A day before leaving DC for Moldova D went to the Foreign Service Institute one last time in order to take his Swahili exam. Even if you know very little about our soon-to-be new home, you probably know enough to figure out that Swahili is not one of the commonly used languages in this part of the world. However, this was D’s only opportunity to gauge how well he had learned Swahili during our Nairobi tour and to document officially his newly acquired language skills.
When we learned that we were Kenya-bound two years ago, D tried to sign up for language training, but his requests fell on deaf ears. Although some of D’s predecessors had received language training at FSI, Swahili was no longer considered necessary for D’s position. Fortunately, the Embassy hired a Swahili teacher a few months after our arrival and D made time during the workday to go to class.
Roaming the halls of FSI, one can frequently see people who are in long-term language training sitting with their teachers, engaged in lunchtime conversations to practice what they had learned in the classroom. D thought he’d be able to find a Swahili teacher who would be willing to meet with him so that he could brush up a bit before taking the test. Because of the political developments that preceded our departure from Kenya, D had effectively stopped going to class in January. And now that several months had passed after we left Nairobi, D’s Swahili was understandably rusty.
Not only was no one at FSI willing to give D the time of day, but it proved nearly impossible to even schedule the exam. The testing center only does Swahili exams on Tuesday mornings and gives preference to students who are currently enrolled in language study at the institute. Because D was a walk-in and had to find an opening in his own training schedule, the only time he could test was right before we left.
D spoke briefly with the head of the African Languages Department as well as the department’s principal Swahili teacher, but could not find anyone willing to help him clear out the cobwebs that had accumulated in the recess of his mind reserved for Swahili. So he turned to Rose — the teacher he had had in Kenya. Although she did not fully understand how Skype works she agreed to the suggestion, so several times during his consular training D woke up at the crack of dawn to chat in Swahili for an hour before heading off to FSI.
After two hours of mentally grueling testing, D walked away with a S: 2+ / R: 2 score. What does this mean? The exam has two components — a speaking (S) and a reading (R) score, which are graded on a five-point scale. The speaking section is broken up into three parts — casual conversation; extemporaneous speaking, during which one has five minutes to prepare 5-10 minute-long remarks on a given subject; and interviewing, during which D had to ask the instructor questions and then translate the responses. The reading section also has three parts. During the first D had six minutes to read six brief texts, which he then verbally translated. For each of the other two parts he had seven minutes to read a page-long article before reporting to the instructors what he had understood.
A score between 0 and 2 corresponds to a sliding scale of proficiency in fact-based conversation and comprehension; a 3 indicates the ability to discuss and understand abstract subjects; those who demonstrate the fluency of a well-educated native speaker receive 4s and 5s. In practical terms, the 2+/2 means that D feels comfortable discussing a wide variety of factual subjects and has the vocabulary to express opinions about abstract topics, though he makes some grammatical mistakes and at times struggles to find the right words in Swahili. His reading score indicates an ability to distill the main points of most texts but a tendency to miss some finer details, especially when pressed for time.
D thought he might be able to eke out a 3 on the speaking section, but overall he is pretty happy with the result. If he had received the full 6-month FSI Swahili course, during which he would have been in class for five hours every day, he would have been expected to attain a 2/2 score. The fact that he barely used the language during the last six months before taking the test also gives him hope that he learned the language well enough that it will stay with him.