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end of year revue

The grades are in, and we can honestly say that we have earned our winter vacation. Now that we have spent a week in Maine, far away both physically and mentally from the Foreign Service Institute, the hustle and bustle of year-end testing and immersion programs seems almost like a bad dream. And yet it was only a couple of weeks ago that we were preparing presentations and sitting for the first evaluations of our French language training.

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In addition to the language test at the end of the 30-week program, the French Department administers periodic assessments to gauge our progress. The goal for our first evaluation was a modest 1+ in both speaking and reading, a score that straddles the line between “elementary” and “limited working” proficiency on the Department’s five-point scale.

At a 1, the speaker is “often unintelligible,” has “almost no control of syntax” and “often conveys wrong information.” Except for memorized expressions, speech at the elementary level “requires enormous, obvious effort for every utterance” and “causes considerable disturbance” to the native speaker. By contrast, speech at the next level should be rarely unintelligible, even if the pronunciation is still “usually foreign.” And while the speaker is “often forced to silence by limitations of grammar and vocabulary,” limited working proficiency should suffice to convey meaning accurately “in simple sentences most of the time.” In other words, we were expected to make mistakes, and lots of them.

S wound up having her evaluation two full weeks before D, and in some ways there was more at stake for her at this first assessment. Being a direct-hire employee, D will continue to receive training for the full 30 weeks even if he struggles to meet interim benchmarks. S’s continued training, on the other hand, is contingent on availability of resources and her satisfactory progress in the course. What’s more, despite having a head start because she had studied French in the past, S’s class moves at a slower pace and is not geared for her to meet the Department’s professional working proficiency standard.

We’re not sure if there has been an FSI-wide policy change or if the new policy is peculiar to the French Department, but when we started training in November, S was segregated along with other family members into a so-called FAST course. In the past, spouses were allowed to take language classes alongside officers, but — for French at least — this seems to no longer be possible, and the change is disappointing. FAST is an acronym, and a misnomer if there ever was one. The course picks and chooses from the full curriculum, and the instruction meanders at a much more leisurely speed than the pace set in D’s class. For some, FAST’s more limited scope may be sufficient, but for family members who, like S, want to work, the shift is disheartening.

We both scored well on our assessments, though our approaches could not be more different. S took a conservative course, focusing mainly on saying the things she knew how to say. D, on the other hand, tried to say things he wanted to say, regardless of whether he knew the vocabulary or grammatical structures to say them. The points he gained with his extemporaneity were likely cancelled out by his errors; whereas, S’s tester chided her for not straying far enough from her comfort zone.

With our first rotation behind us, we will get new instructors in January. It is customary for instructors to schedule activities out of the classroom at the end of each rotation — lunch at a French restaurant is typical. D’s instructor put an extra twist on the activity, organizing a museum outing with three other classes. The students were divided into pairs and asked to make a presentation and answer questions on a painting of their choice — all in our “often unintelligible” French. The French Department also organized a year-end fete during which all students were expected to make holiday-themed presentations.

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All of that seems like ancient history now that we have spent the last week visiting S’s parents in Maine. We got a good snowfall this week and now the sun is shining on a foot of powder that makes the contrast with rainy Washington, DC all the starker. We brought our French grammar books, but have been largely remiss in reviewing them. Instead, we’ve dedicated ourselves to more enjoyable challenges, such as trying to get Munchkin to go ice skating. Now that we are done with classes for this year, we wish 2015 would last just a little bit longer.

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