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Language Test Anti-Climax

Updated: Jun 2, 2020

German language training is over! Just like that—no dreaded test, no fretting over scores—I was told I “met the required level” and that was it. Hurray!

Then again: it was a bit of an anti-climax.

Normally, finishing a language program at FSI is a huge milestone, preceded by weeks of stress and frantic test prep, followed by a big celebration involving new and old friends.

Language learning takes a LONG time

The shortest language programs at FSI for reaching “professional fluency” are around six months—Spanish and Dutch, for example. Slightly harder languages take 8-10 months of full-time training, like German and French. For reaching the same target score in the hardest languages to learn, like Russian and Japanese, you get even more time (up to two years).

As you can imagine, going to language school for that much time is quite an experience. It almost feels like an immersion because you’re speaking a foreign language all day long, except for when you’re reading and translating.

Many diplomats feel their worlds become very small during language training. Life exists almost exclusively of sitting in a small room with two or three colleagues and studying at home. The only comfort is knowing that your mind is, in fact, expanding—FSI language training is notoriously effective.

Scoring for the ambitious

Normally, the exact score you get after testing in your target language is more or less the same as what you were expected to get. The scale they use for grading goes from one to five: one being only able to say “hi, how are you“ and five being able to “speak like a highly educated native speaker.”

The language-learning goal is usually a 2-level (to speak with your colleagues at the embassy) or a 3-level (to speak with host-country government representatives and the wider public). In my case, the goal was the latter.

But I always hoped and expected to score higher, for a couple of reasons. First of all, my native language is Dutch, which is a lot closer to German than English (although there’s also a lot of overlap between German and English, as I found out). But mostly, I don’t like to meet just the required minimum.

I like to be good at what I do, especially when it comes to languages. I don’t just want to be able to say what's necessary—I want to be able to say everything I can think of and sound fluent. Plus I just don’t feel confident speaking another language if I haven’t done everything possible to get really good at it. And I hate making mistakes.

Was higher than a 3/3 in German ever in the cards for me? Honestly, I’m not sure. I thought I had a big advantage with my Dutch, and I’ve had positive experiences with FSI before, but I found out early on that the German Language Testing Unit (LTU) is somewhat stingy when it comes to awarding scores—just my opinion, of course.

Let’s just say this: I know my reading was going very well. Speaking in eloquent mistake-free German perhaps not quite as good. Every German sentence requires thinking about structure (verbs go to the end), gender (masculine, feminine, or neuter), endings (there are lots of rules and exceptions), and cases (hello genitive, dative, and accusative!). But I do have a big vocabulary and I can say whatever I want, so I was at least on track to getting a decent score.

COVID-19 changes

But the world is not normal right now, so FSI took the unprecedented step of certifying students’ language skills through observation instead of official testing, which makes a huge difference.

As everyone knows who knows anything about the LTU: the test is grueling. Not having to do one basically removes the only bad thing about language training (again, in my opinion), which is worrying about the test.

So in a way, it all balances out. I got the same score as everyone else instead of something more impressive, but that’s okay. I’m not worried about what my “student record” looks like at this point. It’s nice to have good grades, but what matters most to me right now is getting to work and learning the drill of day-to-day consular work. I can’t wait to actually get started.

And it’s a big relief to be done. Honestly, I thought language training went on for a little bit too long. It’s too routine for me—going to a tiny little classroom every single day and talking to the same colleagues (no matter how lovely they are) about what’s on the news... I'd rather go to post and continue learning German there, in the real world.

Ready to go to post, except...

But that brings us to the next question: when am I going to post? I’m supposed to leave in three weeks already! But I don't have tickets or anything. I’m in a language “maintenance class,” which means I speak German for about an hour every day and do self-study.

I also don’t have a diplomatic visa yet, without which I’m not allowed to leave. So that’s one thing that’s probably going to delay my departure. The other thing, obviously, is the COVID-19 situation. U.S. diplomats aren’t being sent overseas at the moment—at least not brand-new (insignificant) ones likes —so I'm waiting to get a green light before scheduling my move.

In the meantime: I signed up to take a COVID antibody test, on Thursday. I can't wait to find out if I've had it. I think so, but I might be totally wrong. Let's see!


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