Sunday, May 20, 2018

Distance Language Learning: Another Foreign Service Perk

Among the many benefits I enjoy as a Foreign Service Officer, language learning is pretty near the top of my list. I'm so lucky to have a job where I can get paid to learn a language full-time. No language was required for my current job, but I still have a few options for working on my language skills in the meantime. We have a full-time Kiswahili teacher at the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi who provides free lessons to staff and family members. Taking her classes once per week has given me the basic expressions I need to at least make people smile.

Another option, which is the main subject of this post, is distance language learning. The Foreign Service Institute (FSI, a.k.a. Diplomat School) has a wealth of online course offerings. I just began my third semester of distance language Arabic and can't recommend it highly enough. My class is called Contemporary Topics, which is designed for intermediate to advanced speakers who want to maintain or improve their skills. You must have a 2/2 or higher on the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR) scale, and they will test you before the class to make sure you're places properly even if you already have a language test score on the books as I do.

Most classes exist on a progressive scale so you can advance to the next level after each semester. Contemporary Topics, on the other hand, is structured in a unique way that allows me to repeat it every semester: each week is a new topic chosen by the teacher, along with an accompanying article to read and video to watch before our 45-minute online review session. I'm also responsible for uploading my own video before class each week, talking for a few minutes about that week's subject.

The system also allows you to request the same teacher from a previous semester. In the case of Arabic, you can also request Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) or a specific dialect. After three semesters together, I feel like I know my Iraqi instructor, A, very well. It helps me look forward to our discussions every week, especially because they're usually late on a weeknight! (All of the review session times are set up with East Coast U.S. working hours in mind, so it's my nighttime in Kenya.)

So why might one want to use distance language learning? Besides it being just a cool opportunity, it can help you with bidding (i.e., competing for future assignments). It can help you demonstrate you're committed to developing your language skills in preparation for working in jobs requiring them or at least help you stand out from the competition. Some people even take the full language test after distance language learning alone. For me, it helps me avoid the complete language deterioration that naturally results from lack of use while I'm in Nairobi.

M recently joined me with the beginner Arabic language distance learning class. He's already mastered the first 11 letters of the alphabet! He's always wanted to learn the language, so it's great that the Foreign Service has some of these resources available for family members. I know not everyone loves foreign languages, but this is a huge perk for those like me who do! Technology is amazing.

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