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le francais, part deux

The pace of instruction is not the only difference between the Foreign Service French classes and our previous language learning experiences. There are many other unique aspects of the government’s language acquisition program — some advantageous, some rather amusing, and others quite frustrating.

two inmates

Because the purpose of this full-time course is to teach us to function within a diplomatic setting overseas, the topics of discussion differ considerably from traditional language classes. For example, after three weeks of class, the homework assignments started included news reporting. Most nights, we are expected to read or watch the news and then report on what we have gleaned. The results can be quite comical if one takes a step back and observes the proceedings.

Here we are discussing the scourge of gun violence in America, the import of the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation, and the effect the Paris terrorist attacks might have on U.S. immigration policy — all in our basic, bumbling, baby French. “People die is bad. Very sad. I has think he say the immigration policies is change at future.” During the run-up to the COP 21 meeting, D’s class talked about climate change, which at times felt like a bad game of catchphrase; turns out it is not easy to explain “greenhouse gas emissions” in French when one’s command of the language is at the level of a three-year-old. Amusingly enough, several weeks later the class did reach the weather unit in the textbook and learned to say things like, “It is hot. The sky is covered with many clouds.”

It may feel a bit humiliating at times, but we have to give the French department credit for recognizing that the course needs to include elocution lessons in addition to grammar and the usual language learning exercises. There is an entire book for practicing pronunciation, and the beginner classes work on their elocution for 30-45 minutes every day. “No. Again!” D’s teacher interrupts the slow, painful reading for the hundredth time. Five weeks in, and the multitude of wacky pronunciation rules that afflict the French language is still too overwhelming to fully wrap our minds around.

Outside of in-class instruction, which thus far has been excellent, the best thing about learning French at FSI is the lunch-hour conversation tables. There is a small cadre of teachers who either happen not to have a class or who are retained as substitutes. Their responsibility, in addition to being on call, is to have lunch with students and facilitate conversations. The exchanges may feel a bit stilted and formal at times, but we firmly believe that the best way to learn a language is to practice speaking it, and the opportunity to interact regularly with a variety of native speakers without leaving the institute is truly unparalleled.

French is the first language we have learned at FSI, but we have spoken with multiple classmates for whom this is their third or fourth course here, and there seems to be a consensus that due to the sheer size of the French department, the bureaucracy of government language instruction is significantly more of a burden with French than it is for smaller, so-called “boutique” tongues. We’re holding out the hope that the meetings and mandatory brownbags will diminish in frequency after the introductory units, because at the present rate there seem to be entirely way too many of them.

Also, in addition to the periodic language evaluations, there is a barrage of testing aimed at determining what kind of language learner each student is. Presumably this would help with identifying specific learning methodologies for different students. One can opt out of the tests, but not the frequent meetings with language learning consultants that follow. “This is what you must do,” said the consultant to whom D had been assigned, outlining an extra ninety minutes of daily exercises on top of the mounds of homework we already receive every day.

After learning several languages, we’re not hurting for ideas on how to study. The consultants’ intuitive suggestions are all fine and well, but we have a small child at home who demands attention and a lot of energy. We don’t need ideas on extra techniques that might improve our language learning. As it is, there seem to be too few hours in the day. What we need is more sleep.

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