Yeah once I ordered coffee in Chile in French, but it sounded right at the time.
November 18, 2009 3:03 PM   Subscribe

I'm very seriously considering the foreign service, but I've never been any good at languages. Will I likely be able to learn a language, with the intense training the Foreign Service provides, without a natural apptitude for languages?

I've been doing my research on the Foreign Service and it has become abundantly clear that I will need to learn several languages over the course of my career were I to join. At least one of those would be a "hard" language (not closely related to english). I have little apptitude for languages. I took French for 3 years in high school and got basically straights Bs and then promptly forgot it all. I only got Bs because my high school was easy and I crammed right before every quiz which allowed me to get by. I've lived in Europe and SE Asia and did not pick up either language of my host country. However, I could get by in English (I wasn't put in a situations where I had to learn the language) and I had no training in either language. I took one semester of Spanish in college and found it very difficult. Took the class pass/fail and I passed. Promptly forgot all of it again.

Now on to things I am actually good at! I'll give some background on my education/current career because hopefully (?!) some of those skills are transferable to learning a language? At least that is what I am hoping.

I'm an attorney. I did pretty decent, but not amazing in law school. Passed the NY and CA bar on the first try. Generally speaking I do well (better than I should given my knowledge on any particular subject) on standardized tests. In college, I was an art history major and had to memorize lots of names/places/dates, which I also promptly forgot (I remember the art and all about the art, but names of things are very hard for me to remember along with names of people actually). Also, at one point I was an applied math major and chemistry major. I did well in classes for both, until I switched my major for other reasons. I think that I have good analytical skills.

Can people like me learn a language after intense training and study? Or am I likely to "flunk out" of the foreign service after crying myself to sleep on top of my flash cards for 88 weeks straight?

I am very interested, but do not have my heart set, so to speak, on the foreign service. I think I want to join, but if I joined I would want to be able to work my way up the ranks (as it's up or out). Stories/experience/advice about the foreign service in general also very much appreciated. I also have no idea if it matters but I am a female in my late 20s.
posted by anonymous to Writing & Language (7 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
It doesn't sound like you've ever been too motivated to learn a language, so I don't know how you can accurately judge the possibility of doing so. (Though of course, you speak English.) That said, my worry wouldn't be whether I *could* learn a language or not (you could), but whether you'd really ever buckle down and do it. It can be discouraging, and a "hard" language can be really hard. Given that you've lived overseas twice and weren't really interested in picking up the local language, I'd be worried about that.

On the other hand, I've met many Americans in the foreign service, and they always seem to have pretty weak skills in the local language, so it may be easier than you think.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 4:08 PM on November 18, 2009

I believe there are a few members of the Foreign Service here at Metafilter. That said, I would focus more on getting into the service now, rather than worrying about getting kicked out later. I once had an extreme interest in the Foreign Service (wrote a MA thesis that involved one member of it in particular), and took the exam. I had spent a lot of time studying geography, making myself aware of going ons in the world, and found that only about 2 to 5% of the test even bothered with such details. It was more concerned with practical skills, such as ever having a job where one answered the phone a lot, for one example. I didn't make it on toward the next level of the test.

The only thought I had was that perhaps it was my lack of language skills (all I had was a minor in Japanese, high school Spanish and Latin), but also, that the Foreign Service seems to be looking or used to anyways, for a specific type of person and personality.

So my advice for you now is to speak with those foreign service members that you can and find out what skills and experience will help you get in the door. Don't worry about the language thing unless you feel extremely confident you'll past the exams.
posted by Atreides at 4:16 PM on November 18, 2009

Do not worry about the language. The Foreing Service Institute is where they will send you for intense language training. Just concentrate on passing the written an oral. Try listening to a language tape in the car. The more you get your ear attuned to a language (pick one, maybe go back to French, it will all come back!!) Listen to music in your chosen foreign language, watch movies in that language (and DO read the subtitles in english - its good). You're an atty, you mastered the English language. With some hard work and as much immersion as you can muster, you will master another language. Learning Arabic was like learning math. If you're good at math, you might be able to do the harder non romance languages. Get your French back first since you have a foundation. Apply - it won't hurt.
posted by dmbfan93 at 5:23 PM on November 18, 2009

THIS is a great comment from a previous AskMe on the subject.
posted by snsranch at 5:35 PM on November 18, 2009

Remember, when you're studying the language it's your job for up to a year. You're responsible for nothing else but to get up, go to FSI, attend class, go home. The class size is in the single-digits and all your classmates are at the same language level that you are (according to a test you take). You don't even need to be that good at the language to pass--certainly not fluent.

I would worry about all the other stuff, like will this be a good lifestyle for me, how will my spouse and kids (or potential spouse and kids) deal with it, am I okay doing whatever the gov't wants, etc. and set the language anxiety aside.
posted by lockestockbarrel at 5:48 PM on November 18, 2009

FSI is a lot like a college campus. You will face a similar level and intensity of training there. When it comes to your language training, you will basically have a semester or two of classes in nothing but your language the whole time.
posted by Pollomacho at 7:36 PM on November 18, 2009

What the what is with all the Foreign Service questions on AskeMe? I can only assume it's the economy and everyone is looking for government jobs?

People in the Foreign Service still talk about the guy who couldn't get off language probabation. This is after five years in and FSI trying everything they could to cram a language down his through. There are about 8,000 people in the FS, so I wouldn't worry too much about this--focus on passing the tests firsts.

(If you want to get technical, the language requirements to get tenure and stay in the FS is testing at 3/3 in a world (easier) language or 2/1 (I think) for hard or super-hard languages within 5 years of joining. You don't have to do this on your own--the State Department will make you take assignments that include a language training if you haven't tested out on your own.)
posted by whitewall at 8:48 PM on November 18, 2009

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