EFM employment tips class – I did it. Priorities.

How much work do you actually have to do? We had homework every day, but I found that for the most part I could finish it during the hour self-study period. Usually it was just listening homework. In the first few weeks, we had actual exercises in a workbook. After a few weeks, we had to do presentations every Monday, which required probably the most preparation. There were also weekly quizzes, and then periodic informal progress tests (basically mini versions of the actual final test) to see how you were doing.

So, although it was actually a lot of fun at times, it was also a lot of work. My suggestion? Give it a try. I think the 8 week rule is actually ok, because you’re able to drop out at a decent stopping point if you want, and it’s also a bit of a motivator to just make it one..more..week. I ended up staying in for 26 weeks, and decided to test, and got a 2/1+. It was nice validation after all of the hard work, but was it all worth it? I’m think I’m still debating that one.

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3 thoughts on “The Lowdown on Language Training

  1. YES! 100 times yes! So many of my feelings about Burmese- right here before me! Excited to start part 2 of my language program- the immersion experience- in 2 months, but so glad to be rid of reading articles about Israel & Syria and military articles. Definitely don’t regret taking FSI language, but can’t say it was the most fulfilling experience either- a means to an end, at best. Great to find you!

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    1. Haha, I’m so glad I’m not the only one! I went to visit my family immediately after finishing and it basically confirmed that stopping when I did was one of my better decisions. 🙂 Look forward to seeing how everything goes for you in Myanmar!

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  2. Pingback: We’re Not in Kansas Anymore | Around the World in Thirty Years

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