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German language training at FSI: the beginning

I’ve been in fulltime German language training for three weeks now, and I’m having fun. Yet I feel like I should stop telling people that. Long-term language training at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) is not supposed to be a breeze—it’s supposed to be hard work.


Sure, people who like learning, and especially those who are are good at languages, don’t sweat the training too much, especially since workdays are shorter than at the embassy. At FSI, classes generally start at 8:30 and end at 3:30. And of course, it’s a privilege to get paid to learn a language.


But for all but the luckiest diplomats, acquiring a new language to the point of professional fluency is a painful process—from figuring out how to cram 3,000 new words into your head to preparing speeches on the state of the economy, to passing an excruciating test that takes three hours.


But I’m one of the lucky few—at least this time around. In the past, I’ve studied languages at FSI that I considered difficult (Russian being difficult and Spanish being medium difficult for me). Right now, however, I’m doing something that comes easy to me. German.


Is the German language easy, you ask? No! German isn’t easy at all—unless your native tongue is… Dutch! Holy hell, I had no idea that Dutch and German are so similar. I guess you can compare it to Spanish and Portuguese in terms of overlap. Also, it helps that I had German classes in high school.


The astonishing thing is that I didn’t know this already. I mean, I knew I had some German in me, but I had no idea how much. I figured my German language ability was on par with my French, which for me is easy to read but tortuous to speak. As it turns out, speaking German is far easier than I imagined.


My German teachers even call Dutch a “dialect” of German. It’s a statement I would have found preposterous when I still lived in the Netherlands. Dutch people—at least the ones that experienced the Second World War or lived it through their parents (aka my parents and grandparents)—turned away from German culture and language. They pretty much focused on the Anglophone world.


Kids in Dutch school get mandatory English classes from a young age and learn it through the wide availability of English language TV and music. With little to no effort, I spoke English fluently by the age of 16, mostly by reading Jane Austen and watching Baywatch (and Beverly Hills 90210), while my younger brother mastered it around the age of 12 by watching Cartoon Network.


So, I guess what I learned just now is that the language barrier between German and Dutch is pretty small, and that it’s probably more based on history and policy than anything else. It feels a little strange to realize this, and also to suddenly embrace German language and culture because I haven’t been encouraged to do so when I was a kid—even though I grew up only 30 miles away from the German border.


The stereotype I was taught was that Germans are stern and humorless. The German instructors I’ve met at FSI, however, are the total opposite. And they’re not nearly as grammar crazed as I imaged they would be. A major difference between Dutch and German is that Dutch threw out some of the more tedious grammar rules (cases, gendered articles) that Germans still embrace.


The only concern I have is that I have another 34 weeks of language training ahead of me. That’s a huge amount of time. Like, I’m- worried-I’ll-get-extremely-bored amount of time. So let’s see how long my optimism lasts.