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.

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