Friday I take my language test. This is where I stalled out last time, not quite getting to the 3/3 I needed to get off language probation before I went to Cotonou. You see, when you first join the Foreign Service, you’re on a five year time clock. At some time before then, you need to get tenure, part of which is mastering (more or less) a language.
My brain and languages do not mix well. I can get to a certain point, but the details of correct grammar as used on-the-fly defeat me.
I have no doubt I am better in French (particularly speaking) than I was when I tested before Cotonou, but the test is a crapshoot. Who will be your evaluators? What reading articles will they choose for you? Which presentation topics will they offer? Will you have the vocabulary to deal with them?
The presentation was what killed me last time, so I am preparing for it differently this time. I’m practicing the structure more than the details. As I drive, I give a presentation on a topic I haven’t done before. It helps me think about how I would deal with that topic, and if I am missing any vocabulary (for example, I just looked up “steam engine” for my presentation on energy). I give the presentations out loud, because your French is always better in your head. I repeat and repeat the openings and closings so they become (close to) automatic.
Is language important to our work overseas? Yes it is. Is it the most important? I don’t really think so. Language is a tool, but it is only one tool. It reminds me of when I was majoring in Journalism but couldn’t type worth a damn. I almost wasn’t allowed into the basic journalism course because of my typing, but one did, I aced the class, almost always being among the first to finish an assignment. Why? Because it’s not all about typing speed! It’s also not all about language.
Nevertheless, this week, it’s practiquer, practiquer, practiquer!