Tuesday, March 31, 2020

#CoronaWriMo: A Silver Lining?

I previously wrote about our Coronacation and experience with social distancing. This time I thought I'd write about one way I'm trying to make the most of this experience: #CoronaWriMo. For those who are active in the #WritingCommunity online, you're probably already familiar with National Novel Writing Month, known as #NaNoWriMo. It takes place every November, and writers around the world resolve to crank out 50,000 words or more to write a novel (really more of a novella) in just that month.

So naturally plenty of folks thought all this time inside would give us a bigger opportunity to write, and the idea of #CoronaWriMo was born. I actually finally crossed the 50,000 word total on my first ever novel draft on only the second day of social distancing, when I'd lacked the motivation to work on it regularly for a long time. My one New Year's Resolution for 2020 was to finish this draft, and this disease might actually help put me over the finish line.

I've learned so much about myself writing a novel for the first time. Foremost, I don't enjoy writing novels in general. I don't experience the same rush and excitement that pushes me to stay up all night working on a short story. Needless to say when I am done with this first draft, I fully expect I'll be putting it down for a while to refocus on my short stories. I have several drafts that need some revision and polishing, but I've neglected them this year while plagued by guilt for not making more progress on my novel.

In case any readers are curious about what I write, it mostly has very little to do with my work. My favorite genre to write in is soft science fiction. The reason I like it is because it's a fun genre for exploring philosophical and moral questions without the baggage that real world people and settings impose on stories. (Or at least you can choose how much baggage you want to keep around in your world.)

So I'll keep plugging away at my science fiction novel draft for now, though I admit I haven't been as diligent or consistent as I would've liked. These really are unprecedented times... So whether you're taking the chance to do something new or you're just trying to survive (I go back and forth depending on the day), I hope you're hanging in there! We all deserve some extra grace right now. And if you're doing #CoronaWriMo or have any other goals while social distancing, feel free to share below.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Going on Coronacation

Like many in the United States, M and I are currently practicing social distancing in response to the threat of pandemic Covid-19, also known as the novel coronavirus. In this post, I want to share why we're doing it, what it looks like for us, and some opportunities to help.

M and I are both healthy and young, so we're not in the high-risk group for Covid-19. At the same time, we're listening closely to the advice of public health specialists, epidemiologists, and medical researchers out there so we can be part of the solution when it comes to protecting vulnerable populations. We have a lot of loved ones who are immunocompromised or older or would have comorbidity with other conditions like high blood pressure or respiratory problems. We also have a lot of friends working in the medical field who are trying to keep their heads above water and help prevent the system from being overwhelmed. We're going to do our best to minimize the risk of spreading the new coronavirus to folks like them, especially now that it seems clear the virus is quite contagious even when the carrier is asymptomatic.

So what are some of the things we're doing to help keep our community safe? These are some of the simple steps we've taken in recent days that might be worth considering:

  • Teleworking (if possible): M's part-time teaching job is already fully remote, and my full-time Korean classes are finally switching to full-telework starting this week. If you can work from home, it's a great way to limit a lot of the exposure risk. At the same time, it's important to recognize not everyone's work is so flexible--M still has to go in for the family business because it's physical work that needs to be done on site.
  • Skipping the gym: I just temporarily froze my gym membership. (If you attend an Orangetheory Fitness, you can do this easily with a phone call and email.) It's simply too easy to contract this disease in such close quarters with lots of circulating air and shared equipment. If you can use one of the many great YouTube channels for home workouts (my favorite is Blogilates) or if you can go for a run in an open space like a wide park, that would be much safer.
  • Limiting large social gatherings: We're staying home from restaurants and parties for now. The more people you're physically near during this time, the riskier it gets. There's obviously a huge spectrum between having a best friend come over to hang out for a little bit (relatively safe) and going to a crowded bar (please don't if you can help it).
  • Reasonably (!) stocking the pantry: The "reasonably" is crucial here--I am not advocating for this mysterious toilet paper obsession that has seemingly spread across our society even faster than the new coronavirus itself. It helps to go to the store only if you need to, and even then it's better if you try to go early in the morning or late at night when there are fewer people there. Grocery delivery might also be a good option for folks. Either way, stocking up on shelf-stable and freezer foods in bulk is a great way to stretch what you have and stay fed while minimizing additional trips out into the public.
  • Keeping the Sabbath at home: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, like many others, has temporarily suspended our usual religious services around the world. Thankfully, I have some wonderful Priesthood holders in my life who are visiting with me on a more individual basis so I can still take the weekly Sacrament. I'm sure this decision isn't easy for any religious leadership, but it will help protect the maximum number of worshippers.
  • Upholding #StopReflectVerify standards: If I see you sharing fake Covid-19 news on social media, I will call you out right away. There are a lot of malicious, opportunistic folks trying to capitalize on the panic. We should all be checking the legitimacy of our sources, confirming when information was published to see if it's up-to-date, and not buying into misinformation marketing campaigns. For example, I saw this fake news doing the rounds earlier: that if you gargle salt water it will completely kill Covid-19 and you'll be safe. This is not only untrue but dangerous. You can gargle salt water and still catch this virus as well as spread it to others. Let's stop, reflect, and verify before we share or comment online.
  • Cutting back on non-urgent volunteering: I usually try and volunteer at a rest home once a week. Needless to say, the residents there all fall within the highest-risk category for this pandemic and I will not be visiting them in the near future. A few friends of mine who usually volunteer in person have taken the opportunity to try and find volunteer opportunities online, which is a fantastic idea.
  • Refraining from travel: We are refraining from travel at this time and are re-evaluating our ability to go on trips we'd planned for the future. Yes, it's frustrating, but the risks outweigh the inconveniences.
  • Maintaining personal hygiene: This is probably the most important one of all. We're continuing to regularly wash our hands correctly and trying not to touch our faces. I'm notoriously bad about touching my face, so I can't promise perfection but I'm trying my best!

So given that life is clearly a bit different right now, what else is worth thinking about as we go through this together? Someone pointed out that volunteers in many areas tend to be older and at higher risk for the worst consequences of Covid-19. So if you are young, healthy, and low-risk, you might want to call a local food pantry or meals on wheels and see if they need help meeting demand right now. Another good idea I saw circulating online was to buy gift cards and generic merchandise like t-shirts from restaurants that are probably struggling right now. Those gift cards can always be redeemed well after the crisis has passed, and it helps businesses with already narrow profit margins weather the storm.

I hope this blog post was helpful or maybe even just resonated with a few readers who are stuck in the same boat. In the meantime, I hope everyone has the chance to catch up on reading, writing, art, memes, or anything else that helps us beat cabin fever during this "Coronacation" in our homes. We'll look forward to the day when everything can go back to normal but prioritize protecting and helping others until then.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

My First Scored FSI Korean Assessment

As most readers of this blog know, I am currently in what's called long-term language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI, a.k.a. diplomat school). For over six months now, I've been studying Korean full-time. That's about five hours of class a day with two to three hours of studying expected outside of class. The only other time I've ever studied a language this intensively or for this long was back when I did an Arabic immersion in Oman. It's intense, but I feel that having done it once before is making this go-around a lot easier.

We recently also reshuffled the classes, and my new class is a major challenge. There are only three students including me in my class, and we rotate teachers to expose us to a variety of teaching styles and methods. This system has been really useful for me, especially now that I'm in a "harder" class. My classmates seem to absorb information like a sponge, and I'm continually impressed by how diligently they're studying. They really help me stay motivated to do my best and to push myself instead of staying complacent, which brings me to the real subject of this post: my first scored Korean progress assessment.

Last year, we had another progress assessment but we were only provided general feedback and whether we were "on track" or "not on track". From that test, I learned about specific issues I needed to work on going forward. These included (A) my upspeak (i.e., the phenomenon of turning your intonation up at the end of sentences), which I often do even in English when I'm unsure or nervous and (B) my sacrifice of accuracy for speed. I really focused on these weaknesses in the months since, and I'm delighted to say it paid off because I improved on both those counts this time around.

This progress assessment was scored, meaning we were provided with a rough estimate of what the testers (who also happen to be our regular teachers) think we would score if we took the test today. FSI tests are scored on a scale of 0 to 5 based on the on the Interagency Language Roundtable, or ILR guidelines (which you can read more about here). On my final test scheduled in May, I need to receive a score of at least 2 in speaking and 0 in reading (basically, anything above a zero is a nice bonus but not required). On the final test day, we'll be tested in both reading and speaking, but this time we only did the speaking portion.

So, imagine my surprise when I learned I was assessed to already be speaking at a 2+ level in Korean! I was floored for multiple reasons. First of all, I've spent way more time intensively studying Arabic, and yet when I joined the Foreign Service I tested at a 2 for speaking. I certainly didn't expect my Korean score to surpass my Arabic score anytime soon. Second, I know that a 2+ is way closer to a 3 than a 2. Before receiving this estimated score, I never dreamed I'd be able to get a 3 in half the time it usually takes (almost 2 years total). I honestly think it's my new class that has really accelerated my learning lately and brought me up to this level.

When I talked to a friend about my estimated score and how I still had more than two months left of language training before my final test, he encouraged me to go for the 3. He also reminded me that if I do score higher than needed, I'd be eligible for Language Incentive Pay since Korean is a Super Hard Language. (I know it sounds cheesy, but I swear that's the official name of the category of languages!) Basically, to incentivize Foreign Service Officers investing time and energy in these difficult and high-demand languages, the Department of State will provide certain salary percentage pay bumps to those who achieve specific scores. If you're interested, you can read about that in more detail here.

Everyone I've spoken with at FSI seems to have a wildly different language learning experience. A lot of things are language-specific or even teacher-specific, but at the end of the day we're all there to learn what we need to learn to be successful and effective while we serve overseas. I'm really enjoying my time in long-term language, and I hope to make the most of what little time I have left. Even if I end up falling short of the 3 that I want, I'm excited just to try, do my best, and make sure to appreciate this precious opportunity.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

How to Retain a Language

A lot of diplomats study multiple languages over the course of their careers. Unless you achieve complete fluency, though, maintaining proficiency in any language is hard work. So what's the difference between someone who can pass a language test but rapidly loses what they learned and someone who becomes a true polyglot?

I consider myself an aspiring polyglot, so I've spent some time exploring what helps make a language truly stick. Since my brain typically seems to handle only English and one other language at a time, I currently struggle most with switching between foreign languages in the moment. Although I'm certainly a work in progress, I have discovered some strategies that have helped me retain conversational ability in previously studied languages. I've summarized these below:

  • Attend meetups: You can't beat practicing with native speakers in real-life, so I recommend attending meetups for the foreign languages you speak. You can search for foreign language meetups here, or check your local library to see if they have a conversation group available. If you're in the DC area, I also recommend you take a look at Conversational DC here.
  • Study one language intensively at a time: It's very confusing to try and start from scratch in multiple languages at once. I recommend focusing on one language at a time until you reach a conversational level. Then, if you want to study another language you can continue to maintain your level in the other language(s) more easily than if you were still at a beginner level.
  • Memorize how to clarify in each language: It's so much easier to stay in the zone of each language if you minimize the number of times you need to resort to English or any other language when you get stuck. It's helpful to be able to ask what a word means, ask someone to please repeat what they just said, or admit that you didn't quite understand in the same language you're using at the time.
  • Know language-specific fillers: For the same reason, it's helpful to be strict with yourself about using the correct filler words for the language you're practicing. The moment I say "um," my brain already starts shifting back to English. I've also definitely said "yani" (يعني) in Korean class, and it shifted my brain right over into Arabic.
  • Practice with other polyglots or in multilingual settings: The more you practice switching back and forth between foreign languages, the easier it gets. Something that really helped me with this was to memorize a few stock sentences of introduction for myself in every language I want to practice. That way, I can immediately say those few memorized phrases and usually by the time I'm done introducing myself my brain has successfully shifted into the correct language.
  • Mix up your flashcards: If you've studied multiple languages, chances are you have flashcards or study materials for all of them. When you quiz yourself, mix them up for an additional challenge. I also find it helpful to see a word on a flashcard in one language and then to try and think of it in all the other languages I know. If I can't think of how to say it in a specific language and I think I'll use it often enough that I'd want to know, I'll check a dictionary. (And of course, I'm going to plug my favorite flashcard app I've been using for years: Anki.)

I hope this advice has been helpful to the readers of this blog, and please let me know in the comments if you have any additional tips I missed. Goodbye! 안녕히 계세요! مع السلامة! Kwa heri! Au revoir!