A Traveler In The Foreign Service: Get Paid To Learn Languages

Americans are often criticized for our inability or unwillingness to learn foreign languages. I didn’t even have the option to study a foreign language until I was 14 years old and while kids these days start learning languages – usually Spanish – much earlier, most Americans never achieve true proficiency in a second language. But in the world of diplomacy, no other country invests as much as the US does in training its diplomats in foreign languages.

State Department Foreign Service Officers (FSO’s) spend large chunks of their careers studying languages full time at the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). (Formally called The National Foreign Affairs Training Center.) Language courses can range from short crash courses that last just a few weeks, to a year or more for difficult languages like Arabic or Mandarin. I was in the Foreign Service for just less than six years and I spent 9 months of that studying Albanian (6 months) and Hungarian (3 months) full time, earning my normal salary.

The amount of training one receives depends on the job and the timing of when the incumbent in the job leaves post. A typical course lasts 5-6 months, and during that time period students study in small groups ranging from 1-4 in a class. Students spend 4-6 hours per day in the classroom depending on how large the class is and there’s homework and lab work to do each night. At the end of the course, students have to take a test to assess their speaking and reading skills.Typically, FSO’s aren’t allowed to take vacation days during language training and the training itself certainly isn’t like being on holiday. I studied Albanian in a class of just two students, so there was nowhere to hide if you didn’t feel like speaking Albanian on a given day. Normally I like to ease into a workday, quietly checking email over coffee, but at FSI you’re off and running having to make small talk in a foreign language at 8 a.m. That said, I was usually free to go home at 1 p.m. each day, which was awfully sweet.

Some FSO’s aren’t crazy about language training, but I still viewed it as a terrific, relatively stress-free break from the normal working grind. FSI has a collegial feel in that you can dress casually and, since family members are also eligible for language training, you see couples holding hands on the grounds. It’s a bit like being back in college minus the fake ID’s, binge drinking and student loans.

The State Department goes to great lengths to hire native speakers to teach language courses and that makes FSI a veritable United Nations. Walk down any random hallway and you might hear Finish, Dari, Thai, and Tajik all in a 50-meter stroll. Very few other countries pay their diplomats to study languages, especially obscure ones, for significant periods of time. For example, I served in Skopje and Budapest, and most of the other members of the diplomatic corps received no training in Macedonian, Albanian or Hungarian, as we did.

The fact that the State Department invests in language training is undoubtedly a good thing for employees and family members. But is it a good use of taxpayer dollars? In some cases, it’s hard to justify paying someone a salary to study an obscure language they may never use again during their careers, and might use only sparingly in their overseas assignment. For example, my Albanian classmate spent six months learning Albanian prior to an assignment in Kosovo that was just one year long. She didn’t have an aptitude or love for languages and admitted to me after her tour that she had rarely used the Albanian she learned – either on her job or during her off-hours, since she lived on a compound. There are also cases where we endeavor to teach people very difficult languages in too short a time period, or teach people obscure languages for countries where a huge majority already speak English.

In some cases, FSO’s also end up speaking English at post, even after spending months or years learning the local language, because our interlocutors speak English better than we speak the local tongue. Also, some languages have so many different dialects that it’s impossible to train FSO’s in the one they’ll need. For example, in Albanian, there are two primary dialects, Gheg and Tosk. Tosk is spoken in most of Albania, while Gheg is spoken in Macedonia and Kosovo. We learned Tosk at FSI and when I got to post, people could understand me but I struggled to understand them.

But on balance, I think it makes sense for us to invest in training our diplomats to speak foreign languages. The common perception of Americans around the world is that we’re arrogant, monolingual and generally uninformed about other cultures. By learning to communicate with people in their mother tongue, we’re showing humility and respect for their culture.

And in a practical sense, diplomats who are truly fluent in a local language can be more effective than ones who have to rely on the filter of a translator. No matter how hard you try, you can’t fully understand a place if you don’t speak the language, and if you can only communicate with people who speak English, you risk having a distorted view of the local situation.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys studying foreign languages, the Foreign Service is one of the few careers that offer a chance to get paid to study. In fact, you can actually make more than your normal salary if you perform well in a difficult language. These days, some FSO’s are also learning languages like Arabic overseas, which probably makes more sense due to the variety of dialects and cost of training people in the US. And if you’re already proficient in a foreign language, especially a difficult one like Mandarin, Arabic, Farsi or Russian, you’re chances of getting into the Foreign Service are much better than if you’re one of the monolingual masses.

Read more from “A Traveler in the Foreign Service” here.

[Photo courtesy of Nina Toessiner on Flickr]