Sunday, March 19, 2017

My First FSI Language Test

*deep breath* I did my first full language test at FSI (the Foreign Service Institute). It was serious business.

In my A-100, some of us were scheduled for full language tests during orientation. The people who fell into this category usually passed at least the phone language test after passing the FSOA. (My case was strange, because I took the phone language test after I was pulled off the Register, but my Registrar told me to test anyway and I later learned I passed. I was automatically scheduled.) Most others will have to wait until after receiving our assignments and completing orientation to test in their languages. (There is a mechanism for testing self-reported language skills that are relevant to our bid list during orientation, because that may affect assignments. That's a level of detail I won't delve into here.)

Onto the test itself: FSI (and the Department of State and many other agencies generally) use the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale for rating proficiency. We are tested in speaking and reading, but not listening (except that you need to follow what's going on enough to be able to participate in the speaking portion) and writing. In each category, we're scored from 0 (no proficiency whatsoever) to 5 (not only completely fluent, but communicating at the level of a highly educated native speaker). Your combined score is typically written or said as [speaking score]/[reading score]. There are also half increments between each number, which means you show signs of the higher number level but not consistently. For example, a 2+ is someone who communicates at least at a 2 level but sometimes (or in some ways) at a 3 level.

The format of the test is very specific, and they provide you with detailed information about the structure beforehand. A good description of the format of the speaking portion of my test can be found here. I couldn't find a good official source for the reading section accessible online, but suffice it to say I was tested on my ability to both skim for the gist of small passages and read longer pieces in greater depth. (I thought the gist reading was the hardest part! I now know I'm a slow foreign language reader.)

So how did my test go? I tested in Arabic, and I now realize I went in a little overconfident. I was hoping to get a 2+/2+ at least, and as soon as I started I realized I wasn't going to get a 3. Later that same day, I received the email with my score: 2/2. My first reaction was to be a little disappointed because I had overestimated my abilities (and let my language skills deteriorate since living abroad 3 years ago).

My second reaction was relief. In Arabic (and other "superhard" languages), you only need a score of 2 in speaking and 1 in reading to get off language probation (a requirement for tenure which must be achieved in the first 5 years) and go to entry-level posts that require that language. That means that I have already been removed from language probation and that I have a much better chance of going to posts that require Arabic language skills (if the positions are immediately available, which our bid list doesn't tell us).

My 2/2 score also qualifies me for language incentive pay. That's a pay increase for going to posts that require my language skills.

I heard that you used to receive your test score immediately at the end of the exam and that your testers would also give you on-the-spot feedback. Because I have not been spoiled by that system, the score notification timeframe of 1 business day seems extremely fast to me (especially compared to other administrative processing timelines here). I also understand why they don't give feedback right away: they need (and should take) more time to deliberate and ensure the decision is fair. It seems odd to me anyway that they would offer feedback in a proficiency test, when the goal is just to do everything better and more naturally in the foreign language.

If you're interested in learning more about the ILR scale, see the official website (with descriptions of what a person can do at each level as well as self-assessment tools) here.


  1. Hello!! I'm really loving your blog as a whole but wanted to ask you some questions about language skills and testing specifically!
    Presently, my languages are intermediate to advanced Japanese, beginner-intermediate Arabic (plus some Egyptian dialect), and intermediate Spanish. I LOVE that you actually have studied Arabic and have enjoyed your posts on how to study Arabic as well. My hope is to be at a more intermediate-advanced level of Arabic before applying.
    But could you share more about your experience with the phone interview or possibly any additional benefits that can come from having advanced language skills in "super hard" languages? I am already 33 yrs old and since I do not believe I will be ready to take the FSOT this coming June, I'll have to wait a bit and I plan to take full advance to read more and up my language game so to say! I have more or less been a TESOL English teacher abroad, and have lived in Japan, and Egypt multiple times. But of course I need to improve! So, while I know there is no "typical" personal that might get hired, I am hoping that my language skills will help a bit since I don't have an MA or degree in International Affairs/etc.

    Thank you again for your wonderful blog!!

    1. Thanks for reading, Kelly! You can only get bonus points for one language when applying to the Foreign Service, and it only helps you at the end - you still have to pass the FSOT, the PNQs, and the FSOA without getting a leg-up for language skills (to my knowledge). An Arabic score of 2 or higher will get you more points than Japanese or Spanish, but if you're less than a 2 you'd probably be better off just testing in Japanese and getting the .17-point bump on the register you get for testing out of most languages.

      I didn't actually do the phone interview - I did an in-person speaking and reading test because I got called off the register and accepted my offer to A-100 before I could do an Arabic phone test. I think you should definitely start taking the FSOT! The best practice is to take it, it's free, and you can only take it once per year - it doesn't hurt your future chances.

      Most people in my A-100 class were in their thirties or older, so I wouldn't be concerned about that. I also taught English in Oman, where I learned most of my Arabic. You're right that there is no "typical" background for an FSO that you need to have, but I will say almost every person in my A-100 (and most A-100s starting in recent years) have an M.A. or higher graduate degree. You can see my post about a few trends I noticed in my cohort here:

      Good luck! Keep trying - it took me three attempts over three years to get in, and another guy I know first took the exam in 1991 but started with me in 2017. (Other people sail through on their first attempt, so your mileage may vary.) Thank you again for reading, and hope to see you at an Embassy somewhere in the future!

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