Friday, November 30, 2012

Spanish Class: Part 43A

The last time we chatted, I was nervous about my uncontrolled, spinning descent to earth via my Spanish language parachute (or lack of). To be fair and balanced in my reporting of FSI language training, I thought I'd write about the opposite swing of this linguistic pendulum.

I'm loving my Spanish class now. Yup, I've said it, and have probably cursed myself in the process. We have a new teacher as of this week, and it's not that I didn't like the others - because I did, really! - but this new one combines enough structure to let us feel like we're not meandering, with regular reinforcement of the lessons we're learning and enough correction so that we understand our errors without being humiliated and shamed into not wanting to open our mouths. I'm using "our" and "we" here because in conversation with my two other classmates (#3 went off to post last week), I learned that they feel the same way. He set the bar on day one by writing on the board that two words no longer existed: "cosa" (thing) and "dinero" (money). 

What's the matter with these words? They're either extremely lazy or inaccurate and lazy.
How many times have you said, "Can you hand me that thing?" "There's this thing that I've been thinking of doing," "That thing in the Middle East that has been in the news lately."  When you really need to be learning to say: pencil sharpener, trip to the museum and ongoing geopolitical warfare. 

What's the matter with "dinero" you ask? Well, it depends on the situation. Remember, we're diplomats in language training. We're not going to talk about how the USG gives dinero to Sudan, but rather "monetary assistance," "fiscal support," or "humanitarian aid." Dinero you can give to your ten-year-old for their allowance, but to state that the USG gave dinero to Kosovo, well now you're insinuating something a bit unethical. 

After he laid down this law, we (the class, of our own volition) added "problema" to the list (I really don't need to translate that, do I?). Because how Level 3 Spanish does it sound to say that Israel has a problema with their neighbors? 

Suffice it to say that we're learning to advance our vocabulary by replacing old, tired nouns and verbs with more subtle and accurate ones. I feel like I'm gaining traction in my language acquisition (see - I didn't just say "learning new stuff"!) and I wanted to share that there are indeed, precious few perhaps, times of confidence and growth. 

And he's giving us good insight into the methods (I didn't say tricks and traps!) that the language examiners use to gauge our skills. I'm all for that!

I'll sign off for now, feeling like I have a clear view of the horizon and a steady descent to earth. If you're lost with that last sentence, please read previous post.

Nos vemos!

PS And it's not just me -  please read my A-100 classmate's version of his language training.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Finding Inspiration in the Strangest Places

Today I found myself fascinated, for the second time, by the story of Felix Baumgartner and his supersonic jump from 128,000 ft. The TV was on in the background while I was scribbling out some Spanish homework. It was the NatGeo channel's detailed story of Felix's ascent in his balloon, including the technical difficulties of his visor fogging up and mission control talking him through a solution, and then the step-by-step from his ground crew as he prepared to jump from his capsule towards earth. Things like (and I paraphrase), "Move your seat to the upright position. Remove your safety belt. Now slide to the front of the chair" etc... until he was poised at the open door, feet outside in the atmosphere. Even though this was perhaps the third time I'd seen his jump, I couldn't turn away, and certainly held my breath watching him shoot out of sight of the capsule's camera, begin to spin uncontrollably, miraculously regain control, and finally land as lightly as if he'd merely stepped off a stool. It was awesome.

Okay, but what does this have to do with anything?

Right now - everything. 

As you know, I'm back in language training which is certainly one of those times that is always more fun in retrospect. However, once the honeymoon of, "I'm earning my salary to learn a language!" wears off (usually after about week two), we all begin to realize that we too are merely hurtling towards an inevitable landing in the language exam center. During our descent, we have moments (sometimes even weeks), where we feel as Felix did when his visor started to fog and he couldn't see the horizon, followed sometimes by an uncontrolled spin where we begin to imagine our inevitable demise. While Felix faced the atmospheric pressure, we're faced with internal pressures to succeed in our training; the pressure to make a deadline and arrive at post on time (sometimes someone is waiting to leave for our arrival); and the omnipresent pressure of not wanting to look/feel like a total idiot in front of the rest of our class, our teacher, and finally on the fateful day - the examiners. Then there's the cherry-on-top pressure of learning an "easy language" like Spanish. I mean, they use the same alphabet and pronounce all the letters as they're written, how hard could that be, right? (And no, FSI doesn't call Spanish an "easy" language, they call it a "world language." But it's only because they're trying to be polite. Don't think we didn't notice that other languages are referred to as either "hard" or "super hard.") 

Watching Felix's fall today, I completely related to what must've been going through his mind as he careened towards terra firma. Describing his spinning loss of control (i.e. what most of watching believed to be the last moments of his life), he stated:

"In that situation, when you spin around, it's like hell and you don't know if you can get out of that spin or not. Of course it was terrifying. I was fighting all the way down because I knew that there must be a moment where I can handle it."

I know this feeling he's describing well, and it comes during the part of my Spanish exam called "speaking at length" where we have to speak about a topic for 6-10 minutes in an organized and professional manner, displaying all our grammatical wares like a tour through the galleries of our "Nuevas Rutas" textbook. 

"Oh look, here's the entryway with the present and preterit, and there's the imperfect. Please note the stylish use of connectors and charming idiomatic accent phrase. Finally, don't miss the subjunctive beautifully displayed at the finale!" All this with only a five minute prep time and no mission control in my earpiece, reminding me to unstrap my seat belt and slide to the front of the seat before jumping. There are times during these presentations (we practice them weekly in class) where I realize I'm spinning myself into sentences from which I cannot recover, hurtling towards a conclusion that is nowhere on the horizon with a seriously foggy visor. I begin to panic and start wondering why I didn't ever teach myself to faint on command. 

I mean really - this is just a language exam, right? If he can jump from 128,000 feet, for nine minutes, over four of which were in free-fall, hitting a top speed of 833.9 mph and including a few minutes of having to find the fortitude to right himself from a potentially irreversible spin - then I can manage the same amount of time in front of two examiners, dribbling out some stuff about the environment, immigration or the changing role of women in Latin America. 

I've decided that Felix is my new hero. Because besides all the above, he is also Austrian. Which means he was also communicating with his mission control team in a non-native language. So truly - I have no excuse.  I will fight all the way down because I know that there must be a moment where I can handle it.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The power of a flag

File this under: Silly facts for a Saturday.

So you're thinking of starting a blog?
Perhaps you've been thinking of clever topics that will be helpful, interesting, cutting-edge, insightful, funny or in general just make people think?

Sounds great. But how will your readers find you?

I suggest you include flags, lots of flags.

A quick look at the statistics of how people found this blog reveals that besides being linked to the Department of State's official blogroll, one of the largest sources of new readers was my inclusion of a Colombian flag on the blog last year. 
To be specific, the Google searches have been:


459 Colombian Flag
139 Cool Colombian Flag
35 Official Colombian Flag
30 Bogota Colombia Flag

My math tells me that there are now probably 659 disappointed 5th graders out there who found me and the Tabbies instead while working on their world history or social studies reports.

Who knows, maybe one of them stopped to read about this job and the interesting life it creates and it planted a teenie seed in the mind of a future diplomat?

Yeah, maybe not - but it would be pretty cool if that were the case. 

That's all for today. And don't forget to add and caption your flags! 

Thursday, November 8, 2012

New Horizons

There is a feeling of having a new start combined with the comfort of the familiar today. It may sound like I'm offering a day-after-election commentary, but actually I'm talking about language training. 

Oh, of course!

Northern Virginia was spared the brunt of hurricane Sandy's force, and we were fortunate that the only negative consequence (and some may even dispute that adjective) was that FSI was closed for three days last week. Therefore last Thursday, instead of last Monday, my Spanish language training began. I was "helicoptered" into an existing class and it seems so far that my classmates and I are a good match, skills-wise. However, they will be taking their (dreaded) formal exams in the coming month, while I have until January to eek my skills from my most recent score of 2+ to the holy grail of 3. Really, I shouldn't describe the 3 in such a lofty manner, as it simply signifies a professional competence in the language and by no means a true fluency. But it means that I could say whatever I want on topics that may even be unfamiliar, and can express myself fully without making native speakers roll their eyes or later mock me in the comfort of their homes. Heck, I may have trouble with that in my native tongue, so I'm aiming for something slightly higher than simply not embarrassing myself. When I was in language training last summer, I needed to score only a 2, commonly needed for OMSes, which meant that I could get my point across, even if somewhat crudely. 

To combine the theme of election results and Spanish training, we spent a good bit of time today reading the President's acceptance speech, which was really great. Being on the east coast and having a very early start time each morning, I wasn't able to stay awake long enough to hear it fresh last night, so it was good to take time reading it and learning all sorts of new vocabulary along the way.  

And did anyone catch that he mentioned me and my classmates? 

Okay - maybe not us specifically, but he said something that I really liked and that struck a personal chord:

"Creemos en Estados Unidos generoso, un Estados Unidos compasivo, un Estados Unidos tolerante, abierto a los suenos de una hija de inmigrantes que estudia en nuestras escuelas y jura fidelidad a nuestra bandera. Abierto a los suenos del chico de la parte sur de Chicago que ve que puede tener una vida mas alla de la esquina mas cercana. A los del hijo del ebanista de Carolina del Norte que quiere ser medico o cientifico, ingeniero o empresario, diplomatico o incluso presidente; ese es el futuro al que aspirimos. Esa es la vision que compartimos. Esa es la direccion en la que debemos avanzar. Hacia alli debemos ir."

I wrote this in Spanish so y'all could play along. (Or, you can read or listen to it here instead in English.) I think you can get the gist, and didja' also see that "diplomat" was mentioned only second to the possibility of being the president? Yeah, that was also pretty cool.

Speaking of cool, yesterday I received a message saying that my diplomatic commission is available for pick-up at the State Department now. I believe this is going to be a lovely suitable-for-framing certificate with the Great Seal on it saying that I'm a bona fide diplomat. Who'd have thought? In fact, I was also just sent a photo of an A-100 classmate WITH Secretary Clinton, holding some document, maybe one of our commissions, with the Great Seal on it. Man - what a day for her! 

So, it is an exciting time of new horizons and hopefully bright futures. At the same time, it feels like there is the opportunity to dig in and really become proficient, to strengthen abilities and continue a work already in progress. 

Perhaps the President and I have something in common after all.