How Diplomats Learn Foreign Languages

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How Diplomats Learn Foreign Languages

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Since many of you may be curious to find out the process behind how diplomats learn languages, I invited Shawn to share how that works on the blog today!

Shawn Kobb has been with the U.S. Foreign Service for nearly 10 years and has served in Ukraine, The Bahamas, Washington DC, Afghanistan, and soon Austria. Over to you Shawn!


Let’s be honest. I can take it. Americans aren’t exactly known for our foreign language ability. Often, we speak English and we simply expect the rest of the world to do so as well. There are many reasons why this problem has developed, but that’s not the purpose of this article.

As with all stereotypes there is both a bit of truth here as well as many exceptions. I’m an American diplomat (or Foreign Service Officer as we’re officially known) and it is not only helpful in my job to learn foreign languages, it is required.

Although American diplomats are not required to speak any languages other than English upon joining the service, we are required to become fluent in at least one foreign language within the first five years. Fluency in at least two foreign languages is required in order to reach the highest ranks and, in reality, most American diplomats speak three or more foreign languages with at least some proficiency.

In fact, for lovers of language learning, one of the greatest benefits of a job in the U.S. Foreign Service is not only that we have the opportunity to be trained in foreign languages, but that we’re paid to do so. I’m currently in training for my fourth overseas deployment. I’ll be headed to Vienna in the summer of 2014 and right now 100% of my time is spent learning German — and being paid to do so.

The U.S. Department of State runs its own mini-university for diplomats known as the Foreign Service Institute (FSI). Although subjects as wide ranging as management, public speaking, and consular services are trained there, the largest section is reserved for foreign language instruction.

The Foreign Service Institute trains diplomats in more than 80 different language and walking through the halls can feel like a whirlwind global tour. Classroom after classroom of students speaking French, German, Mandarin, Norwegian, Georgian, Portuguese, Korean, and countless other languages fill the air with a veritable United Nations of speech.

The vast majority of the teachers are native speakers of their language of instruction and are able to teach the culture of their homeland at the same time as we learn their language. It is common to see various parties in the halls of FSI celebrating Chinese New Year or Ramadan or Ukrainian independence.

Routine at the FSI

All of the language departments run their sections slightly different, but here is a general overview of what American diplomats do on a daily basis in language training.

We spend a minimum of five hours of classroom time working on conversation, interview techniques, reading, and making presentations. Almost all classroom time is done in the foreign language, particularly after the first few weeks of initial instruction. Classes rarely have more than four students per teacher.

In addition to classroom time, students have access to many language laboratories to take advantage of multi-media tools including vocabulary programs, videos (I’m a fan of Deutsche Welle’s various web series), the ability to record yourself and… shudder… listen to yourself later, and many other advantages of technology. The labs are always staffed by teachers as well so getting questions answered is never difficult.

In addition to class time, we generally receive homework every day. This gives students a chance to refine some grammar points and drill certain structures outside of the classroom. I have to admit, this is generally less useful than conversation, but it does help to improve our skills and gives you a chance to review anything you with which you are having difficulty.

Specific goals through examinations

Unlike many studying a foreign language, diplomats have a very specific goal at the end of training; we must pass an exam before we can head on to our overseas assignment.

While daily conversation skills will be important to our lives, the test requires a specific high level of ability in some very challenging subjects. Typically in our final exam, we will be expected to converse at length in topics such as the environment, the political system of the United States, education, military, and countless other topics that the more casual language student may not be interested in.

In addition to speaking on these complicated topics, we must also interview a native speaker in the foreign language and then translate it to English. This portion in particular can be challenging because one must control the conversation carefully or else the interviewee can quickly take charge and overwhelm you in a flood of words. There is also a reading portion to the exam that is weighted equally with the speaking portions. This means simpler programs such as Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone just won’t cut it.

The U.S. Foreign Service uses a scale known as the Interagency Language Roundtable (ILR). The score diplomats are required to reach often depends on the language studied as well as the job you’ll be fulfilling. However, most of the time we must score a 3 in speaking and a 3 in reading. For those of you familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, this equates to approximately a C1.

How long do we have to reach this score? That depends on the language. If you’re studying Spanish, French, or other Romance languages you are typically given around four months. For German it is a bit longer. For Russian longer still, and for languages that have significantly different grammar structures or writing systems than English, such as Chinese, Korean, and Arabic, it can be a year or more.

Can it be done? Of course it can. I don’t know the exact pass rate, but I’d say it is quite high.

FSI really does everything it can to not only prepare diplomats for the test, but also for daily life. Often students are given the chance to do an immersion trip to further boost their training. I’m hoping to head to Germany in the near future for a 24/7 week-long plunge into the language to fine tune my skills.

Independent learning a must

Is all of this enough? Yes, but…

If you actively participate in class, if you do the work, if you engage and take it seriously, you will do fine on the test. Will you be mistaken for a native when you get to post? Of course not, but you’ll be able to navigate daily life. However, I’m also a big believer of taking training into your own hands.

I figure out what works for me in class and work hard on that, but I also supplement with my own techniques. I identify verbs that I really want to master and make cards with their use and make certain I use them multiple times that day in class. I find articles in German online that are interesting to me and practice my reading, at the same time learning key new vocabulary. I go to websites like Benny's and see what tips I can learn from other language students.

It is my career and my education. I don’t want to simply sit passively and let the language wash over me. I need to take action and make the program work for me. Oh yeah, and did I mention I’m getting paid while I do this? 😀

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Speaks: Various languages

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