Back to School

I am too old for this.

We are told in our language school orientation at the Foreign Service Institute NOT to think this way. We should have an open mind. We should be accepting of everyone’s learning style and pace, including our own. We are reminded this is our job right now. Not only are we being paid to learn a language but the government is investing a lot of money in us to do so. The State Department is counting on us to learn our respective languages to help the United States achieve its diplomatic goals.

But geez, I feel too old for this.

I know I am intelligent and I can do this. I have learned languages before: Spanish, Chinese, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, and Tagalog. The former three I learned over time and sporadically in long formal classes; the latter three with informal classes and living in country. And yes, you did read Chinese. So not only am I proven to learn a language but I am proven to learn THIS language.

On the first day the highlight of orientation for me was when a woman from the testing unit announced, in a hilarious and inspired presentation, that the test would henceforth be changed. No longer would we be required to speak at length on topics such as nuclear nonproliferation, Congressional term limits, or global warming and yet be unable to buy groceries or conduct visa interviews when we touchdown in our respective countries. In Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I long waited for the when after approving or denying a visa the applicant would then turn to me and say, well, now that is done, could you tell me your thoughts on labor unions? Needless to say, that day never arrived. A collective sigh and inward cheer was palpably felt throughout the orientation room. The word is that we will actually be tested on conversations related to ourselves, life in our destination country, and our actual jobs. This is thrilling news.

The classes thus far have been great. The Chinese department has developed a class specifically geared toward those of us who have had Chinese in the past. Currently there are 14 of us in this program. I appreciate this immensely as I was in a similar situation when I studied Spanish and the department initially accommodated four of us with our own class. Then after four weeks we were scattered to the wind, placed in other classes, and any advantage we may have had was lost.

The class times fly by. When the teacher tells us to take a 10 minute break or he/she will see us next time, I am surprised. I have had just a few times in class where I felt too much on the spot, but my classmates and the teachers are supportive. Preparation is key though, and I am going to have to step things up.

I have run the gamut of language learning emotions this week. I have felt inspired and insecure. I have felt confident and uncertain. I have felt committed and flustered. I have been energized and exhausted. It has only been four days.

Lots of people would be thrilled to switch places with me; I am being paid to study a foreign language. I completely understand; it’s an incredible benefit and opportunity. I recognize that intrinsically. But studying a language is HARD y’all! I know at some point in the next 20 weeks I will cry as a result of trying to cram Mandarin into my brain, and remove the Spanish that now resides there. I may cry more than once. I am hoping to avoid doing this in front of others as it is not considered a great diplomatic skill to burst into tears.

I try to give myself a pep talk. “Look, last time you were here studying you were pregnant, had the baby, and then had a newborn. And you did it! You rock!”

“That’s all true. I do rock. Wait; now I have a toddler…I cannot see how that is going to make studying any easier.” As expected, C is already proving a formidable obstacle to my language learning.

It is very important I realize this process is not easy for anyone and that everyone has things going on in their lives while trying to study a foreign language. I remember 2-3 years ago while studying Spanish pregnant and then as a single mom of a newborn; I was SO tired. Yet one day I saw a woman, pregnant AND on crutches, studying a foreign language. And about a week later I met a woman on the shuttle bus who was pregnant, had a small child, her husband still at their previous post, AND undergoing chemotherapy, studying a foreign language. Yeah, I try to remember those women and their fortitude when I am feeling sorry for myself. I also try to remember that for everyone that was visibly struggling with something there are those struggling and juggling things not readily apparent. Just like me.

One week down, eighteen to go.* Hopefully I am not too too old for this.



*turns out unlike during my Spanish training, the Christmas week off is not being counted as part of our training time this go around. Yay!


3 thoughts on “Back to School

  1. You are striking so many memory chords in me. When I took Spanish, I was in my mid 50s. It was my first language. During the orientation, I remember the director of FSI telling us in a joking way that we belonged to him. We were not to get a divorce, have anything to do with our previous office, or do anything that was life changing. The day before I had a biopsy on my breast and I was very concerned about it. A week before I had started what would turn out to be a messy divorce and last but not least, I very stupidly had agreed to continue to do my work. Everything morning, I would get up at five and deal with the work that had come in from Africa the night before and then fax it back when I arrived at school. I would do the same thing in the evening after school. I developed a “donde” complex. One of my many teachers decided to make an example of me during class. I did not say that word correctly and she made me repeat it about thirty times. Tears, yes, frustration, yes and then one day, they called me in for testing and decided I could do it. I say all this because I know that it is tough and yet from everything that I read here, you are a very strong woman. Try to enjoy it as much as possible.


    • Carolyn, thank you so much for your comment. You encapsulated exactly the kinds of issues that many face at the Foreign Service Institute while trying to learn a new language as adults. I am humbled. I had better go study some Chinese while waiting for some laundry machines to become available!

  2. Pingback: Halfway Through Our U.S. Sojourn 2021-2022 – The Wanderlust Diaries

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