escape from FSI
Even for someone who loves languages and is fully cognizant of how big a privilege it is to be paid to learn one, the daily drudgery of intensive language learning can grow wearisome. After six dreary months of repetitive grammar exercises, dense articles, and forced classroom discussions, we yearned for a break from the routine. Ennui and wanderlust, as much as a desire for immersive learning, motivated us to sign up for FSI’s April immersion trip to France. Paris in the springtime — what could be better?
As with all things government, FSI’s rules for who can participate in an immersion and when seem overly complex and bureaucratic. Although it goes without saying that one learns languages much better in an immersive setting, the Foreign Service handles the bulk of its foreign language instruction in-house. With the exception of a handful of hard languages with which it is possible to do a year-long immersion after first spending a year at FSI, most Foreign Service Officers remain in Virginia for the full extent of their training. To go on an immersion, one must score at least a 2 on both the speaking and reading portions of a periodic evaluation AND one must return at least a month before one’s final test date, leaving a very narrow window of time for any potential travel.
This partly helps explain why few of our fellow students were interested in participating in the trip. Of the 60 or so people who started French training in November, only half a dozen of us wound up going on the trip. The other big deterrent is trip cost. Because this immersion was FSI-led, the institute sent an instructor with us and covered her travel and per diem. However, the rest of the immersion was self-financed, meaning that we bought our own flights, arranged our own accommodations, and covered all our own expenses.
FSI had originally floated Dakar as a possible alternative destination to Paris. Neither of us has been to Senegal, so it sounded exciting, but it also looked to be significantly more expensive, so we were happy to back the group consensus. Not only do we have friends in Paris, who put us up for two weeks, but we were also able to use our frequent flyer miles to purchase our flights, which was not an option for Dakar.
It is also possible to do a so-called self-led immersion. Rather than going with a small group accompanied by an FSI instructor, one would have to arrange and pay for everything, including 5 hours of daily language instruction on-site. The independence and greater choice of a self-led immersion is appealing, but in our case it also sounded like too much work. Because there were six of us, and because our instructor had done similar trips in the past, we were able to divide responsibilities and create an impressive-looking itinerary (more on this later) without devoting too much time to research and logistics.
As April approached, there was only one detail left to iron out. To make the most of these two weeks, we knew we needed to leave Munchkin behind. Fortunately, both our mothers stepped up in a big way. As a result, the little man got plenty of grandma time while we were able to fully take advantage of everything that springtime in Paris has to offer.